An Open Letter to the National Trust

Is this some kind of new and clever promotion? Pay 12 months for six months access?

Dear Sirs

I am contacting you regarding my lapsed membership of your august organisation, following receipt of my third and final renewal letter in the post today.

I confess to not being a lifetime member, nor spending every leisure hour seeking out NT properties, but I do live in a part of the country that is almost wholly owned by yourselves, so splashed out and bought family membership last year. We made good use of it, to wring out all the value an annual membership offers and was so impressed, I wrote a blog last year following a visit to your Ascott property near Leighton Buzzard. 

This unusual survivor is one of the oldest windmills in Britain. Pitstone windmill ground flour for the village for almost three hundred years until a freak storm in the early 1900s left it damaged beyond repair, until the marvellous volunteers stepped in.

This unusual survivor is one of the oldest windmills in Britain. Pitstone windmill ground flour for surrounding villages for almost three hundred years until a freak storm in the early 1900s left it damaged beyond repair, until the marvellous volunteers stepped in.

You have reminded me in your letter that without my support, you cannot continue to protect 700 miles of glorious coastline, 200 inspirational gardens, 300 historic properties and 612,000 acres of precious countryside….that’s quite a burden of guilt to put on a pair of shoulders!

And the question is of course; what will I do on these barmy summer days when I no longer have access to 200 parks? However will I spend a rainy weekend when I’m no longer able to amble at leisure through galleries and libraries? How will I sleep at night knowing I am no longer doing something special and worthwhile and being an all-round good egg by helping to protect so many historic treasures for generations to come?

And what of your volunteers, will they miss me? I’ll sure miss them.

I’m getting through it somehow, but feel that as one of 3.7 million members, that your automated renewal letters and quaint ways of getting in touch are quite possibly limiting your numbers.  You are clearly not short of communications staff who roll out impressive marketing campaigns, both on and off-line and are at home using persuasive language to encourage repeat purchase. But as is so often the case, the communications don’t chime with the gritty customer reality of membership renewal.

I haven’t told you what my problem is; my membership lapsed in February 2014 and for various reasons, I have not renewed it. This last letter made me chuckle as it must have slipped through the ‘is this lapsed customer going to laugh at us?’ department, because the expectation is that I will happily renew my membership back-dated to February 2014. You even thoughtfully included a Free post Plus envelope for my cheque. Why would I pay for 6 months for the price of 12? Is this a new type of clever promotion?

You do have options for your customers to get in touch:

  • I could have entered into correspondence with you asking for the membership renewal date to be changed, but I don’t know where the nearest post box is nor what a stamp costs anymore.
  • I don’t do telephones much these days either, so went onto your website to see what options you gave me there….there was only one option: back-dated renewal.
  • Maybe I missed it, but why no membership@nationaltrust.org.uk?
  • No response on @nationaltrust and @southeastNT either.

I can’t be the only lapsed member? Does everyone just pay up regardless of how many months they actually have left to save our national treasures? Is this what you rely on?

Please don’t take your members for granted, by giving potential members lots of easy options and the rest of us don’t even deserve an email address.

Regretfully yours

Mary Tebje

Posted in Buckinghamshire, Chilterns, Local Distinctiveness, Marketing Communications, National Trust, Retail, Rural Tourism, Short breaks, Social Media, Tourism, Travel and Leisure, Twitter, UK, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A road trip in the Free State and neighbouring Lesotho

This short travelogue follows the discovery of a set of images taken during a trip a relative took whilst on holiday in South Africa in 1957. His handwriting was even worse than mine, so I am unfortunately not able to identify specific locations or people. He traveled from Germany by boat, calling in at Cape Town, then disembarked at Durban and travelled by car into the interior. I wish he had kept a diary of this trip to give some insight into his and the locals’ interaction as I don’t expect many spoke German!

Cape Town Harbour; 1957

Cape Town Harbour; 1957

He was a landscape artist and sought inspiration from new vistas, worlds away from a continent re-building after the devastation of the Second World War.

