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Ep.34 Ashton Gate Sporting Quarter Vision and Bristol Sports Tourism with Mark Kelly

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19 Jan, 2024

Sports tourism and the exciting developments planned for Bristol’s Sporting Quarter at Ashton Gate Stadium with CEO Mark Kelly 

If football, rugby or Take That are your thing, you’ll love this episode.  Yes, for my first episode of 2024, I’m sharing my conversation with Mark Kelly, the CEO of Ashton Gate, who, over the past 10 years, has transformed Bristol City Football Club stadium into a year-round leisure and entertainment venue.  

The level of investment is something that Bristol has not seen ever, or in recent years at least, that you’re talking about with the houses. You’re close to 300 million pounds of private money. We’re ready, we’re buzzing to go with this, we just need to get through this last hurdle, which we will have our fingers crossed. “

Ashton Gate is the home of the Bristol City Football ladies and men’s teams, Bristol Bears and Bristol Flyers rugby and basketball teams.

We chat about:

> How concerts such as Take That (June 2024) are the biggest drivers of likely staying tourists coming into Bristol of all of their events.

> How they had £13m of conference enquiries last year but could only fulfil £3m due to capacity restrictions.

> The exciting plans they have to develop a new 5,000 capacity conference centre which will also be home to Bristol Flyers Basketball team.

> The two new hotels coming to the site one of which is from the Hilton group.

> His career journey from a hotel management qualification through the Thistle hotel group to his amazing job today – which includes leading a new game reserve in Botswana for the Lansdown family.

> Some of his favourite places to eat including Aqua, Sow & Cow and Cafe Burra (owned by some of the Bristol Bears players).

Full Transcription
Mark Kelly, Kelly Ballard

Kelly Ballard 00:05
Thank you so much for finding the time to be here today.

Mark Kelly
My pleasure, good to see you.

Kelly Ballard
Good to see you too. It’s been such a long time, years have passed since I last saw you and we’ll talk about that in a second, but we’re here today to talk about Ashton Gate and all the exciting things that are happening over there. As well as what you do and what you’ve been doing. So just to start, can you just say what your title is and what you do over at Ashton Gate?

Mark Kelly
Okay, so for Ashton Gate my title as CEO of Ashton Gate, sporting quarter. So Ashton Gate stadium is obviously very well established over Bristol City and Bristol Bears. And we’re also developing an arena next door for Flyers, and for entertainment, and for a meetings space. It is going to be the hub of a new quarter in South Bristol that includes at least two hotels, some food and beverage, some retail, some office space, some accommodation, and of course the stadium. So a big part of my role for the last three or four years is to support the project team on delivering that quarter, and really closing the circle on the development which started, gosh, 10 years ago, as you know.

Kelly Ballard 05:16
Wow. So exciting plans. So just tell me a little bit about what’s there at the moment, and the capacities, and the kind of crowds that you see.

Mark Kelly 05:26
Yeah, so we now have a 27,500 capacity stadium. The stadium and the group is owned by Steve and Maggie Lansdown. And when we started this journey on the stadium development 10 years ago, a key driver for the 50 million pound development at the time, was to make the venue 365 days a year. And you know that a concept probably started 15-16 years ago, when in sport that was pretty much inherited in the UK. A lot of football stadiums were football stadiums, they were used 20 odd times a year, might get the odd meeting here and there. But they were essentially just football stadiums or rugby stadiums. So when we started on this journey, we were one of the first to develop a purpose-built conference and Events Centre, within and football and rugby stadium. In fact, the first design meeting we had was ‘Let’s build a conference and Events Centre and then put a football pitch around it, rather than the other way around’. And that was quite unique.

We’ve had loads of learning since and didn’t get everything right, in terms of the sentiment of the 100 years that Bristol City we’re here beforehand that will be retrofitted. But in the meantime, essentially from a commercial point of view, the development of the stadium has been an incredible success, establishing itself as a very well run venue of choice within the southwest. We’re the largest conference space with the Bristol market. We do most of the large corporate dinners, the property awards, all that usual stuff that happens in Bristol, we’ve allowed them to grow because it can get up to 700 people.

