Grand Opera House, Belfast. Photo: Harrison Photography
Chief Executive of the Grand Opera House Belfast, Ian Wilson, talks to us about his career to date and shares his life lessons.
Tell us about your early life. What were your goals and dreams?
Like many people in Northern Ireland my first introduction to live theatre was a visit to the Grand Opera House’s pantomime; following a tradition of generations of children as the Theatre opened on 23 December 1895 with a panto!
During high school I attended some theatre productions but my interest in the arts was cemented when I undertook work experience with the world-class Ulster Orchestra. As a trumpet player in those days, I already had an interest in music. Throughout my post-high school studies I worked in the Orchestra’s marketing, ticket sales and front of house departments. It was a great way to combine my interest in the arts with my career aspirations of working in the disciplines of marketing and public relations.
Talk us through your career journey to date.
After completing several business studies courses and a journalism course I worked as part-time Marketing Officer for the Old Museum Arts Centre in Belfast, and spent the rest of my time as a journalist and news editor/news reader for a local radio station. Northern Ireland was transforming after three decades of The Troubles, so it was an exciting and memorable time to be working in journalism.
In 1995 I was appointed Press Officer for the Grand Opera House, a beautiful and stunning Frank Matcham Theatre - there’s no doubt he bestowed on the people of Belfast one of his finest creations. Six years later I was appointed as the Theatre’s first Head of Marketing & Communications. This wide-ranging role was instrumental in the Grand Opera House’s outstanding growth and prominence within the performing arts in the UK and Ireland.
In 2003 I left the Grand Opera House and created ContactPR Limited, a company I operated as the vehicle for my own expanding role in theatre and entertainment marketing. Concurrently with running the company - which saw me work on a wide range of marketing campaigns for major UK touring musicals, and for a wide range of concerts, events and celebrities - I was Marketing Director for Qdos Entertainment, the world’s largest pantomime producer, and Board Member of HQ Theatres & Hospitality (HQT&H), the UK’s second-largest theatre operator. My initial interest in live theatre had turned full circle as I marketed 25 pantomimes across the country, including last year’s Olivier-nominated production of Cinderella at the London Palladium, directed by Michael Harrison, one of the leading lights in UK theatre and someone I am very proud to call a friend.
I returned home to Northern Ireland delighted to take up the role of Chief Executive of the Grand Opera House in January of this year.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
I am extremely proud to be the Chief Executive of the Grand Opera House but one of the proudest moments of my career was during the first time I worked at the Theatre. In 1998, the then Theatre Director (and current Chairman of HQT&H), Derek Nicholls, who remains a mentor and advisor, brought The Royal Ballet to Belfast for the first time. At the age of 27 I was given the responsibility of managing all aspects of this high-profile visit by dancers and orchestra numbering nearly 200 which gave me unrivalled experience of leading and delivering a large-scale, complex but thrilling project: so successful, in fact, that the company returned two years later
What are you working on at the moment?
For the past two years the Grand Opera House Trust has been making plans for a significant restoration of the Theatre, which was last restored in 1980 when it was saved from demolition. I have taken on overall direction of the restoration which is keeping me and my colleagues busy as we add and refine the detail of the project.
- Castlereagh College, Belfast. First Diploma in Business & Finance (1987-88)
- Castlereagh College, Belfast. National Diploma in Business & Finance (1988-89)
- Belfast Institute. Higher National Diploma in Business & Finance (1989-90)
- Belfast Institute. National Council for the Training of Journalists Diploma (1990-91)
- Main Street Marketing, Hillsborough. Account Manager (1992-94)
- Old Museum Arts Centre, Belfast. Marketing Officer (1994-95)
- Grand Opera House Belfast, Various marketing roles (1995-03)
- ContactPR Ltd, Director/Owner (2003-16)
- Qdos Entertainment, Marketing Director (2003-16)
- HQ Theatres & Hospitality, Marketing Director (2006-16)
- Grand Opera House, Belfast. Chief Executive (2017- present)
- Understand the ticket sales patterns in detail. Never fail to study them each morning.
- People thrive on being noticed and appreciated. That's the basis for encouraging improvement.
- Don't expect people to know what you want, unless you take the trouble to share and explain.
- Never be boring!
Ian Wilson, Chief Executive, Grand Opera House Belfast. Photo: Aaron McCracken/Harrisons