This is a flavour of what he saw:

Wash day; Free State dorpie, South Africa

Wash day; Free State dorpie, South Africa

A butcher at work; Lesotho

A butcher at work; Lesotho

Nannies with their charges; Free State dorp, South Africa

Nannies with their charges; Free State dorp, South Africa

Basutho family group; Lesotho

Basutho family group; Lesotho

This timeless rural scene re-acted countless times in countless locations around the world; Free State, South Africa

This timeless rural scene re-enacted countless times over in countless locations around the world; Free State, South Africa

Hotel Staff; Free State 1957

Hotel Staff; Free State 1957

A Free State dorp, South Africa

A Free State dorp, South Africa

Basutho school children in their outdoor classroom; Lesotho

Basutho school children in their outdoor classroom; Lesotho

Basutho family group; Lesotho

Basutho family group; Lesotho

Wigmakers; Free State, South Africa

Weavers; Free State dorpie, South Africa

Posted in South Africa, Tourism, Travel and Leisure, Twitter, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Repair and Refurbish and They Will Come

Who knew that we owe so much of our complex digital lives to the war-time activities of code-breakers toiling in secret during the Second World War at Bletchley Park?

In an unexpected location, in the middle of a nondescript town in Buckinghamshire, north west of London, sits a visitor attraction that is bound to keep the heritage hordes happy…somewhere to while away an afternoon immersing yourself in long-forgotten stories and past selfless lives.

Janet and John

Janet and John

I have often commented on the insatiable appetite for heritage and history and all that falls in between. The market is well served with providers who are only too keen to help you part with your cash to support their heritage cause. As with many other heritage sites, the balance to be struck between access and paying those bills can’t be easy, so finding your niche is important. Bletchley Park, once home to the code-breakers, has a long, glorious and complex history, to which I cannot do justice here, but suffice to say that finally, the location of such mind-boggling war-time work, so much of it top secret, can now bask in the visitor attraction and heritage limelight. Bletchley Park is fortunate in having found an excellent niche and relevance with ICT and the security headaches it brings to all of us today; with our many electronic devices, computers, encrypted passwords and daily dodging of online fraudsters who do their very best to break our personal codes.

Perhaps the Trustees would think it an overblown description of this as a Cinderella attraction following its transformation since it first opened in 1994 and successful £8 million Heritage Lottery funding that has enabled at least some of the site to be developed – much more to follow in the future and an annual visitor forecast of 250,000.

It was hard to tell from where the visitors originate, as most of us where plugged into our complimentary headsets (with impressive content) that cocooned us in a 1940’s world, with added comical gestures and expressions of our own. Some thoughtful displays and some not so, but we did enjoy the puzzles, code crackers and how to even work an Enigma machine.

Where would the heritage sector be without volunteers? In fact, where would the UK be without volunteers? There were a number of them dotted about, ready to explain the complex machinery and their impact, and to the chap who, with wit and confidence made the inner-workings of a Bombe Machine seem so obvious to the dull-witted such as myself, your contribution was inspirational!

There has been much written and broadcast of the life of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who for a time led Hut 8, the section responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. He devised a number of techniques for breaking German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish bombe method, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine. Winston Churchill said that Turing made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany. Turing’s pivotal role in cracking intercepted coded messages enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in several crucial battles. He was prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952 however, when such acts were still criminalised in the UK, that was to have tragic consequences.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

The further we got into the experience though, you could tell where the funding had stopped. The knackered toilets really felt like a 1940’s immersion experience (no pun intended), and it couldn’t have included customer training for the young staff who were working (and some relaxing) in the caff, where ‘spot something fresh, anything fresh to eat’ become pointless. Call me bias, but I always hold the Merlin Entertainments Group as a shining example of how staff need to deal with and interact with customers, they are fabulous. No matter what job is being done, they are always ‘in the moment.’

Chess on the lawn was how we finished the visit, a fitting way to get our brains working, but I suspect nothing like the 9,000 Bletchley workers who at the peak of the war, toiled night and day on the 10,000 codes messages that flooded in from every theatre of war.