So they’ve grown, we’ve grown and everybody in the city has benefited from it. That brings us to the next stage where we must get the arena open and put a couple of hotels in and attract more inbound tourism into Bristol which for all the years we have tracked behind other big cities like Cardiff, and Birmingham, and Southampton, and they have dedicated arenas and conference centers to bring that inbound tourism. We will only be at 5000 capacity, but that 5000 capacity is more than what exists within the city already. And fingers crossed YTL will do their development over on the north side, and Bristol will have two major choices and hopefully anchors to bring a new level of business into the city. We all miss out on this, we know ourselves when we put on a concert. We can do 30,000 capacity concerts and every year we’re getting bigger and better and doing this. We do sell out, the promoters love us because Bristol sells out and they sell out at a good value. And you get good artists. But we are limited because it’s 30,000 but we do tend to get the Elton Johns, and Rod Stewards, last year Arctic Monkeys so we do sell out.

So we’re in a championship at the moment, but should we get to the Premier League, we are guaranteed to sell out at 27,000 and would probably look to extend one of the stands if we stayed in the Premier League and get the capacity to about 30,000, and rugby around the 20,000 mark too.

So it’s a busy, busy venue. It really is true to the word of a 365 day use. You know you come in this morning to the big wedding. The car park is flooded because there is a winter wedding happening. Tomorrow we’ve got West Ham here for the FA Cup which is literally sold out. On the weekend, we have rugby on Saturday against the South African club team, then women’s football on Sunday, FA Cup again which is Bristol City versus Liverpool, so it’s continuous. There’s such a vibe and such an energy around it.

The vision of Steve and Maggie last time was always to inspire, this is going back 20 years ago when they invested in the club, was to inspire the community through sport and success. And we’re yet to get that ultimate sporting success of the Premier League, or the Champions league if you like rugby the equivalent, but actually everything else that’s going on in and around the stadium is inspiring the community, and we can hand on heart say that we feel that we’re making a good impact.

We are a big employer, and we employ a lot of youngsters, our average age is 23. We use local suppliers, we sort of benchmark the supply chain to ensure that it’s within the Bristol marketplace. There is Bristol Beer Fest, a kilometer down the road is our brewery, we always try to stay local. And we stay authentic with that, because it’s good for us to see the domino effect out into Bristol. So yeah, it’s been a good 10 years for the stadium. The COVID vaccinations, we were the biggest vaccination Centre for a while. I think we did 50-60,000 people over the first few weeks to get that moving, which was a tough time for everybody within the venue because we had to close down, and we did a lot of community stuff during that time. And then we’re just looking forward to the next 10 years. As I said earlier, we’ll close the circle with an arena, a couple of hotels, some retail combinations, great restaurants, great bars, good fan zones, etc.

Kelly Ballard 11:17
Tell me a little bit about that Mark, because in terms of the arena, is this a combined sports facility with the Flyers?

Mark Kelly 12:59
Yeah, so it’s going to be the home of Bristol Flyers, and you know, it’s another minority sport, although I hate to say that, but the point is trying to get the community in and starting to get more involved.

So we’re hoping that by bringing in the basketball that we can really make a thing about it. We’re in the community, and we have coaches out in the schools, teaching basketball. Our team is really punching above its weight at the moment and doing really well. So the arena will be the home of Bristol Flyers first and foremost. And you know, the idea is you can come on a Friday to Basketball, then you can come back on Saturday and watch Bristol City, and come back on a Sunday to watch Bristol Bears, and come back on a Monday for you know, a Michael McIntyre concert. So that’s the division we’re trying to achieve.

So yeah, the arena hub for the Flyers, but also a large conference venue, designed for flexibility like the stadium, where we could put in an exhibition. I think we can have 7000 guests within an exhibition. And that’s good. As I said earlier, Bristol needs that. The corporate market is saturated in hotels, so it’s difficult to get a hotel in Bristol. Hotels are fairly tired. I’m sure you won’t mind me saying that you noticed as little investment, I think we are falling behind in comparison to Birmingham, and other cities like Cardiff etc. So I really feel strongly that Bristol can start to punch into this market.

Kelly Ballard 14:34
And in terms of hotels, I read that there was only one hotel but you’ve mentioned several or two. Tell me about that.

