Adapting to the new normal

How Hever Castle reopened and is adapting to the new normal

Lockdown has had a huge impact on the tourism sector across the UK, and here at Hever Castle it’s been no different.

On Sunday 22nd March we took the difficult decision to close our gates and this was swiftly followed by lockdown measures that were announced by Boris Johnson on Monday 23rd March. Prior to this we’d acted swiftly to follow the government guidelines as they were released and quickly implemented additional safety measures. This time and experience with social distancing prior to lockdown proved to be a valuable learning curve and aided our reopening strategy.

Initially we were working to the reopening date of 4th July and waiting to some degree for more government guidance before instigating our plans. However, with ongoing lobbying and pressure from Visit Kent and other industry associations it quickly became clear that this day may come sooner than we’d thought and thus we began to hold daily Zoom meetings with Heads of Department to expediate matters.

The industry webinars that we had attended proved to be a vital source of information and steered much of our thought processes. We had also had some experience reopening the Golf Club aided by excellent guidelines provide by Golf England.

As it happened, permission to reopen came at very short notice with changes made on Friday for the ability to reopen the following Monday and without the united approach in opening guidelines that the golf sector had benefited from. Agility was essential as we needed to open the gates as quickly as it was safe to do so.

Booking
Despite having a 125 acre site, reducing our capacity was necessary to ensure social distancing and we knew that the ability to distance was the biggest factor in decision making about whether to visit an outdoor attraction such as ours. Luckily, we had an online booking system in place that enabled us to set up arrival slots to assist us in managing queues and capacity.

Pricing
Even though we were not able to provide our usual offering for a Garden Ticket, as many of the attractions including the mazes, play areas and indoor spaces had to remain closed, we haven’t discounted our admission tickets. This decision was four-fold. We needed to maximise yield from our limited capacity, we felt that there was value in the safety measures that we were implementing and these come at an increased cost to the business, we were confident that we could still provide value for money and deliver a relaxing and fun experience and survey evidence suggested that the majority of visitors were not expecting to pay any less . We have experienced very little resistance to our pricing, but we remain open to the fact that our price model may need to change over time and are assessing this.

Safety & Reassurance
From industry survey results we knew that visitors were cautious and that they needed reassurance before visiting. We decided to produce this in writing on our website but also convey a safe environment for visitors and staff in video format as first-hand evidence of what visitors would see on arrival and during their visit.

Whilst the content discussed in the video took days/weeks to finalise, the video itself was shot in just over an hour! It wasn’t the slick version that we planned but in the end that added to the authenticity and charm of the piece. In the video we wanted to get across the warm welcome and patience that would be extended to our visitors but also to demonstrate visible cleanliness. There was lots of concern around toilets and so it was essential to cover this. Respect, protect and enjoy was a motto that was being championed by ALVA and later Visit Kent, we identified with this and decided to run with this in our signage and marketing communications.

You can watch our reopening video here: https://youtu.be/f1gG-npLLvY

Members
One complex area has been managing the availability of time slots for our annual members and day visitors. We chose to keep it simple and not to limit time slots for our annual members. Unfortunately, what we saw in our first week was £15,500 of unrelalised revenue as a result of no shows from members. A ‘gentle reminder’ followed to members and on the whole response to this was positive and no shows have reduced a little. Now that we have a better understanding of the percentage of no shows to expect we can be comfortable in increasing our capacity in line with this.

Operations
Yes there were operational challenges and we also experienced some difficulty in obtaining essential signage to the deadlines required. Flexibility was key again and whilst the end result for opening day wasn’t as polished as we planned the use of temporary signage proved to be budget saving in the longer-term as we quickly discovered where additional signage was required or not needed. We were also able to adapt our one way systems to work more practically for us and the visitor.

Sentiment around PPE was mixed in industry survey results so we have provided all of our staff with the necessary equipment, including masks but masks are to be worn at their own discretion.

Marketing
Marketing communications focused on existing members, subscribers and followers in the first instance but now we’re moving our attention to local audiences before gradually moving further afield domestically. We wanted to convey the large physical open spaces that we have and chose aerial footage to do this alongside highlighting the variety of plants and areas that the site has to offer our visitors.

The Future
For the future we hope things can return to normal, however in the meantime we need to pivot our strategy and work on our recovery. We welcome a confidence building accreditation certificate.