Entrance to the museum costs £15 (and is valid for one year), for adults and is free for children under 12. For further information: Bletchley Park

Posted in Buckinghamshire, Chilterns, Local Distinctiveness, Niche marketing, Retail, Rural Tourism, Short breaks, Tourism, Travel and Leisure, UK, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Have we just seen the real 2012 Olympic Legacy in Yorkshire?

The £8.7bn 2012 Olympics were a huge success, of that there is little doubt. But what of the Legacy? Inbound tourism and in particular London, are enjoying increased visitor numbers and spend, but what of the regions, what are they doing? Well, to the people of Yorkshire (sorry Cambridge and Essex), I salute you! You have shown us how Legacy should be done.

The government wants us to be fitter and healthier and have spent a lot of money telling us so – a sporting Legacy of which so much has been written in the years leading up to the 2012 Olympics, with very noble athletic aims set out including;

“The Department for Culture, Media and Sport leading on getting more people active through sport, while Sport England is working to get one million more adults regularly taking part in sport. The Department of Health is leading on delivering the second half of the two million target by co-ordinating health-related activities.”

How is this being achieved? A sporting picture springs to mind of civil servants wearing unfashionable sporting attire, clipboards in one hand and a huge stick in the other, prodding the locals who laze, oblivious in the sunshine, ears closed to the public services-type health messages and unhelpful prodding.

Cue even more column inches since, filled with claims, rhetoric and counter-claims about whose budgets has been slashed or increased, whether or not school children are doing more or less sport, and I am really none the wiser on whether or not we are fitter and healthier, or fatter and lazier.

Then in July 2014, it all changed. Following an unforgettable weekend of international sport hosted here in the UK, including Formula One and Wimbledon, was dominated by the Tour De France Grand Départ in Yorkshire. The broadcasting and media coverage was simply staggering, unbelievable in fact. Remarkable too, given the habit of the British press of reporting on the build-up of all major sporting events by finding the smallest and unlikeliest events that will result in an apocalypse, for sure. The only story I read concerned some keen locals in Masham who had jeopardised the street lighting by hanging their own hand-knitted jersey-bunting from the poles and were told to remove them as they could cause a woollen hazard. Well, if this was the only non-disaster disaster story, then we were already in a good space.

Would the scenes of an estimated two million people squeezed along the narrow Le Tour route have happened without the 2012 Olympics? Would so much effort have gone into the build-up for what would be essentially a brief glimpse of the riders themselves? Would the tireless effort, creativity and ‘we don’t need officialdom’ mindset to tell us how to celebrate sport, have happened?

Even the marketing obstacles of not being able to use the official logo didn’t get in the way (remember all those silly stories about the Olympic sausage police?), well, who here had the time or energy to order the locals to un-dye their yellow and green sheep, remove the art from the roads, exterior walls and gardens, yellow bicycles from the hedges and fields? Therein lies the lesson; don’t even try and control how your audience is going to get involved, get behind their great unbridled enthusiasm which is to be commended and celebrated. Local pride, business confidence and most of all, a sense of place were all on show. You can’t buy this. The locals of course will have another view, I wasn’t there, I am merely looking in, comments are always welcome.

Friends and colleagues were packing their tents and bikes to head off to Yorkshire, unfazed that this would include for one, a 20-mile round trip on a dusty bike to reach their Le Tour vantage point. He was so excited, his belly wobbled as he told me of his plans!

I would like to suggest that we have seen the real 2012 Legacy, a legacy of new-found confidence, confidence that we can successfully host these international events and with the whole-hearted backing of the locals. The people of Yorkshire (sorry Cambridge and Essex), I salute you! You have shown us that it can be done.

To the instigator of this piece who says she is heading to Yorkshire for her next holiday with the words “it looks like a beautiful place, somewhere I have to visit’, I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Then followed a long conversation about how a client destination could even begin to pull off such a thing….but that’s another blog for another day.

