There are probably few people who would say they are working in their dream job, but Ian Wilson, the chief executive at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, is one of those lucky few who are passionate about what they do and can truly say they are living their dream.
Ian vividly remembers visiting the theatre at as a young boy to see a pantomime and after gaining work experience with the Ulster Orchestra when he was in fifth form at Lisnasharragh High School in east Belfast, he knew that he wanted to pursue a career in arts marketing,
“Like anyone else my first encounter with the theatre was when I came to the panto in 1980 when the Opera House staged Cinderella with Frank Carson as Buttons,” explained Ian.
“I came form east Belfast and I remember walking into the Grand Opera House and looking up at the elephant heads and being struck by how beautiful the ceiling was.”
Whilst he was at school, Ian played the trumpet so he was thrilled to secure work experience with the Ulster Orchestra and that relationship continued throughout college, giving Ian a valuable insight into the administration and marketing of an arts company.
“When I left college my first job was with the Ulster Orchestra marketing department,” he continued. “I was very fortunate from 16 to 21 I had experienced a marketing department in a leading arts organisation.”
Ian admits that he didn’t apply himself at school and left at 16 with just two O Levels - one in CDT (Craft, Design and Technology) and the other in music. However at Castlereagh College he found his niche when he completed a BTEC diploma in business and finance.
As well as studying business and finance, Ian also completed an NCTJ in Journalism and gained more experience in the world of marketing at Main Street Marketing in Moira.
He broadened his horizons even further when he started working in radio at BCR 96.7 as deputy news editor and presenter. After a year on the radio Ian moved to become the marketing officer at the Old Museum Arts Centre (OMAC) and then, much to his delight, a job came up as a press officer at the Grand Opera House in 1995.
“I think that is where my love for theatre was cemented,” Ian continued. “It was a very exciting two years. I was given the sponsorship portfolio at the theatre and I really loved that.
‘‘I thought I had the greatest job in showbiz. That allowed me to build relationships with the media and corporate world.”
And it was through those relationships that Ian took the difficult decision to step out on his own and set up his own company.
“In 2003, overnight I decided to go freelance,” he explained. “I had no clients, I had no finance to start the company. I am not career ambitious but there was nowhere else for me to go at the Opera House at the time because I didn’t have the experience to be chief executive then. I decided to start my own PR company and Contact PR Ltd was born.”
Ian split his time between Belfast and London and over the years he looked after tours for a number of high profile clients, including Elaine Paige and Susan Boyle, as well as the smash hit musical ‘Barnum’ starring Brian Connelly.
In 2004 Ian began consulting for QDOS Entertainment, who are the largest producers of pantomimes in the world.
“I was asked to look after the marketing of 24 pantomimes across the UK,” explained Ian. “The following year 1.5 million people saw a QDOS show at Christmas.”
In partnership with QDOS, Ian set up HQ Theatres in 2006 and the company began operating theatres and venues, ranging from 200 seat arts centres to 2,500 thousand seat concert halls. Ian worked with HQ Theatres for 10 years, building up experience in operating theatres, which proved to be invaluable when last year the Grand Opera House in Belfast started looking for a new chief executive.
“This was always a job I had in my mind but it was in the background,” said Ian. “With all of the experience I had gained I thought I would like to go home and run the Grand Opera House. I was appointed in August 2016 and started work in January. The time has flown by.”