Recording Date: 05/15/2011 - 30 minute segment.
Travel Expert Stephanie Abrams welcomes back old friend Mark Leslie, CEO of Martello Media in Dublin, Ireland, for an online exclusive interview. Mark and Martello have yet another project in the works: the creation of an exhibit honoring Winston Churchill for the J.P. Morgan Library in New York City. On this trip to the U.S., however, Mark gets to enjoy the fruits of his labors, in the form of an award from the Themed Entertainment Association for Martello's work on the visitors' center at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.
"It's sort of an industry guild for the people who do theme parks," Mark explains. "Bizarrely enough, they deemed Glasnevin Cemetery the funnest day out to be had in a cemetery in all Ireland. So our clients had the bizarre experience of walking up a red carpet alongside designers from Disney and the creators of the Harry Potter theme park. They never thought they'd be doing that for running a cemetery. But when you think about it, Glasnevin Cemetery is a celebration of life, really."
Martello Media has created experiences all over Ireland, from the Guinness Storehouse and W.B. Yeats exhibit at the National Library in Dublin to the visitors' center at the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare and an interactive center at Blackrock Castle Observatory in Cork. According to Mark, the Guinness Storehouse is one of the most popular attractions in Ireland, while the Cliffs of Moher are the most popular natural attraction.
The company is currently working on a new food and drink experience for the top floor of the Guinness Storehouse. "We're doing something called Arthur's Bar, which recalls traditional Irish pubs," says Mark. "Although you can now find supposedly Irish pubs all over the Mediterranean, it's been in kind of a crisis and was something they forgot when they were doing the Storehouse."
Mark and Stephanie agree that the Guinness Storehouse is a must-see for visitors to Dublin. It's one of the tallest buildings in the city and makes a great spot for travelers to get their bearings. At the top of the Storehouse is a circular bar with glass walls where visitors can redeem a token for a free beverage – usually a pint of Guinness. The rest of the building is similarly interesting; the first floor has a Willy Wonka-esque elevator that seems to travel through a glass roof. "The first floor has an atrium with a glass roof," explains Mark. "The lift carries on through the roof and you can't see the building behind you, so you have the sensation of taking off into the sky."
It's also a good idea to purchase tickets for the Guinness Storehouse in advance, as there are often significant lines outside. "They never expected it to be as popular as it is; it was intended as a brand experience that would be a loss leader," Mark adds. "But they got quadruple the number of people projected, so they had a completely inadequate entrance and exit. So Martello got involved in trying to sort that out.
"We cleared out the storerooms in the basement and made a huge entrance hall," he continues. "It has glass windows onto which we've projected scenes of Victorian carriages and people walking by. It's quite a modern, futuristic, industrial building once you're inside, but people expect history. They don't realize that they've just seen projections, and will come away talking about how they saw the miniature railways and people rolling barrels."
In designing the entrance hall, Martello applied a few lessons learned from the American theme park industry about eliminating waits using online tickets or fast passes. The company also redid the main atrium to make it more interesting. "There's a circular atrium that's like a giant pint of Guinness," says Mark. "They had the ticketing at the bottom, so people never looked up at what was the finest space in the building. So we've projected Guinness onto the walls – we faked it using spherical mirrors – and now you realize you're in a giant, bubbling pint of Guinness."
After getting people into the Guinness Storehouse, Martello Media also had to find a better way to get them out. "The space has a fantastic array of escalators, like an Escher drawing," Mark explains. "But they all go up and nothing brings you back down. They couldn't figure out how to get anyone out; the exit was through a fire escape and the people who found it thought it couldn't be right. So we had to give people a kind of thank-you experience down there and make it more open." Visitors now enter a mirror maze with 72 columns onto which Guinness is projected. As they walk past, the beer starts foaming, and the interactive experience lets them know they're in the right place.
Mark is eagerly anticipating an upcoming visit by the queen of England – her first visit ever to Ireland. "She asked specifically to go to the Guinness Storehouse, which took everyone by surprise," he says. "She's going to a lot of interesting different places, of course, which will draw attention to them. The Celtic Tiger meant that the Irish were very hospitable and good at doing pubs and hotels, but prices had risen. Now, the level of service hasn't changed, but the prices have come down and are much more realistic. We had a 15 to 20% drop in numbers, so prices are still low and you can stay at real castles – historic buildings with all the modern touches."