Posted in Cycling, Local Distinctiveness, Rural Tourism, Short breaks, Tourism, Travel and Leisure, UK | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inspired Chilterns’ Landscapes at National Trust Cliveden

“The Rose Garden was described by designer Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe as a vegetable form, like a cabbage, with each bed intended to envelop the visitor and draw them deeper into the garden,” explained Cliveden head gardener Andrew Mudge.

Much like the entire National Trust estate at Cliveden, drawing you in up the drive as you quickly begin to get a feeling for the scale and complex textures of this beautifully landscaped garden. Cliveden means “valley among cliffs” and refers to the dene (valley) which cuts through part of the estate just east of the house. Perched on an impressive 130 feet above the river Thames, it has always been intended as a statement house for the succession of owners and high-class tenants who have the good fortune to live there in such idyllic Chilterns’ surroundings, with wonderful views south across the river since the first house was built in 1666.

I was there to see the restored Rose Garden, with it’s 900 blooms showing off their palette of soft sunrise pinks, bold oranges to yellows and deep sunset reds, inspired in part by the abstract painter Paul Klee. It’s a friendly space, with children kicking off their shoes to run on the wonderfully soft lawn and benches to pause and enjoy the spectacle.

A Wounded Amazon, Resting Satyr and Venus marble statutes watch over the assorted blooms, and help to give the garden a sense-of-place as they are all closely associated with the Astor family. This garden was, after all specially created for Lord Astor as a special place to relax after a busy day in the office.

A resting Satyr leans on a stump amidst the 9,000 blooms in the restored Rose Garden at Cliveden

A resting Satyr leans on a stump amidst the 900 blooms in the restored Rose Garden at Cliveden

What could be more English than a rose garden in bloom on a warm summers day? Why a cup of rose tea or rose-infused lemonade, accompanied by lashings of Cliveden rose cake – a real treat.

Dotted around the formal gardens are a number of mulberry trees that bare plenty of fruit, rarely seen in the shops, which is probably why visitors like to tuck in. The staff are too polite to comment on their red-stained hands! The mulberry has royal associations dating back to Tudor times and has a spreading habit and becomes crooked and gnarled with time, making an organic architectural feature.

My name if Morus Nigra 'black mulberry' and I'm very old. Please be gentle.

My name is Morus Nigra ‘black mulberry’ and I’m very old. Please be gentle.

Cliveden has enjoyed significant growth in recent years following a number of what I can only describe as intriguing non-National Trust initiatives – installing a giant stainless steel slide which is more water park than historic property, being the most impressive. The visitors love it, including the oldest who at 92-years of age, is inspiration for anyone feeling they are perhaps showing their age. A bit like the South Terrace, at over 350 years old, which is why the slide is there; to raise awareness and funds to complete a complex and fascinating conservation project that doesn’t only include the fabric of the building, but rare species of bats, snails, lichen and hotel guests. Cliveden House has always been dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, power and politics, so it’s no surprise it has been a successful luxury hotel since 1985. Hotel guests have free-rein of the house, visitors to the gardens are able to take a peek inside on the twice weekly tours.

The views across the Parterre – a formal garden laid out on a level surface – are breath-taking. I mean that quite literally. The south-east of England is such a busy place, stuffed full of people, cars, planes and trains – noise. To just stand somewhere that offers space and wide vista’s in this environment is really special.

What a fabulous place this is. Not trussed up like a Victorian lady, but somewhere that is bustling with activity and promise – from the newly restored Rose Garden to the being restored South Terrace. And I haven’t even explored the Thames Riverside yet. That’s for next time.

Glorious Gazania's make a statement in the Long Garden

Glorious Gazania’s make a statement in the Long Garden

For further information on National Trust Cliveden opening times, events and tours: For ideas and inspiration on what to explore in the Naturally Outstanding Chilterns: 

Posted in Buckinghamshire, Chilterns, Cliveden, Local Distinctiveness, London, National Trust, Retail, River Thames, Rural Tourism, Short breaks, Tourism, Travel and Leisure, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A rallying cry from London’s Mayor: Let’s put the grout back into Britain!

