National Cathedrals Conference – Repair, Recovery and Renewal

As heritage destinations, cathedrals need to balance value, volume, and visitor experience in order to achieve wise, sustainable growth now and in the future, the second National Cathedrals Conference heard.

Day Three’s afternoon workshop (Wednesday 18 May) entitled ‘Repair, recovery and renewal: welcoming our visitors back’, was presented by Bernard Donoghue, Chief Executive of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA).

Bernard is arguably one of the world’s most influential people in the museum sector and leads the umbrella body for the UK’s most popular, important and iconic places, castles, museums, galleries, heritage sites, stately homes, cathedrals, churches, gardens, zoos and leisure attractions.

He began by identifying the six key behavioural characteristics that all successful and sustainable UK attractions have in common:

Provocation, disruption, risk-taking, brand stretching, fostering creative partnerships with unusual suspects, and audience development, are the common DNA and shared behaviours of success and sustainability. Invariably, new people that come through our doors are those who are attracted by the unusual stuff, where cathedrals aren’t behaving like cathedrals.

To emphasise his point, Bernard mentioned Anglican cathedrals which successfully embrace disruption and risk-taking while subtly blending religious meanings into innovation and diversification strategies: Rochester’s pitch and putt golf course symbolising the course of spiritual progression, Norwich’s helter-skelter employing themes of undertaking spiritual journeys, plus their hosting of Dippy the Dinosaur during a special UK-wide tour organised by the Natural History Museum.

He continued: “Well thought through risk-taking with post-evaluation follow-up, shows that new visitors return again and again after that initial provocation to visit. Invariably those same people live within 10 miles of the cathedral yet have never visited until that moment. Once through the doors, they are compelled to spend in the retail and food and beverage spaces, dwell for longer, and feel incentivised to make larger donations per head.”

Referring to learnings gained over the last two years, Bernard added:

“The cultural sector has received the second largest injection of cash from the Government during the pandemic; £2.1bn from the Cultural Recovery Fund, an amount second only to the financial support given to the NHS. There is much greater political appreciation of the size, value and importance of tourism and the cultural sector to our health, lives, and economies.”

“We must recover better – an acceptance that what we did in the past was perfect, and we should not try and replicate it. This is an opportunity to open our doors to people who are different from those we closed them to in 2020. To understand who comes and who doesn’t and why. What explicit invitation can we make to people to feel welcome and invited?”

“The importance of front of house staff and volunteers to welcome, to reassure, to explain, to manage and to protect has never been greater, and must be the physical embodiment of your values. Front of house intervention is the biggest differential – it makes the difference between a good visitor experience and an excellent one. It directly impacts profitability.”

“During lockdown, people yearned to return to their favourite destinations. These buildings, places and spaces are part of their lives. We need to reciprocate that love and loyalty. We need to grow peoples’ sense of citizenship, empathy, community, sense of history, their place in the world, and provide opportunities to contribute.”

“During the pandemic, people were encouraged to engage with us online. We must now use digital as a tool to complement, to entice, to excite, entertain and invite, but not to replace the visitor experience. People are more easily encouraged to cross the digital threshold and, in doing so, have more confidence to cross the physical threshold, but a joyful visitor experience full of empathy and vitality is the key.”

Bernard rounded up his presentation by concluding:

“We create the backdrop for people’s happiest memories – what an extraordinary privilege and huge responsibility. People come to heal and breathe and repair and reunite with friends and family. Yes, there are challenges to come. ‘Contested’ history clashes and ‘cancel culture’ flare-ups from vestiges of the past will increase. We will need to demonstrate what we are doing about the climate crisis, how we are reducing our carbon emissions, how we are ‘building back greener’ and how our visitors can off-set their visit. We need to be open to innovation and risk-taking, be braver and bolder. We need to try new things, be open to co-curation with unusual partners especially performance companies and artists, that deliberately set out to make memories. Only then will we recover better.”

Different Country Different Church, Second National Cathedrals Conference, Newcastle Cathedral, May 16 – May 19

All the news from the National Cathedrals Conference can be found here.