Mark Kelly 14:41
So we put in permission for two hotels. So the first hotel we’re going to open is essentially linked to the arena, we’ve done a franchise deal. We’ll run it with the Hilton, so it’ll be a Hilton Hotel with 232 bedrooms, so a good size for this side of Bristol. And that’s phase one. Phase two, depending on the commercialism at a time, and our business plan, and how to market it, we intend to build our own hotel, which is our own brand. So like our own sort of sporting conference brand. So that’s phase two. And there are 100-150 rooms, slightly different from the Hilton. We know that’s something that may duplicate and grow over the next couple of years as the market grows.

Kelly Ballard 15:23
Excellent. And in terms of this actually going ahead Mark, you’ve had a few challenges with planning. Where are you with that at the moment?

Mark Kelly 15:31
Yeah, so we achieved planning just over a year ago, with a number of conditions. So it’s not like anything, it’s a 250 million pound development. It’s a linked planning application, so we have our sporting quarter development here at Ashton gate. And we also have a housing development just behind David Lloyd over at Ashton Vale. So the idea was, when we went to planning, we would work with North Somerset Council and the city council to deliver 250 million pounds.

Then 450, I think it was, new houses over in Ashton Vale, much needed houses. That was with a percentage of social housing, etc. And in principle, they both agreed back in October, which we’re all very excited about. Sadly, we’ve had an objection from a local supplier who has a waste recycling centre on a trading estate, on the boundaries of where our houses are going to be. So we’re just trying to work through that, and trying to avoid any long drawn out court cases.

So you know, we’re very honoured to work with all of our neighbours. So we’re hoping over the next couple of months, we can really thrash that out and get things moving again. It would just be a shame, because we’re ready. And the level of investment is something that Bristol has not seen ever, or in recent years at least, that you’re talking about with the houses. You’re close to 300 million pounds of private money. We’re ready, we’re buzzing to go with this, we just need to get through this last hurdle, which we will have our fingers crossed.

We don’t want to go through a long drawn out high court battle on a planning condition. But the appetite from our fans and from the community is strong to deliver this, so I personally feel we get through this over the next couple of months and start putting spades in the ground hopefully this year, if not early next year.

So our vision is phase one, which is the arena and the hotel. It has a two year delivery. But in two years, get the basketball playing here, and get the kids and get the community in, so it really will be a hub for Bristol, a much needed hub. And as you know very well the composite event market, we have a lot of business on standby meaning that I could fill that tomorrow with large international conferences.

We’re near the airport, we have a hotel, we have a good relationship with the hotels in the city. And then more hotel developers will go ‘Oh, Bristol’s doing really well, they need to open more hotels’, it’s that domino effect that will hopefully start to see. I think we all know that it’s a much need, and alongside the YTL development, I think what they’re doing over there is also very aspirational and can only help us and help the city compete.

Kelly Ballard 18:33
Yeah, well thanks for sharing that, really interesting. I know that you do Bristol Sport, and you do a fantastic amount in the community. But in terms of the visitor economy, have you got any stats around what Bristol Sport brings to the visitor economy and sport in general in Bristol?

Mark Kelly 18:52
I mean it’s a taste of Premier League football tomorrow we have West Ham and if we use that as one example, we sold out just to our season ticket holders alone, we could have sold a stadium twice. It was the same when we had Man City last year, and Man United. The potential for bringing Premier League football to the city is absolutely massive. We tracked all of our inquiries for the game and different businesses and wanted to come, and other Bristol people who wanted to bring guests along. If you go to Manchester United, or you go to London, the amount of tourists you will find is huge. Personally, I will spend money to go and watch Manchester.

I think where the big impact we make for the moment is from a conference venue point of view. We had 13 million pounds worth of inquiries last year, we can only physically convert 3 million. That’s us cap because we’re running out of space, that other 10 million has gone somewhere else that did not come with Bristol, because we are the biggest venue. And that’s the painful point. So we know that the tourism economy in terms of composite events is strong. We all know that we’ve been together for a long time.

But the other stats that we track is when we do a concert, 48% are from within the Southwest but we’re still going a little bit into Newport, towards Cardiff, going down towards North Exeter etc. And that’s 48% from that area. 52% are from all over the UK. And you know, we’ve got anecdotes from the hotels that hoteliers will fill on a weekend on a Sunday night. It’s a concert so we know that the impact is there. And what this tells, you just need to look at the development of South Bristol and Bedminster, and how well these guys are doing. There are some really great cafes and really good restaurants. Really good buzz, you know, and I think that the whole area around us benefits from the local economy and the visitor economy. And that will continue as we continue next development.