It’s not very often the men in suits upstage a Roman antiquity.

I was invited to the special opening of “Predators and Prey: A Roman mosaic from Lod, Isreal” at the splendid Rothschild mansion of Waddesdon Manor in leafy Buckinghamshire, a short train journey north west of London.

Waddesdon Manor

The reason we were there was kept under wraps until the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson arrived, which gave me the opportunity to enjoy a cup of coffee in the stables courtyard and gossip with colleagues.

For those of you not familiar with the Buckinghamshire phenomena that are the Rothschilds, some context. Hailing from Germany, the Rothschilds became one of the richest and most powerful European families of the 19th century – they acted as bankers to monarchs and governments, built palaces and castles and collected fine and decorative art. As one does. The English side of the family built their country houses in the Vale of Aylesbury – perfect for visiting each other and hunting. And why not. Nathan, founder of N.M. Rothschild in London, first rented the 17th century house at Tring in 1833 and whose son found time to establish one of the best collections of stuffed animals England has ever seen – now the fabulous Natural History Museum Tring that boasts amongst its treasures, Mexican dancer fleas in Gallery 3. Over the next few decades, the houses of Nathan’s widow and sons were constructed or bought in and around Aylesbury. By the end of the 19th century, there were seven houses in the Vale of Aylesbury: Aston Clinton, Tring, Ascott and Eythrope and the palatial Mentmore Towers, Halton and Waddesdon. Each was constructed in a different architectural style, drawing on influences from the Elizabethan era, the 17th century, and the fashion for cottage-style houses in the late 19th century.

Predators and Prey: A Roman Mosaic from Lod, Israel

Great supporters of archaeology with connections in the Near East, it seemed a logical step to offer to display the splendid series of Roman mosaic floors that were accidentally discovered during local road works in Lod, Israel (Lydda in the Ancient World). They were reburied after some conservation until final excavation in 2009 by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Found in the remains of what was probably a large villa, the main mosaic panel measures roughly eight metres in length and is in three sections. It demonstrates fine workmanship, with beautiful border designs and images of exotic wild animals from across the Roman Empire including; lions, elephants and giraffes, as well as various local fish in an elaborate Fish and Ships scene. Dated to around 300 AD, it is enigmatic not only because it juxtaposes animal hunting scenes with a marine scene, but also because no human figures or deities are displayed.

The “greatest speaker in the world” is how Boris Johnson was introduced and very quickly established his credentials with a series of insights into why the Major of London was on a day-release in the depths of leafy buckinghamshire. It must have made a change from opening skyscrapers and low-cost housing developments in east London. Having a stab to, at who the mysterious and wealthy owner of the villa could be – Hedgeious Fundis or possibly Oligaricious Maximus brought 2000 years of history straight into the present. It’s not often a man in a suit (who seem to plague our industry and turn up at the opening of an envelope), upstages the star of the show with a broad knowledge and worldy wit that is unusual for a politician and ended his short presentation with the rallying cry “Let’s put the grout back into Britain!”.  Get it?

This caused a colleague to remark: “Just image Prince Charles on the throne and Boris Johnson at no.10…..”  that in itself would make a marvellous blog don’t you think?

The Mayor of London Boris Johnson and his Ermine Street Roman Guard

Stranger things have happened!

A slightly surreal, but very enjoyable morning at the wonderful Waddesdon Manor. Now my third or fourth visit, they have a really good programme that supports contemporary artists that sits so comfortably in the fine surroundings and would recommend a visit and if you go this summer, you will be able to enjoy the Predators and Prey Roman Mosaic.

For more information on what’s to see and do in the local area VisitChilterns.co.uk will inspire your visit plans.

Posted in Local Distinctiveness, London, National Trust, Rural Tourism, Short breaks, Tourism, Travel and Leisure, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Isn’t it time small #tourism businesses looked beyond the DMO membership fee?

