ALNWICK on an autumn day is worlds away from the stifling heat of Dubai, from which Frenchman Christian Perdrier has decamped to sprinkle some of his Disney magic on the castle and garden.
The newly-appointed first joint chief executive of the two sites, Perdrier has a tough task ahead of him. But sitting in the half-term sunshine at the garden, it doesn’t look like the attraction is struggling to pull in the punters.
I circled the car park twice before spotting a space and the admissions queue is snaking around the corner.
However, attracting crowds isn’t the only reason the 58-year-old was headhunted from Sheikh Mohammed’s Dubailand hotel and theme park complex.
He had previously learned his trade working for 12 years as one of the top executive at Disneyland Paris.
And the Frenchman is full of confidence and enthusiasm after being recruited by the Duchess of Northumberland to turn Alnwick into a top international tourist destination.
“It is not that ambitious,” says Perdrier. “Alnwick when you add it up is what I call the triple A – Alnwick Garden, Alnwick Castle and Alnwick town – when you add up those three components, you really have the possibility to create a destination for the people to come and visit.
“Here, people are walking on the grass, they are touching the flowers. It’s exactly what should be in a garden. Actually it should not be called a garden because a garden in the minds of people is very specific. It’s not a garden. It’s a Babel tower where we have everybody here of different nationalities meeting each other.
“It’s unique in the world and it’s important for the world to come here and visit this place to understand that.”
Perdrier, who has moved to the town with his family, admits he was less than familiar with his new home before he was asked about the job.
“It’s all brand new – I didn’t even know where it was. North of London for me was ‘nowhere’ so when I came here, I found out about the region,” he says.
“I fell in love. I fell in love with the region. I remember phoning my wife after the interview and said ‘I think we should come’. I’ve been to a lot of places but there are not too many places where you find this type of environment.
“I met people who were extraordinary, I met people with passion, I met people who had what I call the values of the good side and I found myself thinking this is something I would love to be involved with.”
His initial aim is to embed himself in the region’s culture and the job before starting to work with others to turn his vision into reality.
“I am not a British guy, I’m a French guy, so I have to understand the spirit of what’s going on here. One thing I’m going to make sure in terms of strategy is to recruit all the different energies between the castle, the garden and the town, in order to create this Alnwick destination to put Alnwick on the map.
“I don’t think people from all over the world or even from the UK are going to come to the garden only or the castle only. They will come to a destination where they can spend two or three days.
“That’s going to be the strategy for the months to come to explain to everybody what is the aim of what we want to do and to bring everybody on board.”
Rather than advertise Alnwick abroad, he plans to pursue the strategy used by Disneyland Paris and attract foreign visitors already in the country.
“If you want to really advertise all over the world, you have to think about gigantic budgets and we don’t have a gigantic budget,” he explains.
“When you know that more than 20 million foreign visitors are coming to London every year – I don’t have to go and talk to Italians in Italy, Spanish in Spain, they are all coming to London.
“London is three hours and 20 minutes away by train so you just bring them here on an extension of their package. You deal with the different partners and you bring them here for two, three days.
“You partner with the trains, with National Express. You can charter trains. I think everybody is interested in the region to bring people here. When you have done that, 85% of the job is done.”
When they get here, he wants to give them an experience they won’t forget. And he wants to ensure the service in Alnwick meets the standards he set at Disney.
“I can right away see here almost 50 details that don’t work – maybe you don’t see them but I’m trained to work on that,” he says.
“I’m trained to train the people to open their eyes and to see those kind of details that make a difference between a great regional destination and a great international destination.
“Our duty is to deliver 100% of what they expected and beyond that, because delivering 100% of what they paid for is just normal business and you don’t become international for that.
“They expect 100% and you deliver 120% – then people remember, then you become an international destination.”
Passion and storytelling figure highly in his approach, although he denies he wants to turn Alnwick into a theme park.
“We have 1,000 years of history, with a lot of characters in the Percy family. Let’s bring out from the archives some characters who are going to become the storyline of the castle,” said Perdrier.
“Here [in the garden] there are the characters of nature, so let’s put nature in the centre of our storylines.
“We have the best decor, the best actors, we have the best lighting, we are just missing the script. We just now need to work on the script in order to storytell what we want to do.
“When I say characters I’m not going to transform Percy history with cartoons. I would love to create in the state room a kind of special effect where Her Grace is having tea with the third Duchess of 500 years ago. There are special effects now – that’s where the history would meet together between today and yesterday because of the technology.
“Let’s bring alive Harry Hotspur. The technology allows that; we could sit down beside Hotspur and talk to him.”
Of course Alnwick is now also famous because of another Harry – Harry Potter – after the castle served as the setting for Hogwarts in the first couple of films of JK Rowling’s boy wizard books.
Perdrier said: “Cannes in France – it’s like Alnwick, it’s a very small town – but everybody knows Cannes because of the film festival.