Kelly Ballard 21:29
It’s so good I think, that we’ve got two football teams in the city and to have that location is fantastic. And I know that Rovers support the Gloucester road and all of that area, it’d be such a shame to see them move out because it’s so important.

Mark Kelly 21:46
Absolutely, and there’s a great buzz around there as well, for the same reason. Bristol really comes to life when you have these events on. They love to get out and about and they love entertainment. As I said, promoters will always give us a date that they know will be a really good gig for the concert, but also they know that it is a guaranteed sell out. You don’t get that in other cities with similar sized stadiums, the confidence that they’re going to feel so it’s great to see.

Kelly Ballard 22:18
So who is coming in the summer Mark, if they’d been announced?

Mark Kelly 22:22
Take That for two nights on the bounce, so we have a weekend of Take That, which is just about sold out. Got some tickets in hospitality left but general sales, 60,000 fans here over Saturday and Sunday in June, or something like that. And if you go back to the stats, let’s assume 48% are from the Southwest, that other 30,000 is from inbound tourism. And that’s a really strong message to show you over a weekend in June. So we have that. We’ve also just announced last week, we are doing a festival which is a test for us. So we’re just trying to control it ourselves. So we’re doing a theme of mid-late 90s, early 2000s type of festival. So we’ve got Neo, I did have to google him when the team said it, we have So Solid Crew, Craig David. I hope we have announced them, I think we have. Every few days we’re going to name a few more artists, you know, it’s that kind of era. And we took a risk on this because it’s something different. So yeah, there’ll be 10 different artists for that concert in June as well. And then we have the big rock band that we just need to sign a contract for, and that ties in around Glastonbury time. If we can get that it’d be incredible, and it’ll sell out immediately. So we have a licence for five concerts. So the ambition is to do five concerts every year, which is incredible.

Kelly Ballard 24:08
That’s amazing, isn’t it? I think not only for yourself, but what an opportunity for all the businesses locally, the influx of people coming into the city and people being able to capitalise on that is really important isn’t it. Linking in and making sure that their information is in the right place so that people can find it. For those people that don’t know the city, Visit Bristol does an amazing job of dispersing people around, and sharing information. But yeah, great, great opportunities.

Mark Kelly 24:43
As you know, we work very well with the agencies, but we’re only limited on what we can all do. So there’s just so much more that we’d like to do and it’s great. A lot of our partners in North Street, like The Bristol Beer Factory, we give them a bar here for the day. It showcases Bristol, you know, for the festival, we’re looking forward to Josh Eagleton putting on his food festival. So we really want to showcase that. And one of the big objectives when we start planning concerts, everybody must have a good time it’s not about rack and stack them, get them in and get them out, we really are so focused on colour, surprise and delight, a bit cliche, but really, it’s about just ensuring those that come up have an incredible time.

Kelly Ballard 25:27
That’s great. I mean, you’ve mentioned the concert visitors, would you say that they are the most, I mean, in terms of all the different sports, and all the types of visitors that you’ve got, who’s most likely to stay over? Who’s the most lucrative of all of your visiting fans?

Mark Kelly 25:47
So the sport is local for now. We would have 22-23,000 for Bristol City, you probably have 2000 away fans. They get the coach, so they don’t tend to stay over, even if they are travelling from Newcastle, they will leave at 5-6 in the morning, then have a few beers then get the coach back. So in this current position of championship football, I would say that there’s little, little impact on the visitor economy for football, it’s not the main driver. You might get some 25- 30 people coming in who might want to stay. Rugby is a different market, you do tend to get more rugby tourists who want to come and they don’t have affiliation with a team. And we often see that, because we’ve got a certain amount of season tickets, but you’ll always get transient, if we look at their addresses they are not all from Bristol, so it’s still not a big driver of tourism. If and when we get to the Premier League, if we have the availability, then that will start to see the economy. We’ll start to see overnight stays because of that. It really is the impact that I could talk about with confidence in events. Because we haven’t got a hotel here. So we partnered with a number of hotels on offering a higher rate. And under concerts and notable events, that’s the visitor economy view, outside of Bristol, they are the two main drivers for now. But we’re looking to change that with the arena and everything else. That’s the next phase.