It’s time to look beyond the membership fee for new opportunities in the travel and leisure industry. It’s time for tourism businesses to really engage and start promoting their destination first, their product second.

Why then, should DMO’s now support the businesses who supply into their destination offer?

We are all so inter-connected these days aren’t we? Sharing content with consumers the world over, yet still so isolated in the way we work and jostle for position in our respective business communities. Fear? Suspicion? Too focused on the product alone?

At a social media workshop I was running recently, I was struck by a comment from a well-established visitor attraction who said that whilst it’s fantastic to have all this free stuff to reach and share content with (potential) customers, who has the time or the inclination to be ‘on’ 24 hours a day?

This comment has stuck with me because it’s true! It’s an oft-quoted statistic that at least 80% of all tourism and hospitality suppliers are small or medium-sized enterprises (SME’s), who are in my view, the nuts and bolts of the leisure and hospitality industry. These business owners are also the business managers with small teams who are often already spread thinly across their organisation. Too many lack the time and the technological sophistication to take advantage of what can seem to be an inexhaustible list of wonderful, easy-to-use new distribution channels.

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Position Vacant

They are delivering on the destination promise after all and are the ideal channel from which to harness destination ambassadors. And it seems to me that as DMO’s no longer have the control they once had over the brand, message and advocacy, there must now be capacity surely?

I smell a couple of opportunities; how can destinations support their SME’s and how can business affectively access just a few of social media outlets with confidence?

Why should DMO’s support the businesses who supply into their destination pool? They deliver the experience, can harness word of mouth and repeat visits, or they can scupper the collective efforts and deter future visits. That’s why.

The role of the DMO in the customer purchase journey is evolving so fast, as the number of online channels increases, OTA’s offers become more sophisticated and the rise and rise of online review sites shows no sign of slowing down – all around us the offers proliferate and yet we don’t know where it’s going to end up. How much traction do DMO’s have against what the private sector now offers? Unless you want to be left behind, now is as good a time as any to be looking to ways of staying relevant. And for those of you in destinations where public money is plentiful, I wouldn’t be too complacent as social needs will always win through in the end, and no matter what you say – tourism is not a social need!

That’s not to let the businesses themselves off the hook either. Marketing budgets are never going to be big, resources are never enough to deploy on training and development, there just isn’t the capacity. For a business to survive and thrive however, internal systems must be evolving at least in line with external changes and environmental developments. And top of that list must be evolution of online communication. It’s where your customers are, socialising, sharing, recommending and planning their next night out on the town, shopping weekend, spa break, walking holiday with friends or a visit to a relatives wedding in another country.

Is it possible for a DMO to communicate with the world from their desk? Hell yes! From a virtual office I manage all the communications for Visit Chilterns, a private tourism company who promote tourism in and to the Chilterns in southern England. We’re a small business and a DMO wrapped up in one. The future?

As it’s always about time and money, I can’t believe SME’s have never spent any on marketing, PR or advertising, so it’s a question of reviewing and culling some existing channels in favour of shiny new social media and suggest starting with these;

1. The pay-off in terms of time from budget-draining events such as trade shows no longer have the hold over the market they once did. Do you have to be there to engage new or existing customers, or is there another way?

2. If I had a pound for every advertisement placed because the cost was under the magic £300 threshold….but unless you know your customers spend money with your regularly because they have seen your advert, stop!

3. If you’ve never liked the way your destination has been promoted, you can take matters into your own social media hands and say what you feel is important. You can now be in control of your own messages and those of the destination. What’s to stop you?

4. How do you communicate with your existing customers? And I don’t mean asking them to ‘like your Facebook page’?

I believe it’s all within your grasp, and if you work with DMO’s or partner with a regional tourism organisation, the conversation has to move on beyond the membership fee and marketing opportunities doesn’t it? Turn the tables and be asking questions about how relevant your official DMO’s role really is.

Posted in DMO's, Marketing Communications, Retail, Rural Tourism, Short breaks, Tourism, Trade Shows, Travel and Leisure, Twitter, UK, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment