Business recovery stories: The Bishop’s Palace

The Bishop’s Palace in Wells, Somerset, is a medieval palace home to the Bishop of Bath and Wells. It is set in landscaped gardens which, together with parts of the palace and chapel, are open to the public. The team had many events planned in 2020 to mark the site’s 800th anniversary, but had to find other ways to make it a successful year despite the pandemic.

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Their initiatives included:

1. Early planning. When news of the pandemic emerged, working out how this might affect the business in different scenarios meant the team could quickly spring into action when COVID restrictions were introduced.

2. Understanding the site’s strengths and its value to visitors. Customer communications focused on the peace, tranquillity and wellbeing aspects of the site and on the gardens being safe and spacious. To address people’s concerns about requirements to be a certain number of metres apart for social distancing, the usual description of ‘14 acres of landscaped gardens’ was converted to metres (56,500m2) to reassure visitors about the extent of the space available.

3. Engaging customers. The team used their previously planned calendar of marketing content for social media to keep people entertained in lockdown. A video diary series of the resident ‘Gardener in Lockdown’ provided horticulture tips for people in their gardens at home and a 24-hour ‘swan cam’ streamed the famous Wells swans and their cygnets hatching, attracting viewers from around the world.

‘The first bunch [of hidden flowers for people to take home] was found by a lady who took them home to her elderly mother, who had previously been a volunteer at the Palace. She posted a lovely photo and it made our month to see that something we’d tried had worked so well to bring people joy’.

4. Developing the local audience. The team used reopening as an opportunity to introduce an annual return ticket. The new ‘People’s Ticket’ was designed to particularly appeal to and benefit local people, many of whom previously considered the site as being only for tourists and who were the first people who would be permitted to visit when restrictions allowed. The new ticket was a huge success, attracting many Wells residents who had never visited before and who really appreciated being able to do so, especially after the challenges of lockdown.

5. Boosting community engagement.  The team provided two ‘chatty benches’ which were hugely popular with people visiting alone; they also hid bunches of flowers from the community garden around the site for people to find and take home.

6. Adapting the product. A new ticket kiosk was provided in the form of a locally made modified horsebox to avoid crowding in the old ticket purchase area. The whole site was reviewed to identify pinch points and a one way system was introduced using mirrors on ‘blind corners’, making the system easy and safe for visitors and staff to follow. When restrictions permitted, local people started meeting friends in small groups outside on the formal south lawn. In response, the team installed picnic benches there to help maintain the new, more sociable, atmosphere and will be keeping these in future.

7. Being prepared to try new things. Deciding to run a new outdoor Christmas lights event meant making an investment at a very uncertain time. But it was a great success, especially with the strengthened local audience. The event ended a challenging but successful year on a high and will now be a permanent fixture in the Palace’s calendar.

How other heritage attractions adapted: The Charterhouse, London

The Charterhouse, Smithfield, London has provided almshouse accommodation to a resident community of Brothers since 1611. Income generated from visits, tours and venue hire stopped abruptly once the pandemic hit in March 2020, so the charity had to think carefully about how to reach existing and potential audiences virtually and obtain revenue while the site was closed.

Their online communications plan included recording monthly lectures and blogs by the gardener, as well as the Brothers themselves on how they were getting through the challenges of COVID. A virtual carol service attracted 1,200 views, underlining the importance of online audiences.

A renovation project to the Great Chamber was completed during lockdown, so the charity ran an online launch event, attended by VIPs, donors, friends and supporters. They also created a 3D tour and new web content to offer as interactive an experience as possible.