The inside story of the UK's newest tourist attraction: Bear Grylls Adventures

Bear Grylls is no doubt delighted to share his love of adventure with the West Midlands, but Merlin created the concept long before the survival expert got the call

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 19 October 2018 09:20 BST
The Bear Grylls Adventure Bearmingham International

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Bear called.

“The scale of challenges that can be found at The Bear Grylls Adventure [is] truly mind blowing,” said TV’s favourite wilderness survival expert. “[The attraction] allows millions of others to find the courage and tenacity to conquer their own Everest.”

I answered, and headed for the UK’s newest tourist attraction.

The location of the Bear Grylls Adventure is as humdrum as can be. “The home of Earth’s greatest adventure challenges” is bolted on to the National Exhibition Centre, in Birmingham.

Next week at the NEC, you could visit Solar & Storage Live, or the Motorhome and Caravan Show 2018. But just around the corner you can climb, zip, tumble, or just feast on an El Capitan pizza with a sprinkling of chilli grasshoppers.

Having spent three long years at the University of Warwick, I am no stranger to the untamed wilderness between Birmingham and Coventry. So I can confirm the Bear Grylls Adventure is probably the most fun you can have in that area. You can test your strength and stamina on an assault course, clamber halfway to heaven on Europe’s highest ropes challenge, and become animatedly suspended in a vertical wind tunnel.

But Bear has not created the adventure in his own image. After my visit, I started digging behind the scenes to find out how tourist attractions like this are made. And Merlin – the giant Alton Towers-to-Madame Tussauds entertainment group – provides a masterclass in manufacturing fun.

While, no doubt, Bear Grylls is delighted to share his love of adventure with the West Midlands, it turns out Merlin created the concept long before the survival expert got the call.

“We tested the product in isolation, without him,” says Mark Fisher, Merlin’s chief development officer.

What Mr Fisher calls “the product” began an answer to the question: what new “Midway attraction” can we create? That term is not because it’s about halfway between Birmingham and Coventry, but because it’s not as big as a theme park such as Chessington World of Adventures, and is in the same mid-sized category, commercially speaking, as the Blackpool Tower.

Merlin consulted focus groups about the concept. “A large proportion of people we talked to almost came up with, ‘this would be ideal for Bear Grylls’,” says Mr Fisher.

“He had the highest awareness [factor] and appeal by far, by a mile, so he’s absolutely the top man to have doing this.”

A deal was struck with the adventurer – or “intellectual property” (IP), as Bear is known to people who crunch numbers rather than chilli grasshoppers. Bear Grylls gets paid according to how many people show up and how much they spend, says Alistair Windybank, Merlin’s senior finance director.

“It’s a revenue-based royalty, but there are a degree of performance measures in there so we’re aligned with Bear in terms of what we’re trying to do with this attraction.”

The still-to-be-built Midway attraction duly became the Bear Grylls Adventure – a £20m investment celebrating a man who, Merlin told backers, is a “A global IP POWERHOUSE.”

The basic admission fee is £20, including activities such as the assault course, but then visitors are encouraged to spend extra on what are labelled “hero activities” – for example that ropes challenge and “freefall” experience.

Such “hero activity upsells”, together with “a degree of F&B” – food and beverages, that’ll be the grasshopper pizza – push the revenue per customer to between £25 and £30. Mr Windybank is looking for an average 1,000 visitors a day or more: “We believe that that should deliver 350,000 to 450,000 visits a year.” Taking the mid-point of his predictions, the Bear Grylls Attraction is likely to rake in £11m a year.

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Assuming the prototype site works, the concept will swiftly be replicated in around 20 more locations.

“The rollout of Bear Gryll’s Adventure essentially follows the same criteria as for Peppa,” says Mr Windybank – referring to the Peppa Pig World of Play.

“Where is the brand strong, and where do we have adequate density of population to give us a good chance of making this work?”

The answer: primarily in the US and China, where Bear is also big. What goes in Birmingham, they hope, also goes in Boston and Beijing.

Much as I enjoyed the Bear Grylls Experience, according to Merlin I am not quite the core demographic.

“It’s targeted at 18-year-olds because we know – particularly from our coasters in theme parks – we communicate to an 18-year-old, and it becomes very aspirational for the younger teens, and they’ll come and they’ll bring the up-for-it families,” says the firm.

Let’s see if they are tempted to visit the ends of the earth by setting the SatNav for B40 1NT.

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