Unobstructed: Head, Heart & Gut with James Mackenzie Blackman (Ep. 7)

Nick Begley

Nick Begley

Senior Marketing Manager

James Mackenzie-Blackman, CEO of Eden Court, joins Mike Evenson on the podcast to discuss how his organization has continued to engage with its patrons, re-vectored staff and technology to help their community and collaborated with peer arts groups in the Scottish Highlands. James stressed the importance of blocking out all of the noise and clinging to your values to best serve staff, customers and the community at large.

Episode transcript

Unobstructed: Head, Heart & Gut with James Mackenzie Blackman. (EP.7)


Announcer: You're listening to unobstructed your view on the live events industry.


Mike Evenson: Hello, and welcome to another fantastic episode of unobstructed. I'm really excited for my guest today. My name's Mike Evenson and excited that you're here to join us. Obviously, the topic on everyone's mind these days is COVID-19 and, and the effect and impact that's had on our industry and, and kind of turning the page and looking at when we can get back to whatever the new normal is going to be. I know that that people around the world are starting to get antsy and excited to do the things they love again. And we're hoping that live events will turn on soon and people can start getting out of their houses and getting back to the things they love. It seems like forever ago that thing's shut down, our guest, James McKenzie Blackman the CEO of Eden Court, up in Inverness, which is Scotland's largest combined arts organization, publish a press release on March 16th. James, how many years ago does that feel like for you?


James Blackman: Oh, my goodness. It feels about three decades ago. It's been the most extraordinary time. Just, before you press record, we were talking about how exhausting these days can be when you're just in front of Zoom or your cash flow. And yes it's really been exciting times, but to your question, it feels decades ago.


Mike Evenson: So how do you describe kind of Eden Court? Before this COVID situation, obviously you're the CEO give our audience an understanding of just what Eden Court is and how important you feel like Eden Court is to your local community.


James Blackman:  Eden Court is this extraordinarily beautiful building on the banks of the River Ness in the capital of the Highlands our building spans three centuries. We have a main house Auditorium that seats just under nine hundred smaller theater that was built alongside our house centers and public space and new dressing room and backstage facilities in 2008. And then we have a very useful building, it’s from the 19th century, and all those buildings are connected with the largest combined arts organization in Scotland. We serve very proudly the people of the Highlands and the islands. It's a land mass, the size of Belgium. We bring large scale, small scale, commercial, idiosyncratic eclectic, live our culture to our building and on our screens on our stages. And we have one of the largest community engagement programs in the United Kingdom, incredible staff of 10 workers supported by, big team of freelance workers who work with children, young people, and the communities of the Highlands in the islands.


Mike Evenson: Thanks for that. And I think that for those that haven't been to Inverness, I luckily have, it's an absolutely beautiful setting and I highly recommend it. And it sounds like Eden court is just a fantastic place for people to not only take in theater and art and entertainment, but also to gather as is, you're kind of going back and looking at how this news was, was unfolding around the world, just put us in your mindset and kind of take us through what you were thinking, even as at the turn of the calendar year, if you, as you look at launching into 2020, I mean, there was news and information that was starting to kind of sprinkle around how this could affect your region I'm, over in North America, how it was kind of coming our way. And so, as the leader of a venue like that, walk us through kind of what, what you did, what, what steps you took even as early on as January or February.


James Blackman: Well, do you know what, I was thinking about this just last week and I needed to look back and between over the course of 15 days, we went from, we need to give this some serious thought to closed. It was that quick. I'm in a WhatsApp group with venue, chief executives across Scotland. I posted a message to that WhatsApp group, to my peers across the country, it must have been, yes late middle, middle of February saying, what are you folks thinking about COVID-19? Have you started to scenario plan about the impact that could have with on your business? And yet that was the February and by the 17th of March, we shut our doors. It was that quick. And I think in the immediacy of the building being shut down, we definitely went through a period of shock.


James Blackman: I think leadership during that decision, I've been reflecting a lot about my leadership of the organization through that period, or should we close shouldn't we close, talking to our audiences, our partners, and our stakeholders. I'm just on a couple of occasions, really thinking about yes how I lead, with honesty and transparency for my team and for our audiences. I often say that leadership is about, a mix of decisions that you make somewhere between your head, your heart and your guts, and my goodness in that month. I really put that to the test, but yes, I remember just in the midst of the decision making about whether or not we should, we should close our doors. I've got a friend and a mentor. She runs a big [inaudible] organization in Australia, and I texted her.


