The Big Interview: Tattoo chief executive David Allfrey

David Allfrey is trying to strike a balance between tradition and the latest technological innovations in staging the show. Picture: Julie Bull
David Allfrey is trying to strike a balance between tradition and the latest technological innovations in staging the show. Picture: Julie Bull
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A globally renowned combination of music, ceremony, theatre and dance, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo entertains about 220,000 audience members a year against the distinctive backdrop of Edinburgh Castle and an annual worldwide television audience of 100 million.

Producer and chief executive David Allfrey shines a spotlight on its unique, wide-reaching status, ahead of this year’s premiere on Thursday. “It’s a bastion in the Edinburgh festivals,” he says. “We’re there every single year, our stand’s on the Edinburgh skyline… Our fireworks each evening are watched by thousands and thousands of people who are not even coming to the show.”

Handling the logistics of such a high-profile, large-scale endeavour may seem as dazzling as the spectacle itself, with this year’s 1,300-plus performers from around the globe given only three days of rehearsals, with time codes split into mere tenths of a second.

Allfrey acknowledges the inevitable challenges, with a Tattoo team of staff reaching into the mid-20s which must cover everything from operations, to media and communications, finance and sales.

But he is well-equipped to handle the meticulous co-ordination required, drawing on his own military background, and has ambitions to take the Tattoo to bigger and brighter heights.

Looking to 2025, the organisation has set its sights on doubling turnover from £10 million in 2015 and reaching a “multi-platform” audience of 1 billion, with Allfrey citing the military axiom that the most important part of any operation is “the selection and maintenance of the aim”.

He joined the Army in 1978, was commissioned into the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in 1979, commanding the regiment from 2000 until 2002, and remains part of it today.

Despite being proud of his military career, the brigadier plays it down as “quite modest”, but draws attention to his key skill of running large-scale events of various kinds.

He took a battlegroup of about 3,500 to Kosovo, looking after a large portion of the state’s northern border, so scale doesn’t really faze him.

In terms of synchronisation, military life entails acclimatising to the working together of all the elements in an “orchestra” of forces (such as tanks, infantry, and signals) . “We live and breathe integration and synchronicity, and I think at the Tattoo it’s exactly the same principal.”

Retiring from the Army in 2011, he became the eighth producer in the event’s history, which originated in the 1940s in a bid to “drag Edinburgh out of the dark days beyond the Second World War”.

The first event in its current incarnation was in 1950, and it hasn’t missed a show since. Allfrey is confident that this will be its 20th consecutive sellout year.

“That’s quite remarkable when you consider the societal changes, and the changes in taste and temperament since 1950 – all the extraordinary things we’ve gone through as a country.”

More than 14 million people have attended the Tattoo since it began, including the Prince of Wales and Duke of Cambridge last year.

Nearly half of the seats sold every year are snapped up in a day when they go on sale on 1 December, which puts it on a par with major rock and roll acts. “That is extraordinary when you consider how apparently traditional it is,” says Allfrey.

Last year it sold tickets in more than 100 countries, while 48 from across six continents have been represented in the show, “so not only is the audience multinational and multilingual but the cast is as well”.

The event includes what he terms “civic folkloric” performers. “When you combine the really rich pageantry and colour and musical tones of the military with the very best of civic society you end up with some fantastic amalgamations, really extraordinary, and that as a producer is just a really exciting thing to be part of.”

The Edinburgh show is the “focal point” for the organisation, and maintaining its prestigious status in the city requires a delicate balance between being authentic, never-changing, and highly innovative, fundamental. “If we were just putting on military bands marching up and down that wouldn’t fulfil the modern audience’s expectation, so we’re constantly ‘pushing on the elastic of innovation’, holding our older and traditional audience but at the same time trying to appeal to younger generations who actually consume large-scale live music events.”

A report by Deloitte published earlier this year found that revenue from live performances reached £2.1 billion in 2017, with concerts accounting for more than half, and was expected to grow by 7 per cent this year.

Allfrey cites the need to invest in sound, lighting, projection, special effects, fireworks, staging and choreography. “All of that has got to be pushing the edge of the envelope – otherwise those who are doing so will make their way past you in other people’s affection.

“That’s really challenging so we look to invest in that every year. We’ve got a very tough innovation programme, which we drive relentlessly from our headquarters in Cockburn Street.”

This includes augmented reality. “We’ve got some very clever stuff going on with digital technologies, all of which will come into the show, not this year or next year, but in perhaps three or five years’ time.”

The company has been partnering with universities, the BBC, and other technology providers, both domestically and overseas, amid an acceleration of its global offering.

In May as the organisation outlined plans to take the show abroad, Allfrey said that every year it needed to look “beyond the esplanade and the walls of the city” to survive.

Full-scale productions will be visiting Australia, China and hopefully Canada over the next three years under the event’s biggest ever expansion. Europe is in its sights beyond 2021, despite the noisy political backdrop, and the US, India and the Middle East are also on the cards. “As we go towards Brexit and out the other side, our conversations with the rest of the world become incredibly important,” says Allfrey.

The Tattoo, which was awarded a royal title by the Queen in 2010, was first staged overseas 18 years ago in New Zealand and has also visited Australia, in fact claiming the record for the largest number of ticket sales for Etihad Stadium in Melbourne until being overtaken by Ed Sheeran this year.

Such an event boosts the local economy by tens of millions of dollars, and Allfrey estimates the benefit to Scotland as easily exceeding £100m every summer.

The Tattoo’s far-reaching effects are not limited to the fireworks that can be seen far beyond the castle esplanade, not least because it buoys up a plethora of Scottish businesses.

“Whether you’re a bed and breakfast in Edinburgh or you’re somebody making gin here, or you’ve got a castle in the Highlands or you’re making tweed on Harris, these should all be part of our story, as of course are the bigger institutions.”

Summerhall-based Pickering’s Gin and Tranent’s Glenkinchie Distillery are among its supporters, along with Edinburgh First at the University of Edinburgh, video security firm IndigoVision based in the capital, and the Sheraton Grand Hotel and Spa. Royal Bank of Scotland and vehicle rental firm Arnold Clark sponsor the event.

“Our model amazingly does not rely on sponsorship, but it helps us to stay ahead, so we’re always looking for people who feel they might want to share in that, regardless of their size or shape,” says Allfrey.

“We find ourselves with a lovely opportunity not just to grow our own brand and reinforce it around the world but also there’s a wider contribution.”

Looking at all of its knock-on benefits, Allfrey sees the Tattoo’s business model as highly unorthodox for being “genuinely” altruistic.

“It’s about people sharing in our success, and we don’t just not begrudge it – we actually encourage it.”

Having previously held roles including barman, kitchen porter, fruit-picker, supernumerary deckhand on a container ship, printing apprentice and “unskilled” factory hand, his current position has seen him travel to more than 40 countries.

That is due to the Tattoo’s evidently flourishing popularity abroad, as a host, but also as an organiser of events overseas.

The flipside to such success is deciding where to allocate resource and strike the right balance.

“That’s going to be one of the big challenges for us in the next few years.”

And while Allfrey has criticised rogue ticket sites and the spiralling cost of policing the event, his enthusiasm remains unbounded.

He is looking to grow its partnerships with Scottish firms, promoters and other firms abroad, and bring its knowledge to nationwide large-scale events, backed by a workforce nearly twice the current level.

This year’s Tattoo theme is The Sky’s The Limit, with a spotlight on the Royal Air Force in its 100th year. “For me, quite genuinely, this year the sky is the limit – and there are so many, many places we can go.”