“Let’s create a kind of a film festival every year, around special effects, a Harry Potter-type of approach and we’ll have a festival of Alnwick where we’ll have the special effects, history, movies. Let’s create something like that – and Alnwick will become like Cannes on the world map.
“But we have to be very careful to do it within the 21st Century. Let’s create 3D history where people will re-emerge from history. Entertainment, leisure, emotion – I’d say it’s an emotional destination – not a theme park. I don’t know the name yet – an emotional resort – I don’t know. But it’s not going to be a theme park.”
One of seven children from the Burgundy region of France, he followed his mother’s footsteps into the hospitality business. Perdrier arrived at Disney in 1994 after a career stretching from Baghdad to San Francisco with hotel chain Accor. Initially in charge of Disney’s hotels, he moved to the park itself “after I fell in love with Minnie”.
“I used to kiss goodbye Mickey every night and to get Minnie dressed up every morning and played the Goofy everyday.
“The park was a fantastic experience in terms of storytelling. Everybody says with Disney that it’s only for children but it’s not true. In everybody, there is a child inside.
“I remember when I was Santa Claus on the float on the parade and I was waving at the people, it was not just the children, but the adults [waving back]. At any age, people are ready to come back to childhood, to let their emotions out.
“I think our job is to recreate an environment where everybody aged from seven days to 77 years can let go of their emotions.”
He was recruited from Disneyland to oversee the creation of Dubailand – a vision to put together the “Orlando of the Middle East” – providing Western-style entertainment for visitors from India to Russia.
“I negotiated six theme parks and 20 hotels and we started to build until the financial crisis – everything has stopped for the time being,” he says.
Despite other offers, he chose Alnwick because he appreciated the Duchess’s vision to create something completely different.
“That’s what Her Grace has done. What she created here doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. She really went out of the box – that’s what she wants so that’s what we’re going to deliver. We are going to create something that doesn’t exist – we are going to invent something,” he says.
He is reluctant to put a timescale on achieving these ambitions for Alnwick. But he hopes it will be known nationally as a top leisure destination within three years and internationally within five.
“Maybe more, maybe less,” says Perdrier. “It’s like when you are cooking at home, there are so many factors – it’s a recipe.”
He says he now wants to transfer the investment other people put into his career. “I don’t want in a few years from now God to come and knock on my door and say what did you do with your work? What did you do with what I gave you? Why did you not give it back?
“It’s time for me to give back what I received. That’s why I came here.
“I’m lucky to have a job where I can let go of my emotion and I’m working on emotion. I am fantastically lucky.
“My passion is being with people, music – opera – because it’s emotion; everything which is emotional – painting, opera, travelling, meeting people. I am an emotional guy.”
Page 2: The CV
1973: Lausanne Hotel School, Switzerland
1972-76: Hospitality work from waiter to director of catering in Switzerland, UK and Canada
1993-94 Senior vice-president operations, USA West Coast, Motel 6
1992-93: Vice-president operations ACCOR Mediterranean (Sofitel, Novotel)
1991-92 Executive vice-president Novotour (Worldwide land operating network agencies)
1987-1991 Vice-president ACCOR Pacific (Sofitel, Novotel, Ibis, Casino)
1976-1987 Hotel general manager (Limoges, Grenoble, Lyon, Baghdad, Abu-Dhabi, Jeddah).
1994-2006: DISNEYLAND RESORT PARIS
2002-06 Senior vice-president parks & security.
1999-2002 Senior vice-president support operations
1997-99 Senior vice-president operations (hotels, theme park, Disney Village)
1994-97 Vice-president hotels operations
2007-09: TATWEER – Dubai Holding – Dubai, UAE Senior vice-president parks & resorts division
Page 3: The questionnaire
What car do you drive?
Having recently moved I have yet to buy a car. I currently rent a modest Ford Fiesta.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Perhaps surprisingly for a Frenchman, I love Indian or Italian food most of all.
Who or what makes you laugh?
My daughter surprises me every day.
What’s your favourite book?
The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo
What was the last album you bought?
Don Giovanni by Mozart
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
I’d have loved to be a teacher. You always remember your best teachers, don’t you?
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Have a great day…
What’s your greatest fear?
Not to have the time to do everything I would like to do.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Be yourself and not what you think people are expecting from you.
And the worst?
Invest in the stock market.
What’s your poison?
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
Le Figaro and L’Equipe
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
I can’t remember how much I was paid but I do remember putting it into savings as I was planning to go abroad.
How do you keep fit?
I eat healthily and do a lot of walking and jogging.
What’s your most irritating habit?
I always arrive very early when I travel anywhere.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
I bought a Ford Mustang Mach 1 as my first car. I think I’m still paying it off!
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Sister Emmanuelle
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Stephen Spielberg, Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates, Richard Branson.
How would you like to be remembered?
Somebody who cares about others.