James Blackman: And just said what does leadership look like now? How are you coping? And, and she replies, and she just said, block out all the noise and cling onto your values. And that was a really brilliant piece of advice to me. And the very next day I came into the office and I took each of our corporate values and I printed them really big on each, each value on it, on a sheet of paper and stuck them on the walls of my office. And I can't tell you how useful they were then over the coming few days.


Mike Evenson: That's great to hear. And I think that based on some of the decisions you made and some of the initiatives you launched during this time, it probably tethers back to your values quite significantly, obviously as you made the decision to kind of shut your doors, that changes kind of your engagement strategy with your patrons and your customers, and you're not having events. And so, you made the decision to kind of zoom out and look at the bigger picture. You know, one of the enlightening stories that has kind of come out of what Eden Court has done and how you've been able to, kind of help your community is looking at the things that you can provide, not just, what do you need from local or government funding in order to stay viable, but what it is you can do to help this situation. And I just love the initiative that you took, around kind of helping your local community. Can you walk through the, how you got to setting up a hotline for your local community?


James Blackman: Yes of course it was clear to me that Eden Court facing a pretty great financial situation, 75% of our income comes from ticket sales and the income that we make through our cafe bar restaurants and that income just ground to a halt, especially, once we shut our doors and I reached out to the chief executive of the Highland Council, she asked for an opportunity to present to the, Council the kind of grave financial situation we ran. And I was invited in to give a presentation on that. And it just so happened that when I went into that meeting to present the impact that COVID-19 was having on Eden Court, the agenda item before myself was the chief executive council laying out very clearly to a group of senior public officials all the challenges that the council had ahead of them setting up the helpline, shutting down the schools, providing education to key workers children. And as I sat listening to this set of challenges, just kept thinking of the faces amongst my own workforce and the technology that we had in place at Eden Court. And when I was invited to give my presentation, I kind of threw it the window and said, look obviously there's a grave financial situation ahead of us here.


James Blackman: We're going to need the support of the council and all government at the right moment. But in the meantime, I think we can turn our hands to helping you deliver some of the key challenges that you're identifying. So, our box office telephony system, which is web based, it's being operated at home by ushers and box office staff to deliver a helpline for everyone that lives in the Highlands who need information about COVID-19. Our community engagement team has been delivering in the key worker childcare hubs, so that the children of NHS national health service workers can go to work. We've just absolutely stepped up and I can be proud of the team.


Mike Evenson: I love that. I love that story because to me it highlights a few things. One you recognize, as you look at your business and your operation and your team really the different assets and capabilities that you have, that that can be applied in different ways. And I think, being able to run a call center easily, is such a fantastic, asset to have. And for you guys to be able to do that for your community, with your community, I think is fantastic. 


James Blackman: And using social distancing, that's, the box office telephony system is web based, we have a friend room here Eden Court. We have box, office staff here, but it, it was no asset to transfer that system to being able to be operated from people's homes. So that seems super interesting and insightful too.


Mike Evenson:  And when you went back to kind of share and work with your team on a new plan and re vectoring them to different roles and how did they take that? I mean, obviously it's, it's such a jarring thing that the venues close they're obviously fearing for their own kind of personal employment and safety and health. Were they, excited to kind of lean into this new venture with you?


James Blackman: Yes they were extraordinary. We've got just under 200 staff at Eden Court, and almost everyone has just completely leaned in. And I wouldn't have thought it any other way. The people that work in the performing arts and work in busy community hubs they care passionately about the communities that they live in. They care passionately about the health and wellbeing of the people that live around them. They were totally willing to turn their hands to this new initiative. And actually, what has been so fascinating is we've learned a huge amount about our workforce that we didn't know before. You know, we knew we had certain languages spoken, but we didn't know that we have staff that could speak Arabic. We didn't know that there were four people who could use British sign language fluently. That has been a complete revelation to us, we knew we had this incredibly talented, rich, and diverse workforce, but we've learned so much more about them as a result of this process.


Mike Evenson: That's amazing. And congratulations on that. And it's probably been so well received and a great opportunity for PR for your organization. And what's great is how altruistic it has been a really neat thing to see from afar, how you guys have been able to really provide that help and assistance as far as like your venue and your organization, and looking at the viability of it and how you come out of this stronger, during this, this six week period you've found creative ways and find new engagement strategies and obviously that has to be done online. And so I'm curious if you can share, some of the shifting in your mindset and just the decisions you made and either initiatives you launched, or, events that you've participated in, or have run, that have found new ways to engage people from their homes.


James Blackman: Yes I mean, that's a really interesting point. I think what's clear is that we, on the other side of this, whenever that might come, we are increasingly as a sector in the live performance industry here in the United Kingdom. And I'm proud, I'm sure around the world to recognizing that will be a new normal, there'll be a period of time when social distancing is needing to be maintained before we will have a vaccine. And that's really cast for a business by cost, which is actually in the business of celebrating and bringing people together in a live experience. And we're passionate about live. Look, I'm totally committed to and I've enjoyed a lot of the digital content that I've seen being made by theater, producers, and venues from around the world. But there's something very special about the live and we are really committed to doing what we can to get back there. As and when we can we're just doing a lot of scenario planning. Of course, we're just standing by and waiting for news from government about, about when facilities like Eden Court may be able to reopen and when it can reopen in what way and with what kind of capacities yes.


Mike Evenson: (15:36):

In the meantime, though, you've found ways to stay connected with your audiences, you are sharing recipes. I don't think, was that something you did pre COVID share recipes?


James Blackman: No, but this is the thing, right. We've got a restaurant, we've got a bistro, we've got a team of people in there that really loves food and are passionate about food. And we'd never put a recipe on our website before that's absolutely, it's come about a result of this time, I didn't even realize we'd done it until my dad's hundred miles away, he told me how much he enjoyed the spice. I couldn't even remember it was spicy, spicy, something. We are re-engaging the staff in really, really interesting ways and uploading digital activities for children and people who are at home, I'm trying to support that distance learning that's going on from the classroom. And yes we kind of have to completely reimagine what Eden Court is what a building is for how it meets the needs of the community and what we're going to need to do to encourage our audiences back. So, when we open the doors yes.


Mike Evenson: What is your mission as an organization and again, I know we're right in the middle of this pandemic, but as you start to brainstorm and think about how you're going to lead this venue and this organization and do into a new world, how accurate do you think that your company mission is right now? Have you looked at it, read it and do you feel like what we need to, we're probably going to need to change this thing because of how much the world might change.


James Blackman: Yes I mean, fascinating question. As I sort of mentioned that I've been clinging to our values, our values of proud, ambitious, open, and nurturing. We feel very aligned to those still our mission is to inspire people, to discover and love the arts by bringing the world to the Highlands and taking the Highlands to the world. How aligned do I feel to that? I feel very aligned to it, I think it needs to evolve and change? I don't know. It's the first time someone's asked me. So that will definitely be on my mind now, Mike, thank you.


Mike Evenson: Arts is everywhere. And I think when, when I think about Inverness, when I think about the Highlands, it's such a special place and it's somewhat, I don't want to say detached, but you've got these major cities like New York and London that just are these massive, massive hubs. I think the soul of theater and entertainment looks different in an urban setting versus, I don't want to call it a rural setting, but in a more detached, setting like you are. And when I think about organizations that kind of are seen as, as that truly` that hub, that central gathering place that represents that location in that community, I think that even, even with social distancing or people staying in their homes, there's something about you representing that region, whether it shifts from, from people coming to you versus you pushing out, great art and theater to the rest of the world. I do think your mission as you read it out, I still think it fits.


James Blackman: Yes, certainly that the notion of us as a harvest really critical to, so what we do and I worked for many years in London where it feels like you're in a very competitive market and here in Highland, there's a rich ecology, but there isn't another venue of any scale in terms like Eden Court. I've been thinking a lot about, the viability of us as a business, certainly in the realm of how the business is currently structured, and I think it's quite useful to take yourself out of your own shoes in this time and to ask a different question, regardless of whether or not Eden Court Highlands, this charity survives from my goodness, we'll do everything we can to make sure it does.