Kelly Ballard 27:26
Exciting, really exciting times. I’d like to take a moment to talk about your career and how you got to where you are today. Because when I met you probably around 10 years ago, you were the general manager at the Grand Hotel. And, you know, there are loads of people who dream of working in sport don’t they, let’s face it, how did you get to where you are today?

Mark Kelly 27:54
I asked myself that every other day Kelly, in a good way. I think I’ve done a full circle because the other part of my job is now developing a business in East Africa and Botswana, which I can come back to so it’s sort of an addition to what I do here in Bristol. If you go back 20 years, if not longer, when I started my career, Post University. I first did the equivalent of a HND- gosh, probably 2030 years ago in Hotel Management. Always worked in hotels in Dublin, you know, the hotel mark in Ireland was crazy. And all the Americans love it, you get loads of tips. I went through that transition in Dublin and got myself a duty manager job to put myself through university etc. So I’d always sort of enjoyed the hospitality market and the hotel market, or always wanted to be down at managerial cities. You see general managers walk around in clunky shoes thinking ‘I want to be that one day’.

So I took a gap year out and I did a couple of years in Miami, where I worked in a really exclusive resort there. I went in as a management trainee. I jacked up after six months because they were looking for a sailing instructor on the private beach. So I moved my career ambitions to be an activities manager of a sailing camp. So I was a sailing instructor for two years in Miami, which is an incredible experience. But then came back and finished my degree in hotel management. And then I went to work for a company. I was very lucky at the time, it was an Irish company who came into Birmingham in the early 2000s and used Birmingham as a test case because they were like this old, industrial town where they built the International Convention Centre. they didn’t really know how to do it in the first few years. I was involved in this Irish company who bought a big hotel in Birmingham called The Crown Plaza Hotel which was 295 rooms at a time. And I went in as a project manager to essentially rebuild it. And rebrand it, add some rooms, take over some extra space, and essentially double the rate in sort of three years. So that was a big project that I did. And then stayed with that company and we did other developments in Liverpool, Manchester, again, embryonic cities at a time that were going through their own evolution, and they’re all doing incredibly well.

So we did our hotels, and I was involved in that business for all through my 20s, up to my early 30s. And then I did a stint as a general manager, projects kind of dried up because the recession hit in 2008, and I just had a baby at a time. So development stopped. And I was offered a position as a general manager in the Thistle hotel in Birmingham, a very old hotel, 150-160 rooms. And it was sold to me that we go in there, and once the economy recovers, we’re going to spend a lot of money on it, we’re going to make it boutique. So working in the general manager project role, I did that for a year. I hated it. It was just a very old hotel that just wasn’t where my aspirations were. And I spoke to the board of that particular group at a time and I said, ‘Look, I came in to do your project, my skill set isn’t as general management’. They said to me, ‘So we’ve got a beautiful town in Bristol that again, similar, but this will definitely have investment’. I’m not sure they’ve had any investment yet. ‘You’ve got to go with it. Lovely hotel, they want to make it five star, it’s right up your street’. It has 120 rooms. I went down to this grand, beautiful hotel which needed a huge amount of money. So I did that in 2011. So I stayed for 18 months and then it got taken over by somebody else as these hotel companies do.

I then went to another project in Kensington, London. I was told I was going to love these hotel rooms and I was actually really tempted because I can see their vision. But these particular hotels have done very well since by the way, they’ve got really nice hotels to be branded. And then by chance, I met my old chairman of the hotel development company, Birmingham by chance, a guy called Mark Griffiths. He’s from Bristol. He wrote to me not knowing I was a general manager, he was chairman of the anchor society, which is a charity for elderly people. And so he was chairman and he wrote to me asking for money. I gave him a call and said, ‘Look, yeah, we can sponsor something. But let’s have a coffee. It will be great to see you’. We met and he said, ‘I’ve got an idea that you may just like, I’m working with Steve Lansdown, taking on the development of Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol. Big project, you’re probably doing two years, maybe maximum four years because I know you’d like to move on. But you know, we want to create our own conference centre around food and beverage, see if that’s something you’re interested in, and then we’ll go from there’. That was a year before I started.

