Business recovery stories: The National Memorial Arboretum

The National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire, is the nation’s year-round centre of remembrance. Over 300,000 visitors come to the 150-acre site every year to spend time among the 400 or so memorials and remember those who have lost their lives through service and sacrifice, to pay their respects, for educational purposes or to enjoy the countryside. 

Recognising the special significance of the Arboretum, the team were highly innovative in their approach to keeping it open to as many people as possible. These innovations included:

1. Looking after staff and volunteers. The initial priority when it became clear that the Arboretum would have to close was looking after the staff and 200+ volunteers. While different strategies were adopted for staff and volunteers, the focus for both was on providing clear information and keeping in regular contact, including setting up a private Facebook group for the whole team to meet informally, exchange their own stories and listen to those of others.

2. Adopting a ‘permitted, safe and sensible’ approach to reopening. When the Arboretum was able to reopen to visitors in June 2020, the management team were keen to open as much of the experience as possible.  They adopted a mantra of assessing what was permitted under the COVID-19 regulations, assessing if it could be done safely and in a way that was sensible for the business while ensuring a quality experience for the visitor.  This ‘permitted, safe and sensible’ approach allowed them to gradually open as the rules and guidelines changed. 

'Sanitise the site, not the experience.'

3. Trying new things. Given the site’s reduced capacity, the team were keen to extend the visitor offer whilst being mindful of the need to maintain social distancing.  A series of outdoor ‘escape room’ style challenges were developed and trialled, adding a new dimension to the experience and encouraging people to visit the Arboretum for the first time.  Initially planned to be free, these were so successful that a charge was introduced, which also helped to manage visitor numbers and ensure COVID-19 rules were followed.  In doing so, the Arboretum learned an important lesson: visitors were willing to pay for experiences that enhanced their visit to the free-to-enter site.

4. Changing the menu. Creativity extended beyond using the site in different ways into rethinking the food offer.  The chef embraced the challenge associated with moving to table service and experimented with street food as a way of providing options that could be served by staff and maintain customer satisfaction.  The outcome: a more interesting food offer and reduced food waste!

5. Keeping customers safe. Customer safety remains of paramount importance and the ‘We’re Good to Go’ scheme has proven invaluable, both with the advice and information provided and as a reassurance for visitors as a recognised symbol of best practice. 

6. Broadening customer reach without increasing visitor numbers. Innovative use of digital platforms in place of physical events has provided unexpected benefits.  Major remembrance events hosted by the site that would normally attract 4 – 5,000 people were broadcast via Facebook and attracted 200,000 views, including from people who live overseas or would otherwise not be able to visit.  Structuring learning resources and making them available to schools online has also enhanced engagement with younger audiences.

‘My social media feed is awash with hints and tips from colleagues across our industry.’

7. Using networks.  It would be easy to credit the changes at the Arboretum to the team alone.  However, Head of Visitor Experience, Mark Ellis points out that making use of industry networks has proven fundamental to building resilience for the Arboretum and responding to the COVID-19 crisis. By providing intelligence that visitors were looking for more outdoor rather than indoor experiences, and a forum for testing ideas, it gave them the confidence to launch the Outdoor Escape Challenge.