James Blackman: And now an equally viable question, if Eden Court Highlands was not here, or there was not a charity to operate the building is government and the community satisfied with the people of the Highlands and the islands and a land mass, the size of Belgium, not having access to live performance. You got to ask it that way. Okay. So, take the business out. So, let's just be clear. Everyone's cool with this entire region not having well, of course, no, one's going to say that they are content with that being an option because we live in a society where people understand the value that art and culture has on communities and the power they can have to change people's lives. So yes you've got to, even in the darkest of times, I'm normally hovering over an Excel spreadsheet is what I'm feeling.


James Blackman: You've got to hold on to that, but we've got to get through this because and that's, what's been learned through history so much. It's so often that the most extraordinary art emerges after a kind of a crisis in society and yes beyond this social distancing aside. And I don't say that kind of lightly to understand the way that and the importance that social distancing is going to have on our lives for some time. I think some extraordinary art will develop. And of course, I want to find a home for all my stages and all my screens.


Mike Evenson: Totally. I believe that that will happen. I think that certainly, with the people I spend time with everyone is itching to stop watching two-dimensional content. And I think that I certainly feel that way and it's been great to see, nontraditional streaming kind of markets like performing arts, who hasn't had a major kind of streaming component start to dabble in that world. Nothing will ever replace in person. Did I see, right.? That you're reopening on June 1st? Is that the current plan for you?


James Blackman: We have announced that we are closed until at least June the first things are changing so rapidly here in the UK, and we're still awaiting any guidance. We're still awaiting guidance, we're all still in lockdown and we haven't got any guidance of significance that helps us make any decisions about when Eden Court will reopen. We just have shared with the general public that we will be closed until at least the 1st of June yes.


Mike Evenson:  Yes, is it your sense from your community members and people, that you're around that they're that similar itch to get back to the theater?


James Blackman: There's a UK wide survey being undertaken at the moment on behalf of the Federation of Scottish theaters creative Scotland, arts council, England there's an independent organization that's been commissioned to create a survey the arts organizations across the United Kingdom is sharing with the audiences to survey their willingness to return. The initial results I found quite sobering. Perhaps there isn't the optimism that you're suggesting. It's going to take some time it's going to take some time. I think we have to be realistic about that. Here's the other thing that's increasingly becoming apparent, even if there's a willingness and an ability for us to open our doors and we get told that we can reopen our buildings the availability of product to put on our stages could be significantly impacted. We're certainly seeing producers of work and of tours and of pushing those tours in 2021 or rescheduling into the late autumn of 2020. So yes it feels that we are very beholden to kind of two parts, the space, the kind of official government line on the relaxation of lockdown and the relaxation of social distancing, and then alongside of that, the availability of products.


Mike Evenson: Yes for sure, stringing together, those national and international tours, that would be a really challenging puzzle to put together. And so I think we I've talked about this on the pod before, but I think starting to look more locally to secure your product and your talent on stage and, and in your venues, is going to become one of those trends, maybe we see coming out of this from a local perspective.


James Blackman: Yes I completely agree. I think that's highly likely. Okay.


Mike Evenson: Going back for a second, because you kind of said that you're the only show in town and I think one of the things that I witnessed that I think was enlightening and heartening and interesting, and I wanted to get your take on it was how you work with other theaters around the country. And I'm curious, because while in some cases you might look at that as competition, I get the sense that you operate in a kind of a stronger together mentality where working more closely with venues and like organizations around Scotland lifts arts altogether, as opposed to competing against them. I'm just curious what your mindset is and what your thoughts are around that, because you have been sharing other people's content and doing things to keep arts alive.


James Blackman:  Yes, I think one of the positives that will come out of this tragedy is that as a sector will be more connected in Scotland than we perhaps have been at any other time in the past. As chief executives and artistic directors, running venues across Scotland, we are asking ourselves some really challenging questions. The producing venues, their ability to capitalize productions will be limited after this crisis. We're looking at models whereby we can co-produce and co-create and then share that work across the country, on financial terms that place less risk on us than perhaps taking more commercial products from London-based producers and organizations. You're absolutely right. You know, the way in which work makes it to our stages, the dialogue that we have with our audiences, he lead time that we announce seasons and all of that is going to shift and change. It's going to have to we would be needing to be thinking now about a season brochure for October to March, but you just have to, in a way, the program is shifting every single day at the moment across our live performance venues. So yes it's super interesting times and collaboration is going to be absolutely key yes.


