Ups and downs of a tour guide: impressions from Heritage Open Days in Crewe

Wow, what a weekend that was. A year since I resolved to do the "Heritage Lost and History Discovered Tour", and last December "Murders, Mishaps and Morals Tour" crystalised in my mind. Both tours were delivered for the first time for Heritage Open Days from last Thursday to Sunday in Crewe. An enormous amount of research, planning and effort went into them. What went well, and where do I need to learn?

© Tim Prevett - In the North Signal Box at Crewe Heritage Centre with the Saturday evening tour

Fickle media

A throwaway tweet about Crewe Station landed me filming with naughty Franky Fryer from Sky Sports'  "Soccer AM" outside The Lyceum Theatre, and inside The Cheese Hall pub in Crewe centre. This gave me a wave to ride for a radio interview with Lamont Howie from BBC Radio Stoke 20 minutes later, which was rebroadcast a couple times over the next couple days. Promising start, and an opportunity to heed my own tips for radio interviews, too! But then came the disappointment; the local newspapers didn't run my press release. It was a first since I started doing tours. Yes, it had an impact on my visitor numbers. Usually my phone is very busy after being in the local rags, and tours fill up. A lesson learnt: If papers don't reply to the press release sent via mail, then check by phone. Don't take it for granted.

With that realisation, I made an effort to do what I could for additional publicity. I kept my Twitter Buffer loaded to send out automatic updates with Selective Tweets feeding through to Facebook. In person, I went to put some posters up in the Market Hall, some went to the two council offices, one to a council public board, and another couple to Hops, a good pub, which we pass on every Crewe centre tour I do.

Turning a disadvantage into an advantage

I gave three of the "Murders, Mishaps and Morals" tours and two of the more straightforward historical tours over the four days. Overall I had near 50 folk on the tours. Reviewing that attendance, the importance of personal contacts and supportive relationships is underlined. Two key folk encouraged a lot of people to come on the tours. The Crewe Blog (a balanced must read for almost anything and everything in the life of the town) helped, too.

The biggest generator of visitors was the Heritage Open Days event directory. The next largest, one of my contacts. The Radio Stoke appearance, twitter, facebook group, posters in the pub and market hall were also cited by my guests. Some picture tagging on Facebook after the huge Queens Park event (more on that in a moment), and personal conversations while there gave some enquiries and attendances for Sunday tours. Leads for future tours were also generated.

Besides some Crewe folk, visitors came from Congleton, Newcastle Under Lyme and Stoke on Trent. They all seemed to enjoy the tours. The add-on of Crewe Heritage Centre’s North Signal Box put a nice finish to their experience. Thanks to the Centre for allowing out-of-hours access for these tours.

One gentleman came on one tour, and enjoyed it so much, he stayed for another. He also wrote a blog entry about it. And visitors on my first tour invited me to join them for a drink before my second tour, giving opportunity to discuss further local historical anecdotes. Always fun and engaging. So, although I had only one third of the attendance I had hoped for, it was great to have some quality time with different groups. Sometimes, numbers isn't all. It's this personal exchange that is so rewarding and will hopefully pay off in the long run in terms of recommendations.

Swapping roles

Aware that I was giving out a lot for Heritage Open Days, it was great to take in a couple of events in a non-organisational and non-presenting mode on Saturday. It was the re-opening celebrations for most of Queens Park as a huge multi-million pound restoration project is nearing completion. I took part in the procession, which was a re-enactment of sorts of  the 1888 parade which happened to mark the official opening of the "Jewel of the North West" Victorian park. I was delighted to be awarded “Best Dressed Victorian Outfit”. I only entered to take part in a significant local event, so a prize was completely unexpected! In the evening, a magnificent pyrotechnics display (public video clip on Facebook here) rounded off the park’s celebrations.

We then headed to the town centre for “The Illuminos Project”. The Lyceum Theatre participated in Heritage Open Days as part of its centenary (being rebuilt in 1911 after a fire destroyed the original). It was an animated projection with a soundtrack, depicting the history of the theatre. It was a fitting finale to a day devoted to celebrating Crewe's heritage assets. (Public video clip on Facebook here).

All in all, I am really upbeat about my Heritage Open Days involvement this year. Lots of networking, in real life and online. Existing contacts strengthened. Bringing history to life for groups of pleased customers. A sound result, in my opinion.

Life after Heritage Open Days

Over the last few months, the focus has been on this past weekend, but life must and does continue! Besides more Heritage Open Days blog entries to come over the coming months, there are new historical projects firming up. And being a sole trader, I am working to develop my portfolio of tours, and make my existing tours financially sustainable. The “Murders, Mishaps and Morals” tour for instance will continue as the “VAMP Tour: Victorian Accidents, Murders and Prostitution”, while my town centre ghost tours (Crewe and Nantwich) start for the new season to coincide with the Nantwich Food and Drink Festival. And The Strange at Crewe - Crewe Station Ghost Tour has new dates courtesy of Virgin Trains. All have online booking.

Now, to that second press release for the papers to take up this time...