“From Vikings to Vera Duckworth. It’s been quite a 30-year journey,’’ said Ms Delaney, as we chatted about the opportunities she’s pursuing as CEO of Continuum, which owns and operates visitor attractions with a difference, including a tour of the old Coronation Street.
She’s built her career around telling stories that could easily have remained untold. Thanks to Ms Delaney, thousands of visitors know a little more about what it was like to work as a maid in 16th century Edinburgh, or endure years of hard labour in Oxford prison.
Back in the mid 1980s, Ms Delaney helped the owners to promote the new Jorvik Viking Centre in York, which whisks visitors on a ‘time car’ into the sights and smells of the Viking age. As Ms Delaney points out, Jorvik was far removed from the dry and dusty museums of the 1980s, where the curators didn’t welcome crumbs on the carpet or dirty fingerprints. Jorvik brings you face to face with old-Norse speaking citizens – or at least life-size models of them – and you can even peer into their back yards and be knocked backwards by the smell from their dung heap.
She joined Continuum in 2001, and took on the top job in 2008. You sense that she’s just getting into her stride. Ms Delaney has got plans for new attractions in London and Yorkshire, and the company’s Coronation Street Tour could have an extended lifespan because it’s proved such a hit with Corrie fans.
Earlier this year, ITV approached York-based Continuum to run tours around the former Coronation Street set, which was left behind when the soap moved to Salford’s Media City. Ms Delaney believes the set could be open to tourists longer than the six months that was originally planned. She was thrilled to be asked to take on the Coronation Street project.
“It was a coup and an honour,’’ said Ms Delaney.
“Initially, we were only running the tour until the end of September or beginning of October. Watch this space. We had a budget of 150,000 visitors. We have currently sold over 263,000 tickets and we’ve still got July, August and September to go.
“I think we will probably surpass 300,000 visitors in just six months. It would be foolish of us not to respond to popular demand, and popular pressure to keep it open. However attractive it might be financially to keep it open, it has to be led by what people want. The people in Manchester are saying, ‘What a shame. Why can’t it stay open for a little longer at least?’
“So my secret mission is to try and keep it open for another year.”
Inspired by the work of the entrepreneur, Ian Skipper, and the academic Dr Peter Addyman, Heritage Projects Management was created in 1984 and later changed its name to Continuum. Today, it’s a £12m turnover business that employs 400 staff and runs attractions such as York’s Chocolate Story, which brings the history of Yorkshire’s confectionery trade to life. The company also built Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh, using a warren of hidden streets to tell the stories of the maids, merchants and foul clengers; the men who cleaned houses affected by the plague.
“Visitor attractions were relatively recession proof,’’ said Ms Delaney. “People still wanted to treat themselves to something. I don’t look back at the recession anymore, I just look at it as a period when we did what we had to do better.
“It was an opportunity to re-organise and be a more efficient and more focused business.”
In order to succeed, companies like Continuum must be driven by customers’ needs.
Ms Delaney observed: “You have to be very careful that you don’t fool yourself by going with your own interests, and your own passions, and the secret is to step into the shoes of your potential customer.
“You’ve got to understand what they need. There’s a human need to go out together, and enjoy time as a family, and to learn a bit and broaden your horizons, and come away with interesting things that you can chat to other people about.
“We pick really memorable places and we tell really engaging stories, at a price that represents good value for money. If people learn whether the Romans came before or after the Vikings, that’s a bonus. Actually, visitors come to us because they want a nice half a day out.”
Continuum relishes the chance to uncover secret stories. While other museums focus on kings and queens, Continuum loves to focus on social history, with interaction. Visitors to Oxford Castle, which once served as a jail, can meet guides dressed as Robert Thacker, a trickster and escape artist, Anne Green, who survived her own hanging, and the unrepentant highwayman Isaac Darkin. But how about an attraction in the heart of London?
“We’ve operated visitor attractions on behalf of clients in London before,’’ said Ms Delaney. “The surge in interest in London since the Olympics is phenomenal. It would be unthinkable that we would not have an ambition to uncover a story about London, and open a visitor attraction within the next 18 months to two years.”
There’s also the tantalising prospect of a cultural attraction closer to home.
“I’m a Yorkshire girl and this is where I would love to do some more visitor attractions,’’ said Ms Delaney. “It would have to be the right location. We would never force a story into a location. But there is a possibility of another attraction in West Yorkshire.”
As a recently appointed member of the Tourism Industry Council, she wants to work with policymakers to increase the quality and quantity of jobs in the sector. “Tourism represents nine per cent of UK GDP,’’ she said. “It ought to be taken more seriously.”