Mike Evenson: Well, one concept that I've talked about for a long time is really, and I know there's challenges because of who the owners of the content is, producers versus venues and all that. But I think that, that the relationship that someone has with the venue, like Eden Court, needs to sit above the content itself. And so I think when you look at, monetization strategies and how flexible, we're going to need to be for patrons for subscribers, does that model shift to more of a membership model where they're kind of engaged and spending money with you as an organization and knowing that whatever content comes through your venue, they can participate in some way shape or form.


Mike Evenson: I think that might need to be a larger shift to go more towards a subscription model. And by subscription, I don't mean, our run of shows, I mean a monthly subscription to be a true member of, of the organization, because of this I think very low lead time on what events are going to be coming through. And so, it'll be fascinating from my perspective to see kind of how the engagement and monetization strategies, change coming out of this.


James Blackman: Yes, you're absolutely right. And you'll know that within the United Kingdom, we will, whether you say quite behind on subscription or whether or not that's the right turn of phrase, I'm not sure, but there hasn't naturally been a strong evidence-based a subscription-based ticketing here in the UK, certainly in the theatre sector before, but that is changing and evolving. We've been looking to North America more at the subscription model and wondering how we go about making that work. And yes, just the other day, my head of marketing and sales was saying this exact point, now maybe it's the time for us to grapple with how we would do that. And again, in amongst this tragedy, the gift of time, that's one thing that I keep saying to my senior team, there's projects that we've not been able to grapple with because no-one's had the time, like now's the time, now's the time that we need to be offering ourselves the really tricky questions because we've got a bit of space to think about the offices yes.


Mike Evenson: Totally, totally agree. And I have to think, one of those areas that's going to emerge that I would say was, was important before really important, but all of a sudden is being taken to a whole new level is public safety. So, I'm, I'm curious, how your thinking has progressed, in and around what that even might look like. We still don't know what we don't know and like you said, things are changing every single day, but as I think about how people are going to enter in venues now how they're identified, what the experience is like in the venues, concession, cafes, washrooms, things like that. I mean, as the leader, that's got to make your head spin a little bit.


James Blackman: Yes it does. I'm really fortunate you didn't call [inaudible] our public spaces are where are predominantly from 2008. So, we have a very light, modern airy building, but of course, I've got my main bar, the cue, in the old normal times used to drive you wild, interval and preshow. You know, there's no way if we were having survived social distancing the pre-cert and the interval [inaudible] is going to be acceptable. We've been thinking maybe from this point on, if you want an interval drink, it has to be pre-ordered. All of these things, there'll be a set of scenarios that we need to reflect on, when we start to imagine how the building will be used, but yes for some of the Frank Matcham auditoriums in London, in the West end where you have, there's no way that based on the current architecture of those buildings, 1500 people could squeeze through and stay two meters apart There's going to need to be some really, really broad and interesting thinking that goes on yes.


Mike Evenson:  Yes it will be fascinating to see how this entire industry evolves and who's going to come out of this, even stronger and just based on everything I've seen James with how you're running Eden Court and the things you guys have done with your local community and with your venue I think you guys are in really good shape. So, I really appreciate you taking the time today to come on Unobstructed and talk through everything Eden court is doing when the restrictions are lifted, I strongly recommend people make their way up to the Scottish Highlands. One of the most beautiful places in the world I've ever been in and obviously make Eden Court one of the places you stop, James, thank you so much for, for the time, best of luck through the rest of this, and really looking forward to see the innovation that comes out on the other side.


James Blackman:  Thanks so much for inviting me. It's been a real pleasure.


Mike Evenson: Thanks again for joining an episode of Unobstructed. That was a great conversation with James McKenzie Blackman, the CEO of Eden Court up in the Scottish Highlands and, and not only seeing what they're doing to get through this, but also how they've re-vectored their capabilities to, to help their community. I would encourage all organizations that are kind of looking at how they can help. You have more assets and you have more capabilities than probably you realize. So, it's a great opportunity to kind of help buoy your community in such a unique time. Again, if you haven't listened to any other episodes, please go back into the archive, and listen to the episodes we've recorded with unobstructed so far hope you're enjoying this series and looking forward to more conversations and more podcasts in the future. Thank you.


Announcer: Thanks for listening to Unobstructed your view on the live events industry. Subscribe today, wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.

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