Culture Creative’s Zoe Bottrell explains why success is a mix of planning and trust

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When starting any business planning for the journey ahead is certainly important. However, according to Zoe Bottrell, Managing Director of North East immersive event specialists Culture Creative, knowing when to let go, trust your instincts and seize opportunities as they arrive is a skill that’s just as valuable.

“You’ve got to have a strong self-belief,” says Bottrell. “A few years after Culture Creative started, I remember a number of people saying to me ‘You must have put a lot of thought into the business plan,’ – and actually, that wasn’t strictly true. There was an opportunity in front of me and I just decided to grab it and do something with it.”

It’s a mindset that has served both Bottrell and Culture Creative pretty well over the years. Starting life in 2005, the company harnessed a knowledge and passion for local heritage sites and landscapes and translated them into a company that regularly delivers illuminated trails, engaging sports and festival-based events, artist-inspired installations and more, each of which attracts tens of thousands of visitors year-round.

“You’ve got to have a strong self-belief”

This journey has taken the company from its Northumberland beginnings to partnering with the Sony Music-affiliated promoter Raymond Gubbay Ltd and hosting events all over the UK and beyond. With its roots very much still based in the North East, the same region showcased through our North East Create Growth programme offering sustainability and investment support to regional businesses, Culture Creative is now operating on a global scale.

“I set up Culture Creative essentially with a freelance contract to deliver the Culture Ten project for the Northumberland strategic partnership,” explains Bottrell. “We ended up creating a programme called Northumberland Lights and from there we went on to work for the Forestry Commission on a new outdoor trail called Electric Forest where our work was brought to the attention of Kew Gardens.”

Through this chance encounter and Bottrell’s willingness to embrace a new connection, the trajectory of Culture Creative suddenly changed. “I was asked if I’d go and have a look at Kew Gardens. I thought there was never a cat in hell’s chance we were going to be asked to do something but we were,” she continues. “We were asked to create Christmas at Kew which we still do today. This year we’ll launch our 11th season, which attracts over 300,000 people each year.”

This early example of mixing planning with a dose of blind trust went on to have other unexpected benefits for Culture Creative’s future: “One of the directors at Kew Gardens left to work for Raymond Gubbay Ltd and from there, we rolled out site-specific versions of what we had created at Kew across the UK,” continues Bottrell. “We now run 27 sites across the world, including seven in America, four in Australia, three across Europe and the rest in the UK.”

“It’s all about being confident in the fact that what you’re doing is right – so why not take that through to your business?”

At its core, Culture Creative has taken their knowledge and love of historical sites and found a way to make them more accessible and engaging through art. Cut to 2023 and they employ people all across the world but their speciality subject is something that harks back to their roots in the North East. “From a creative perspective, our leaning is towards heritage and landscape because that’s where we started,” reasons Bottrell. “We’ve always leant towards re-presenting history and heritage in a manner that was different, and aimed at trying to engage audiences and more young people in their local history through lighting up castles and key landmarks to highlight their importance and make them stand out.”

Mix this ethos with an ability to roll with the punches and it’s no wonder Culture Creative is a North-of-tyne success story: “You have to have self-belief because if you don’t, you’ll live your life full of regret,” says Bottrell of the company’s attitude towards risk. “We’ve just delivered two shows at the world’s biggest lighting festival in Sydney. If you’d told me that even five years ago I would’ve laughed you out of court,” she laughs. “Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and jump – which is easier said than done. It’s all about being confident in the fact that what you’re doing is right so why not take that through to your business?”

Through our North East Create Growth programme, regional businesses are provided with the tools, insight and support needed to build a sustainable growth plan and sturdy investment proposition. With the region already brimming with creativity, it’s something designed to solidify Newcastle’s position as a beacon of innovation amid the UK’s thriving creative industries.

“The North East has been a very good place for creatives,” suggests Bottrell. “I would also say it’s quite a gentle place for creatives too; it’s not trying to be Manchester, Liverpool, London or any of those places that are trying to compete with one another. I could’ve moved the business years ago if I’d wanted to but I have a love for the county.” Of course, it helps that the geography of the place feels in line with Culture Creative’s heritage-focused knowledge base: “Let’s face it, we’ve got more castles in Northumberland than most people have in the rest of the country!”

“The North East has been a very good place for creatives”

Looking ahead, Culture Creative’s next challenge is to continue operating on a global scale, bringing their immersive projects to even bigger audiences all over the world. However, even as the company continues to grow, Bottrell is sure it will retain the risk-friendly attitude that has helped them get to where they are today.

“Everybody says to me: ‘So the plan came together?’ but there was never a plan. You just have to keep going,” says Bottrell. “We’ve always operated on what I call the 80-20 rule which is plan 80% and manage 20% because if you plan 100%, as soon as the first card falls out of the pack, the whole deck falls to pieces,” she says. “You have to live life like that.”