While you were looking elsewhere over the weekend, a brand newvisitor attraction opened in North Greenwich. At the cablecar. But it isn't the cablecar. It's an exhibition that aims to "provide an insight into the operations and modern achievements of commercial air travel". It's the Emirates Aviation Experience. Sheesh.
It opened officially on Friday, too late in the day for the Evening Standard to notice. Boris came along as you'd expect, along with Tim the President of the airline, and they unveiled a plaque and said nice things. Boris said "The Emirates Aviation Experience is a veritable Aladdin's cave of technological wizardry and gizmos that will give people of all ages a real insight into the wonders of flying." Tim said "We are always looking for ways to show our commitment to London and we hope that this innovative new facility goes some way in demonstrating just how dedicated we are to this captivating city." They said other commercial buzzword stuff too, but that should be enough to be going on with.
You'll find the 'attraction' on the south side of the cablecar terminal at North Greenwich. It's underneath the space where the cabins are stored when not in use. The unit had been pencilled as retail, but thus far nobody had taken up the option, or maybe it was always meant to be used by the parent airline. It's not a huge space - they're describing it as "almost 300 square metres" - and quite a bit of that is the cafe and shop. It's also not somewhere you'd walk past unless you were getting on the cablecar, but that's OK, because tourist passengers are the target audience. Who wouldn't fancy an aviation-themed attraction with jumbo flight simulators to try? That's the idea anyway.
The Aviation Experience opened to the public at 8am on Saturday. No fanfares, just a pair of doors flung open with a roped-off area outside. Perhaps they were expecting queues. If that's the case, I suspect they're optimists. A big red sign announces that this is the Aviation Experience, but there's nothing (as yet) to indicate times or prices. Ah yes, prices. I was a bit surprised there was an entrance fee when I went to chat to the nice ladies in the kiosk outside. Never mind that the entire contents are essentially a full-on advertisement for Emirates, gaining access costs £3. And a spin in the flight simulator costs £45. Stuff that, I thought.
I did visit the cafe, which seems a pleasant enough eaterie and was being well used on Saturday. I do wonder how long the man in a truck selling coffees in front of the cablecar will survive, but at least he has the advantage of being the first thing punters see, even if there is better cake beyond. And I did visit the gift shop, which is peculiar because everything in it is Emirates-branded. There are mugs and baseball caps and keyrings and kiddie rucksacks and I ♥ Emirates teddies. There are gender-stereotypical dolls of pilots and stewardesses. There are £100 model planes, which I assume are there to flog to visitors who think £45 for a flight simulator experience is small change. And there's absolutely nothing related to either TfL or the cablecar, because this isn't their attraction.
Here's what the £3 option gets you. There's a half-size model of a Rolls Royce engine made out of Lego bricks. There's a virtual wind tunnel, which is like a wind tunnel but with a screen instead of wind. There's a video game where you try to prepare an aircraft for takeoff, and a video wall full of facts about an A380. There's a small hologram of a plane, and a 'surround cinema' where you watch a whizzy film about baggage handling at Dubai airport. There are some economy seats where you sit and watch films about what happens during an Emirates flight on a seatback display. You won't see the flightsimulators upstairs unless you stump up £42 extra. But there is an A380 cockpit where you can "share your picture via email or social media". Sorry, did I not mention the social media bit before?
Tap to send an automatic check-in to Facebook on entry to the exhibit
Share informative videos on the science of flight
Send a video of your flight simulator experience to Facebook and email
Snap a photo of yourself as the pilot in the A380 cockpit
Or, in other words, your microchipped wristband allows you to spam your Facebook timeline with Emirates-related promotional material. That second bullet's especially devious - they call it 'learning', I call it 'advertising'. Essentially you're paying £3 to be subtly indoctrinated in the hope that your enthusiasm might lure in others. They should be paying us to go inside, not the other way round.
But that's the way things are going in the cablecar part of town at the moment. Beside the northern terminal in the Royal Docks is TheCrystal, which is a sustainability exhibition designed and paid for by Siemens. Head inside the Millennium Dome and the only free things to visit are pavilions set up by big name companies. Come and play in our TV studio, say Sky. Let's show you some of our gadgets, say Sony. Ask us about phones, say O2. Nissan are the most shameless, with the screen above their 'Innovation Station' featuring a bloke beckoning with his finger, hoping you'll come in and look at their car. And if you're bored enough, inquisitive enough or gullible enough, you will.
I call it brandtertainment. An attraction funded by a major company, opened with the sole aim of boosting brand awareness and enhancing customer perception. Government and local councils have withdrawn from educative experiences and visitor attractions because these days they have to spend their money elsewhere. Instead companies are being let loose to fill the gap and fill our leisure time with the messages they'd like us to hear. Boris even has plans for a 'globalbrandscentre' just across the dock on the Millennium Mills site. It'll feature two dozen 'brand pavilions', each kitted out by leading companies like Burberry or Nike in the hope of influencing online shopping sales. There won't be shops as such, just spaces where you can try out the products and gadgets these big brands have to sell, then later order them to turn up at home. If you're anything smaller than a multinational company, bad luck, you're about to be squeezed out of retail.
I fear that brandtertainment is the future. It requires no outlay of public money, just a nod from the planners and a friendly word from the Mayor on opening day. Why fund a museum when our friends in big business can build a box and fill it with their choice of messages on interactive screens? I'm not saying that marketing is bad, just that full-on marketing appears to be the way that Boris's London is going - all corporate froth and no substance. And North Greenwich and the Royal Docks are leading the way, increasingly full of empty experiences for bored families with nothing more constructive to do. At least the cablecar has a nice view. But the aviation advert nextdoor, I'd give that a miss.