Over that year, I dipped in and dipped out. And I spoke to a number of state governors, Andrew Billingham, who’s taken on YTL starting around the same time to set up Bristol Sport, spoke to Lansdown on a number of occasions and really understood their vision. And I was nervous to move from a very structured hotel world into a sporting world. My view was always what does the business need? You have to get the balance. You have to have the sentiment of course. But what does the business need? And I found that really frustrating at times, but also quite rewarding when we did open.
My other role over the last 12 months is that I’m very privileged to work for the family office. So working for someone like Steve Lansdown, he of course has other elements to his business. And he is a big conservationist, enthusiastic, and he over a number of years has invested heavily into Botswana. In Africa. We have conservation at the heart of it. So conservation protection of animals. He has a fair number of acres over in Botswana in a Private Reserve, unfenced that he is invested in, but also in each part of this reserve there is a number of lodges on it.

But last year, we made the decision to scale everything and put it under one, a bit like we did with Ashton Gate for Bristol City. So a similar project is to scale all the businesses under one commercial umbrella. It’s not Bristol Sport but it’s the same model, but it’s an Africa. So the last 12 months of building a team in Africa, a sales manager, marketing manager, financial controller, etc, etc to really start to push the commercialism of the reserve, with the end goal of sustainability and conservation in mind.
I’ve been to Africa a few times, at the end of the month. So it’s something new alongside theatre elements, my job which really keeps my mind ticking, and I need that continuous development and work alongside everything else that I do. So I really enjoyed it. That was the very long answer. I’m sorry.

Kelly Ballard 37:49
No, it was fascinating. No, I’m sitting here thinking, I’ve got so many questions. But wow, that’s so good. They’ve got to know you very well. It’s like right, what can we give him next?

Mark Kelly 37:59
I’m fine with it for now.

Kelly Ballard 38:03
Yeah, sounds amazing. Oh, Mark. Fantastic. And such an interesting story. I was interviewing, chatting with Sujith d’Almeida from Urban Tandoor, was he there when you were there?

Mark Kelly 38:18
Yeah. Yeah, he was great, and the Chef, and they had this idea. Again, similar to me, they would say, next year, we’re going to leave and have our own Indian restaurant. And I stayed in touch with those guys. And I love it. I love that you see their social media stuff they’re doing, and they got really good restaurants. You know, it’s really good to just allow you to have fun doing it at the same time. So yeah, it’s good to see.

Kelly Ballard 38:41
I love that. So what advice would you give somebody who wants to work in the industry and wants to get where you are?

Mark Kelly 38:54
It’s a really good question. And I find it difficult when somebody asks me that because you can come across very patronising. My own experience tells me not put too much pressure on. I did it myself in my early 20s to hit that General Manager role. I wanted to be that person, that pinstripe suit and the red tie those days, still capture, I want to branch out everybody, because that was the industry. And then when I got there, I was like this. So I suppose my advice would be yes, have your target and yes, understand, visualise what you want to get. But also don’t be afraid to completely change that as opportunities come, and I’ve been very privileged to be in the right place at the right time. I was very lucky, but if I hadn’t done that, I would have probably gone to London and found my own boot. And my advice really would be to keep that enthusiasm for where you want to be. But yeah, be prepared to alternate that journey and take risks.
I asked somebody years ago for advice and I was actually working on a project for the CEO of Network Rail. And he said, do something every day that scares you, otherwise you just think, what’s the point? And I’ve always told my own kids that. And I think that that’s something also that I keep in the back of my mind, if I can’t do it, find out how to do it. And if I still can’t do it, then I’ll put my hands up, because I don’t like failure, but it can happen. And at least I’ve tried. Yeah, there’s probably a number of answers in there. But everybody’s on different journeys. And I think if you’re pushing yourself and if that’s what you want to do, then the world is your oyster really. There’s so many opportunities out there for good, enthusiastic people. Definitely

Kelly Ballard 41:03
I love that advice. And I also think that doing something every day that scares you is something I live by because I’m now freelance, I have my own business, and it does, doing this podcast was totally scary. I felt like if I didn’t do it, you know, what, life is a journey. If you don’t do it, you get frustrated. That’s the thing. I don’t want to say what if, because I didn’t do it.

Mark Kelly 41:30
I’m the same. There have been jumps during my work in the hotel company in London, I said come on, you don’t want to work in sport. I was like, I don’t want to work in sport. You’re right. But you know, something just pulled me here. And I was able to create something. I was going to open a manual so I was able to create my own manual. And that’s what I really bought off. You know, it’d be very difficult. I can’t work in a process driven environment, it’s just always me. And you know, we are behind a wall here. That’s our vision. It sounds terribly American, but we try to rip up the rulebook, stay safe, of course, it’s the heart of everything we do. But you know, let’s try this festival.. Fan zones for football, they said we can’t do it. Why? Because it attracts violence, does it? You see you’re saying every football fan that comes is going to punch your shirt. That’s nonsense. So we’re always going to push ourselves and push ourselves to benefit.

Kelly Ballard 42:38
I lost you then Mark what? What does it say on the wall?

Mark Kelly 42:42

Kelly Ballard 42:44
Proud to be different. Nice.

Mark Kelly 42:48
For if we’re in a meeting, or we’re having a debate.

Kelly Ballard 42:55
It’s really good. It’s really good. Well, I’ve just got a few questions that I ask the guests when they come on. What do you do when you’re not working?

Mark Kelly 43:10
Do you, again, a very difficult question. I want to talk to people when people ask me that. My job isn’t to break bricks, right? I’m not digging roads. I’m not putting up scaffolding. So my job is my lifestyle. And that’s when I’m hiring people at a senior level, I tell them that. And it’s not that I expect you to be online and be available all the time. But you must get into it. It’s a lifestyle. And I think that’s okay. So a lot of the time my mind is working. I’ve got two great kids. And I spend a lot of time, you know, when I’m not working, with them, or travelling, I like to eat out, stay fit, etc. So, I’m also in the sports industry seven days a week. You know, I could literally be in the stadium every day doing something else. And I try to get the bands during the weekend for rugby, I was here on the weekend. So I’m privileged in that sense that my life will take my lifestyle, my kids’ family fun.

Kelly Ballard 44:17
You have got a lot to do there really, let’s face it, it’s just like one universe of entertainment.

Mark Kelly 44:22
Yeah. Which is great. You know, I’m privileged, and I understand I’m privileged.

Kelly Ballard 44:28
Fantastic. Do you know what you’ve just made me think I’m very much like you. I mean, I do lots of things outside. But I love what I do so much. I live it. And it’s the kind of people who say to me, you’re always working, you never switch off but I love it. Over Christmas, I felt really bad because I was just doing stuff around working. It was kind of like, can you not switch off? And it’s like, well, I don’t want to switch off. This is what I do, because I like it.

Mark Kelly 44:53
I think that’s okay. I think that’s okay. I think if I was doing spreadsheets at two o’clock in the morning for work, that would kill me. But I agree. It has to be cut off of course because otherwise it’s unhealthy. So if what you just said is healthy then that’s okay. But if it was really you’re stressing, pulling your hair out and it was toxic then that wouldn’t be okay. Right? It’s not right. So I think if that’s the case, we’re very lucky that we love what we do.

Kelly Ballard 45:19
So true. So true. Right. Last question. Last two questions. You mentioned you like going out to eat, have you got any favourite places in the West?

Mark Kelly 45:29
I’m a little bit fickle because I’ll change and I’ll pick three. I went to yesterday. I live in Easton-in-Gordano which is near Portishead. I’m a big fan of Aqua. You’ve got one in Portishead, one in Clifton and one on Welshback. I started going there during COVID when you were allowed out but not, you could eat but you couldn’t, you know. And I started to go meet my mate as we all needed to catch up with people.

This will be a long story but I’ll tell you, it just seemed to become the heart of the community. And the owner was there then and he was part of that. He wasn’t doing it from a business point of view, but you go in there and it was like an old-fashioned local pub that was just serving incredible food, but it was more about the people, it was more about the staff that work there. And that just became a habit. I just love the ethos around their business. And they also use local suppliers. And it’s Bristol owned so it’s not a chain, it does good food and what you see in Whiteladies road is the French Brasserie theme because he thinks that Bristol deserves more choice, bad choice. So he has a good vision.

