In the pink or why 2013 holds rosy prospects for Heritage Open Days

You stayed in the UK last year but are now determined to enjoy some sun this summer? Count yourself among the 42% who will spend less on their holidays this year? I don’t know about you but I may well be bang on trend.

© Graham Foster - Steady stream of visitors at Guildford House in September 2012

I’m going through the notes I jotted down at a recent conference. Bernard Donoghue of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) was sharing some insights and trends affecting the domestic tourism industry this year. So handy when someone is digesting all these surveys for you and presenting them so lucidly. Still, the crystal gazing has given me plenty of food for thought. I mean, Heritage Open Days isn’t a commercially operating tourism attraction but bums on seats and satisfaction rates are the currency in which our performance is measured too.

The scenario

After last year’s wash-out summer, experts predict that the appeal of staycations will start to wane. At the same time, the continued economic downturn, job insecurity and a fall in real disposable income will keep putting pressure on consumer spending, with people cutting down on trips, entertainment and little luxuries. So far, (not) so good.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The combined effect of the Diamond Jubilee and Olympic Games gave national pride a healthy boost last year and will probably fuel people’s appetite to (re-) discover domestic destinations. And there are strategies that proved successful under challenging circumstances in 2012 and are likely to be so in the year ahead. According to Donoghue, those visitor attractions fared well that:

  • exuded authenticity,
  • gave local audiences a sense of ownership,
  • offered visitors a physical connection to the past,
  • provided special and exclusive experiences,
  • hosted contemporary art,
  • told their stories in an accessible, unstuffy style,
  • and put people at the heart of the visitor experience (“staff not stuff”).

So, what does this mean for Heritage Open Days?

Four reasons to be cheerful

It looks as if Heritage Open Days is rather well positioned to weather the storms. The majority of trends clearly play into the event’s strengths:

1. Free access: A typical Heritage Open Days trip is unlikely to put a strain on struggling families’ budgets. Not only is admission free, but with thousands of venues opening right on people’s doorstep, travel costs aren’t an inhibitive factor either. That isn’t to say that waving entry fees for the event is a purely altruistic gesture. Yes, it’s a freebie but as with any fragrance sample given out to passers-by, Heritage Open Days offers cautious customers a taster that potentially entices them into wanting more.

2. Timing: Coinciding with the start of the autumn term, it’s true that the timing is a handicap when it comes to engaging schools. On the flip side though, we don’t compete with destinations popular with holidaying families. And as Heritage Open Days falls into the calmer shoulder season, commercially operating venues can use their participation to boost footfall, membership and secondary spend without taking the risk of losing a peak-day’s income from the ticket office.

3. Experiences out of the ordinary: Thanks to Heritage Open Days, everyone can enjoy something exclusive, something that isn’t otherwise available. When else can you get into so many places that are either normally closed to the public, usually charge for admission or stage activities that bring history alive? When else can you shamelessly indulge your curiosity and feel like a tourist in your own town? Get the gist?

4. Volunteer charm: Finally, Heritage Open Days is as much about people as it is about places. Some 50,000 local people make the event happen. Mostly volunteers, they are at the forefront of the heritage sector’s greatest charm offensive. No matter how spectacular the site, visitor feedback has shown time and again that it’s the encounter with these generous, knowledgeable and passionate people that makes all the difference.

Are you feeling reassured now? Well, let’s not jinx it, shall we? Plenty of unforeseen obstacles may come in our way. And if there’s one thing that could still rain on our parade, literally, it’s the weather. Spain anyone?