One current project is a restoration of Rothe House and Gardens in Kilkenny. "It's a house and gardens with a wonderful arboretum and wildlife park, and Kilkenny is a marvelous medieval town with a great castle," says Mark. Rothe House is one of the few surviving Tudor townhouses in the town and still has a Renaissance-style garden at the back. The house was originally three houses that were joined together in the late 1500s by a merchant with 10 children. As the family grew, he kept adding more houses.
Although Rothe House is located on a main street in Kilkenny, it's virtually intact. "When they chipped away the plaster, they found the original Tudor house of the Rothe family," Mark explains. "It's right in the middle of the main street, this huge rambling house with internal courtyards and back garden. We're recreating some of the rooms inside to tell the very interesting story of this family."
The town of Kilkenny also has quite an interesting past. During Ireland's civil war, Kilkenny was the capital of the Irish confederates who were fighting against Oliver Cromwell's forces. "As the rebel capital, the town played a pivotal role in history," Mark adds. "Meetings of some of the rebels actually took place in Rothe House. The whole town is very historic and should be visited even if you don't see the house. But it gives people the opportunity to see what houses were like at that time."
Another Martello project is Blackrock Castle Observatory in Cork. "It's one of my favorite places because it's a wonderful old Gothic castle, but in the sense that it's like a castle out of Hollywood," Mark continues. "On the battlements you'll see telescopes, and inside there are real proper geek scientists writing very serious software. This is software that tracks near Earth objects, which may or may not hit the Earth. They also write software to analyze the light from distant stars to see whether there are planets orbiting them."
In the last decade, 500 exoplanets right outside our solar system have been discovered, according to Mark. "The psychological impact of discovering a planet with intelligent life is slightly head-wrecking, slightly boggling," he says. The exhibition in the lower part of Blackrock Castle Observatory addresses the possibility of life on these planets. It addresses this big question and its philosophical questions in a kid-friendly way, through a pan-galactic email system.
"The email system will draw attention to the planets discovered with the software and tell you there are 34 right overhead," Mark explains. "We have kids think about what's special about Earth and attempt to get in contact. They compose a multimedia message, choose a planet, and the radio telescope on the roof sends their message. As it's sent, the computer screen tells you that in 1 minute your message will pass by Mars, in 4 hours 20 minutes it will pass Pluto, and so forth. It will send you an email in 96 years just to confirm that your message has reached the planet, and tell you that you can come back to the observatory in 168 years to see whether the aliens have replied."
Besides helping kids come to grips with such questions, Blackrock Castle Observatory is also home to Ireland's first interactive cinema. Each visitor can use the touchscreen at his or her seat to participate in the Rosetta space mission. Together, the audience tries to track a comet and keep it from hitting Earth. "It's all based on real science, but it's like participating in a Hollywood movie," says Mark. "So if the comet is made of ice, you melt it with a nuclear explosion. You can go to the European Space Agency to ask their advice, and we have a real astronaut telling you what you should do."
Visitors hoping to spend some time out of doors in Ireland would do well to visit the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, where Martello Media designed the visitors' center. "The cliffs are a wonder of the world: 7 miles of 200 meter high cliffs that literally overhang," Mark says. "They're made of layers of rock laid down on the bottom of the sea that peel off in a certain way, so it's not just steep cliffs. It's an awe-inspiring place because the full force of the Atlantic Ocean comes in and you have waves up to 50 feet high. Surfers come from all over to surf these waves.
"If you crawl to the edge and look down, you can't believe the scale – you think the waves are moving in slow motion," Mark continues. "If you're lucky enough to be there on a sunny day, you can see little fish swimming at the bottom, which turn out to be the biggest fish in the world: 30-foot basking sharks. So the scale of the place is stupendous and the geological history of Europe is written like a book in the layers of the cliffs. I saw one American tourist standing at the edge and saying, 'And there, ladies and gentlemen, is your regular Atlantic Ocean.' It kind of captured the spirit of the place."
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