The second one is Cow and Sow and that is a very meat heavy. So often eat too much meat or try and get a balance. But if I do want to steak I’d go there. So reason being similar story. Mark Warburton had a number of pubs in his family all around Bristol. His father passed away a couple years ago and he then decided to open up a couple of new restaurants took a risk just after COVID. So one in Queen Square where Graze used to be and one on Whiteladies Road. Same gig, just a Bristolian guy really trying to make a difference and doing it not just to open a restaurant and make loads of money just to try and bring good quality food using local suppliers.

So the third one, a little bit biased, is a Cafe/coffee shop, but this does food called Burra. So there’s one in the just open one in North Street around the corner from us and there’s one just off Whiteladies road. And that is owned by a couple of our Bristol rugby players. And they have a South African theme to it, they’ll probably kill me for saying that! They’ve hit certain market with great coffee, great service. I feel like it’s if you like that kind of thing. It could be down in LA somewhere or in Sydney, it’s just got a really good feel to it. Again, it’s not a chain, you know, it’s Bristolian. These guys play for us every weekend, and they do a lot of stuff for the community, their wives work there. It’s just got a lovely, lovely feeling that I recommend next time you’re in Bedminster.

When they opened on North Street just months ago, they had people queuing up outside. People have different opinions about bringing in ‘posh’ coffee shops but it’s really not, it’s just a real homely good people doing good stuff for the good of the community and serving good food and drink at the same time.

So those three are my best at the moment.
There are tonnes we’re spoiled in Bristol you know, I could go on about Josh Eggleston the Pony and Trap and all these other guys and even just general cafes and St Nicholas Market where you got the falafels, I could spend a whole podcast on food. You’re very spoiled.

I picked those three because it’s three local people not big chains.

Kelly Ballard 49:52
Brilliant, how’d you spell that?

Mark Kelly 49:59

Kelly Ballard 50:03
Okay, thank you just for anyone listed who’s thinking, because you sold that so well. I’m like, I need to go. I need to Google it. Where is it? Cool. And my last question is, what do you think is your favourite place to visit?

Mark Kelly 50:17
Really good question. I didn’t see that one. I missed out on a list. Again, quite fickle because I’ve been to Africa recently. And I’ll give you three answers. If that’s okay.

Kelly Ballard 50:32
Only in the West. Don’t tell me about Botswana, because you’re making me feel very envious that you’re going there at the end of the month. ,

Mark Kelly 50:41
No, no, no, no. Sure. Sure. So my favourite place in the West, it’s easy, is Croyde. I love the area around it, trying to surf and my kids are smaller. We did a lot of travelling there. It’s accessible. You get there in just an hour. So yeah, within the West, they will be growing because we work in a busy environment. Say we’re anywhere in Bristol, but you know, narrow down the road and the motorway you get into a lovely little part of North Devon. Good pubs, good restaurants, sun shining, it’s glorious. could be anywhere.

Kelly Ballard 51:18
Definitely, definitely. Well, I got to ask you now, where were you gonna say, before I cut you off so rudely.

Mark Kelly 51:24
I was gonna say Botswana. Only because it’s new. And I’d recommend it but it’s expensive to get out there. So I wouldn’t want to sort of push it too much.

One thing I took away, I totally understand this. The people were lovely. And you know, they did their tribal dances. They’re all tribes and they really embrace visitors.

Biggest thing I took away from Botswana, it still blows me away was the night sky. Never seen the sky like it. It’s the African sky and there’s no light pollution. So you can see the stars and galaxies and all that stuff. And never, as a middle aged 45 year old man I’d never seen before. I think that’s quite sad as humans that we don’t get the opportunity to see. And I just, it’s something that stuck with me. And it still sticks with me. And I’m very passionate about it. I recommend anybody that can get somewhere, wherever you can, where we can afford. You can see the actual night sky without any light pollution, it’ll blow your mind.

And there were times where I just sat in a car or in a safari car and I just looked up for 20 minutes, half an hour. It shows you how teeny, teeny, teeny we are but also how lucky we are to be ourselves and how lucky we are to be alive. People are going to go through life without seeing that. So always look up.

Kelly Ballard 52:48
What a lovely way to finish. Thanks, Mark. I really appreciate you sharing all of that today and sharing your inspiration and your favourite places. It’s really good to see you.

Mark Kelly 52:58
I’ve enjoyed it.

Kelly Ballard
Good, thank you.

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