Charles (Chas) Bishop

Oration given by the Public Orator, Mr Nigel Siesage, on the award of an honorary degree to Mr Bishop on 13 July 2017

If you seek his monument, look around you. That tribute to Sir Christopher Wren in the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral might equally be applied to Chas Bishop in the planetarium dome of the National Space Centre here in Leicester.

The National Space Centre – a Millennium flagship development - opened in 2001, with Chas Bishop as Chief Executive. He had been appointed two years earlier as Marketing and Operations Director, with the intention that he would take charge when the magnificent building with its eye-catching rocket tower opened.

If there is a graduating student in the hall who has not visited the National Space Centre, then you have not made good use of your time in Leicester; but for those with an excuse, the Centre is primarily a visitor attraction designed to entertain and to inform. It inspires interest in space and helps develop the next generation of scientists and engineers by building on that enthusiasm.

These were the ambitions of the University of Leicester, with its superb reputation for space science, when it had the vision for the Centre; and the University, assisted by the Council and local businessmen, was the driving force behind the bid for Millennium funding.

But universities, whatever their many strengths, are not naturally suited to running visitor attractions. The Space Centre was set up as a charity and needed a Chief Executive with a rare combination of abilities – one who understood the leisure and entertainment industries and was able to achieve financial targets, and who could do so while meeting the educational objectives.

In Chas Bishop, the Trustees found just such a rarity.

Chas studied Natural Environmental Science at Sheffield, having spent many childhood holidays in the Lake District, and initially envisaged a career in conservation. This led to the idea of a master’s course in Leisure Management, but, not wanting to depend on the bank of mum and dad, he obtained sponsorship from a visitor attractions company, on condition that he joined them as a management trainee.

This was a turning point. He went on to business development roles at Madame Tussauds, Alton Towers and then the American Adventure theme park in Derbyshire, establishing himself as a rising star in this competitive industry. The fact that American Adventure, once immensely popular, is no more, is evidence of the commercial fragility of the visitor attraction industry, and the necessity of keeping the experience fresh.

Building the National Space Centre was funded by the National Lottery and donations in cash and in kind, but the Centre has to meet its running costs, mainly from the entry charges. This is no easy feat. All Millennium projects enjoyed a honeymoon period; several have not survived.

Chas admits that there were perilous moments.  Levels of visitor approval have always been high, but that did not automatically translate into income. Chas recalls the occasion when, to manage a tricky cash-flow situation, the senior management had to be paid by cheque rather than directly into their bank accounts.

Those days are long gone, and the success of the centre is reflected in annual visitor numbers of 325,000, including nearly 100,000 in school groups; there is buoyant conference and function trade; the Centre employs some 200 people, and makes a significant contribution to the local economy. For several years, a healthy surplus has made it possible to invest in new content and refurbishment. Indeed, such has been the success that one of Chas’s biggest concerns is ability to cope with demand.

Part of his business philosophy is to recruit great people, so Chas will undoubtedly give the credit for these achievements to his team; but those who have worked with him over the past 17 years know that his leadership and imagination, as well as considerable negotiating skills, have been essential to the success of the Centre.

Chas does not pretend to be a space expert, and there was a moment when he considered withdrawing his application, fearing that he lacked the scientific background. Fortunately an emergency meeting with the then chairman and chief executive put paid to that moment of self-doubt. He has since demonstrated the much more valuable talent of helping the scientists to explain themselves to the rest of us.

A striking success of the Space Centre under Chas’s direction – which would not have been foreseen in 2001 – is the development of two spin-off activities.

The creative division makes the exciting shows in the planetarium, and such is the team’s artistic and technical ability that NSC Creative has become the largest distributor and producer of planetarium shows worldwide.

In parallel, the National Space Academy has taken the Centre’s educational mission, first to schools and colleges in this region, then nationwide and overseas – and finally into space itself, when Tim Peake delivered the Academy’s experiments from the International Space Station. The Academy has improved student attainment in the sciences, helped teachers and boosted the flow of young people into relevant areas of study and work.

There have been many challenges along the way. Even the title – National Space Centre – encountered resistance: from the academic side for not including the word “science”, and from government quarters for including the word “national”. Navigating such pressures with courtesy and determination is typical of Chas. His business success is not built on aggression, but on reason, persuasion, thorough research, his fundamental likability and his sense of humour. But even Chas’s calm demeanour was tested a couple of years ago, when he visited a small but prosperous kingdom in the Gulf to sign a £1million contract, only to be told by its ruler that he was too young to do so. It took a letter from the chairman of the trustees to vouch for Chas’s maturity.

Here, however, there is no question that Chas has a very wise head on his still relatively young shoulders. He is a Chairman of the UK Association of Science and Discovery Centres and of Leicester Shire Promotions, is a Trustee of the Richard III visitor centre, has chaired East Midlands Tourism and influenced the UK Innovation and Growth Strategy for Space. His energy seems to know no bounds, and he is devoting some of that energy to working with the University to establish a space park – a major development for innovation in space research and the UK space industry – close to the National Space Centre.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present Charles St Hill Bishop, that you may confer upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

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