01 Feb 2023 World leisure: news, training & property
 
 
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SELECTED ISSUE
Attractions Management
2022 issue 2

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Leisure Management - Chris Mather

Interview

Chris Mather


With experiences opening this year celebrating tennis, love, science and the Olympics, Mather & Co is making the most of the post-lockdown boom, finds Magali Robathan

Chris Mather launched Mather & Co in 1995 after working as design director for Granada TV Photo: Peter Corcoran
Mather & Co is helping to transform Inverness Castle into a visitor attraction Photo: Simon Foster
Belfast’s W5 science centre has been transformed during the COVID-19 pandemic Photo: Fuzzy Duck / W5 Belfast
The famous Gretna Green Blacksmiths Shop is part of the revamped attraction Photo: Chris Humphreys
A curated timeline explores the history of Gretna Green dating back to 1200 Photo: Chris Humphreys
Winning the Olympic Museum in Lausanne was a major highlight for Mather & Co Photo: Christophe Moratal
Mather & Co created the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum in 2006 Photo: Peter Corcoran
Photo: Peter Corcoran
Mather & Co worked with NBCUniversal on Downton Abbey: The Exhibition Photo: Bespoke Foundry

Like most people, we were bombed by COVID-19, but I’m stunned by how things have come back now,” Mather & Co CEO Chris Mather tells me over a coffee in a hotel in central London. “We’re involved in some amazing projects.”

Mather is the CEO and founder of visitor attraction and experience design consultancy Mather & Co, which he launched in 1995. Mather took a roundabout route to a career in exhibition design via international rugby, a stint in the Royal Navy, a law degree, and a job for Granada TV, and this is perhaps reflected in the wide range of projects the firm has worked on.

Completed projects include the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland; The Royal Mint Experience in South Wales; Downton Abbey: The Exhibition; the Silverstone Interactive Museum in Silverstone, UK; and visitor experiences for football clubs including Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City.

Last October saw the opening of the Mather & Co designed W5 science and discovery centre in Belfast, Northern Ireland; while new projects for 2022 include the recently opened Gretna Green Experience in Scotland – celebrating ‘romance, rebellion and unstoppable love’ – the launch of a new gallery at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and a spectacular live project mapped light show celebrating the 150th Open at the R&A St Andrews in Scotland.

The firm has also released initial concept designs for a new visitor attraction at Inverness Castle, offered a preview of their plans for the redevelopment of the Glencoe Folk Museum in Ballachulish, Scotland, and has just been appointed to design a new experience at Manchester Town Hall.

“I do think my background means we’re a little broader in the scope of our work than many design agencies,” Mather tells me. “Another thing that differentiates us is that I part-owned and operated the original Coronation Street experience [part of the Granada Tour] in the past. That taught me about how to make the commercial aspects of an attraction work – we understand that the F&B, the operations, the marketing all have to work.

“The operator’s eye when designing is invaluable; it’s all very well coming up with lovely ideas, but they have to be maintained and stand the test of time.”

TAKING IT SLOW
It’s a business that’s been slowly and surely built on word of mouth – this is a rare interview for Chris Mather. It’s clear from our chat that he is not one for blowing his own trumpet – quietly getting on with the job is more his style.

Mather is honest about the highs and lows of the past 27 years, and is refreshingly open about the financial challenges of running an exhibition design agency.

“The money’s rubbish – comparatively speaking,” he says. “When you take into account everything we do. You have to be careful bidding for work with your margins – people really want a lot for not much money. The expectations for say, £25k, can be enormous.

“We get caught out sometimes, where we spend too much, have a happy client, but don’t make anything for ourselves. There are a lot of projects out there using public money which are great to be involved with, but where we only just cover our costs, and sometimes we make a small loss. I think that’s why some of our competitors are going to the Middle East.”

COVID-19 hit at a particularly frustrating time for the company, Mather explains. “It was difficult because we were having a stunning year. We’d spent hundreds and thousands of pounds on pitches around the world, and we’d won some really big jobs – in Las Vegas, bringing Downton Abbey to London and some other major projects. All in all, it was about £20m of work – it all stopped, overnight.

“I’m impressed with how things have come back though. We have a really nice mix of projects now, and I’m very happy with that.”

NEW PROJECTS
After the frustration of lockdowns and stalled projects, 2022 has been a busy year for Mather & Co. In April, the Gretna Green Experience launched in Scotland, telling the story of the Scottish village’s history as a destination for runaway marriages.

Mather and Co were responsible for the design, build, management and production of the £1.5m attraction, including the exhibition and the restoration of the Famous Blacksmiths Shop.

“Gretna Green was an emotional rollercoaster,” says Mather. “It was the vision of the head of the family, Alasdair Houston, who sadly died last year. He was such a fantastic chap and we all very close to him, so it was supercharged with emotion. The family decided to continue with the project and we set out to deliver his original vision.”

The exhibition invites visitors to follow a timeline detailing the history of Gretna Green, and features original artefacts and a range of audio visual experiences including a 360-degree film at the centre of the experience that ‘brings the history of the site to life around the original anvil’.

“I’m stunned at how successful that attraction has been,” says Mather. “It’s a great project – the building has been restored very well, we have a really good, exciting experiential retail offer. We’ve made some great films, great interactives and you can actually see people getting married there.”

Other recently unveiled projects include new exhibitions for the Silverstone Interactive Museum and Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum (both prior clients); an exhibition to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games; and a very cool audio-visual show projected onto the side of the iconic Royal and Ancient Clubhouse in St Andrews, Scotland. Around 5,000 people turned out to watch the projection show, narrated by Gerrard Butler and produced by Mather & Co, which used projection mapping and 4D motion graphics and was part of the R&A’s countdown to the 150th Open Golf championship.

You can watch the R&A celebration video here:
www.attractionsmanagement.com/r&a

Looking ahead, Mather & Co have a typically broad range of projects on the books including some sporting projects – “we have a major sports project which I can’t talk about yet because it’s NDA but it’s going to be huge and very exciting,” says Mather – a revamp of the quirky Glencoe Folk Museum, and the transformation of Inverness Castle into a new visitor attraction.

“That’s a great project,” says Mather. “The castle is being very carefully restored – think Somerset House meets Saatchi Gallery meets Harry Potter Studio Tour. There will be something for everyone.

“Highlife HighLand [a regional council which promotes opportunities in culture, leisure, sport and wellbeing across the Highlands] has been collecting stories from local stitchers, farmers, fishermen, musicians and more, through their project Spirit:Stories. There are so many great stories – and we have been supporting a story selection board of 10+ Highlands and Island representatives to select the very best ones to feature within the visitor experience. We’ll tell these stories using big immersive environments, art installations, projection mapping, mechanical interactives, and a big theatrical show with immersive projections and special effects. It will be seriously impressive – when you walk into the building, you won’t expect to what you see.”

The latest project to be announced by Mather & Co is a new attraction inside Manchester Town Hall, which will tell the story of the iconic neo-Gothic building.

“That building telling its stories is going to be something special,” says Mather. “Manchester Town Hall has such a fantastic history. If you think what Manchester has brought to the science and engineering worlds and the internet – it’s phenomenal.” The building is set to reopen as a visitor attraction in 2024 following a complete refurbishment.

LOOKING BACK
While on paper, Mather’s career background looks slightly disjointed, all of his experiences have proved invaluable when designing memorable and meaningful experiences, he tells me.

He was an international rugby league player in his youth, and that passion for sport has translated into a large portfolio of interesting and varied sports projects.

“Our first big break was the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum 20 odd years ago,” Mather says. “We bid against all the big US and London firms. When I asked the client why she’d chosen us, she said: ‘You understood and translated our vision, without glamorous presentations or pretty pictures or CGIs. You just got it.’ Plus she thought we’d be fun to work with.”

Since then, the firm has worked on a wide range of sports-themed attractions projects spanning golf, motor racing, football, rugby and the Olympics and Paralympics.

Mather started his career with the Royal Navy, and says the experience of running a warship taught him a huge amount about managing people and being organised. A short-lived marriage to presenter Carol Vorderman introduced him to the world of tv, and he spent eight years working as design director for Granada Television, which led to the development and management of the original Coronation Street Experience as part of the Granada Studios Tour.

“That got me into the attractions world,” he says. “I still think it’s amazing what we did with that attraction – we spent £20m and we managed to get one million people through the door in a very tight site.”

Highlights, according to Mather, include winning the Olympic Museum in Lausanne – “that was an amazing project,” spending several days filming with John McEnroe for the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and working with Tiger Woods on the Tiger in the Park promotional event in Hyde Park, London. “Oh and going out on the town with a Clingon in full costume when we were working with Paramount on a Star Trek attraction. That was an interesting experience.”

I ask who Mather admires in the industry, and what attractions and museums are on his wishlist for this year. “I admire Ralph Appelbaum, Casson Mann and Tom Bradburn,” he says. “They’re all doing great things. And I’m very keen to get to Los Angeles to see the new Academy Museum of Motion PIctures.”

The attractions industry has a tough ride over the past few years, but Mather is confident that the future is bright – as long as the industry is prepared for a shake up.

“We need to be ambitious and creative – to continue to engage people in surprising ways. We’ve seen how the high street has reinvented itself. I think the museum industry needs to do the same.

“We have the skills and the creativity. We just need to make it happen.”

Mather & Co Selected projects
2022

Gretna Green Experience Scotland, UK

Client: Gretna Green

Mather & Co was responsible for the design, management and production of a new exhibition celebrating the history of Gretna Green as a wedding destination for runaway couples since 1710.

2021

W5 Science and Discovery Centre Belfast, Northern Ireland

Client: The Odyssey Trust

Mather & Co helped to transform the W5 family science centre into “an engaging and hands-on attraction for a modern audience”.

2019

Silverstone Interactive Museum Silverstone, UK

Client: British Racing Drivers’ Club and Silverstone Heritage Limited

2017

Downton Abbey: The Exhibition Various locations

Client: NBCUniversal

Mather & Co worked with NBCUniversal and Emmy-winning writer Julian Fellowes to create an immersive experience for the TV programme Downton Abbey. The exhibition toured the world, including Singapore, New York, Boston, and Chicago.

2016

The Royal Mint Experience Pontyclun, Wales

Client: The Royal Mint

The Royal Mint opened its gates to the public for the first time in over 1,000 years in May 2016. Mather & Co worked alongside the Royal Mint Museum to develop a new permanent visitor centre on site, with retail, learning and café spaces, and an exclusive behind-the-scenes factory tour.

2013

Olympic Museum Lausanne, Switzerland

Client: International Olympic Committee

The museum in Lausanne was completely remodelled and doubled in size to create three permanent galleries called Olympic World, Olympic Games and Olympic Spirit. Two new spaces are devoted to rotating temporary exhibitions, and the museum fully integrates with the onsite Olympic Studies Centre.

2006

Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum Wimbledon, UK

Client: The All England Lawn Tennis Club

Mather & Co has worked closely with the All England Lawn Tennis Club for over 15 years to bring visitor experiences to the Wimbledon stadium site ranging from an immersive museum and tour experience, to designing bespoke photo opportunities.


Originally published in Attractions Management 2022 issue 2

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