National Trust responds to record visitor numbers with ambitious plans to improve visitor experience
The National Trust today announced plans for an ambitious programme of improvements to facilities such as car parks, cafes and shops at sites – in response to record breaking visitor numbers.
Around £20m will be spent on average each year, over the next five years, on expanding, improving and upgrading facilities as well as tackling a backlog of repairs to farm buildings, homes and modernising holiday cottages.
The conservation charity said the work would be funded via a low cost loan, which will allow it to continue to prioritise spending on looking after the houses, gardens, countryside and coastlines in its care. No income from memberships or donations will be diverted from conservation purposes to pay for the improvements.
Last year, the Trust spent £138m on conservation, including a record £100m on its historic houses and gardens. However, investment in improving facilities has not kept pace with the booming popularity of the Trust’s locations.
Visitor numbers have grown from just 270,000 in the 1970s to an historic high of 26.6m last year. And the number of members joining the Trust has rocketed by over one million in just five years, to hit a record 5.2m, according to the charity’s annual report which was published today.
However, the rapid growth has led to challenges for the charity. Small cafes, car parks and shops – often built decades ago - have struggled to accommodate surging visitor numbers, leading to queues and frustration at peak times.
Many locations still have only basic facilities and other outdoor sites have no catering on offer at all. The number of visitors rating the service they received at Trust properties as ‘excellent’ was 7% lower than expectations in 2017/18, and despite consistently good scores they have been in decline over the last four years. That’s why the Trust has decided to act and respond to visitor demands for an upgrade, funded by a low interest, unsecured loan.
Sharon Pickford, Director of Member Services, said: “We are delighted that more people than ever before are enjoying spending time at our properties. Our challenge now is to make sure that our visitor facilities can adequately cope with demand whilst maintaining record levels of investment in conservation. We know that the facilities at many of places have failed to keep pace with this growth and are inadequate or even non-existent at some of our places.
“That’s why we’re going to act on what our visitors have been telling us they want to see and invest in improving our facilities by using a low interest loan.
“That allows us to fund this essential work whilst at the same time ensuring no money is diverted away from our vital conservation work. It’s an ambitious plan which is good news for our charity, and good news for the millions of members and visitors who love coming to our places.”
At the same time, the Trust has also introduced a revolving credit facility, which will help manage the charity's cash flows better and could generate an estimated £4m a year. The private financing arrangements have been approved by the Charity Commission.
Elsewhere, the annual report found:
- Visitor numbers increased to 26.6m (+8.5%), and the number of members up to 5.2m (+6.5%), and an estimated 200m to the Trust’s free access countryside and coast properties.
- The overall proportion of visitors rating their visit as excellent fell from 67% in 2016/17 to 61% in 2017/18. Between 2013/14 and 2016/217 visitors who rated their experience as ‘very enjoyable’ fell from 66% to 56%.
- £138m spent on conservation, including record levels on our historic houses.
- This included the completion of the £3.4m project at Lindisfarne Castle, which was critical to the long-term sustainability of the Grade I listed, 460-year-old building. And the £5.4m roof conservation project at the Vyne, in Hampshire.
- The Trust benefited from the incredible support of 61,000 volunteers, who collectively donated 4.6m hours of their time. 97% said they enjoyed volunteering with the Trust, and 61% said they would strongly recommend volunteering.
- Fundraising income reached £87m (- 4%), as income fell from legacies although appeals and gifts increased.
Case studies – projects that could benefit from the new funding:
Dyrham Park, South Gloucestershire
The current visitor facilities at the Grade-1 listed country house and gardens cater for around 100,000 visitors a year. Visitor numbers hit 244,809 in 2016/17 and are forecast to reach 400,000 by 2021. Despite this rapid growth, there has been limited investment in facilities to accommodate increased visitor numbers. The £8.6m project at Dyrham will improve a wide range of visitor facilities by 2021 that together are expected to generate an additional £745,000 in revenue annually.
- A new visitor reception building that can better manage increased visitor numbers.
- Additional toilets and improved facilities at visitor reception and the mansion, avoiding the need to hire in extra portable toilet units.
- More hard standing parking spaces and reduced reliance on overflow parking on grassed areas.
- A larger cafe that can cater for more visitors; the current tea room was designed for around 97,000 visitors each year, yet numbers are forecast to reach 400,000 in the next three years.
- A larger shop that can cope with daily visitor numbers, rather than struggling with overcrowding and cluttering.
Charlecote Park, Warwickshire
More people than ever before are enjoying visiting the 16th century country house, deer park and countryside on the banks of the River Avon. Ten years ago, Charlecote Park was receiving around 100,000 visitors each year; last year more than 220,000 people visited.
But facilities are limited. The tea room, for example, has just 56 seats, yet Charlecote receives more than 2,500 daily visitors at weekends. Parking is another challenge at busy times. The small hard standing car park that quickly fills up. Once full, the property relies on an overflow parking in fields which is fine when the weather is good, but impractical in the winter and periods of bad weather and has led to the entire property closing due to lack of adequate parking facilities.
Kellie Scott, General Manager at Charlecote Park, said: “The development loan means that Charlecote Park can begin to invest in this infrastructure and make the improvements needed to cater for growing visitor numbers, without diverting property funds away from important conservation work.”
Fresden Barn, Buscot and Coleshill, Wiltshire
The Buscot and Coleshill estate consists of more than 7,500 acres of Trust land, crisscrossed with over 20 miles of footpaths. With around 3,000 acres of parkland being relinquished by our tenant farmer and brought back into National Trust management, there is huge potential for visitors and could offer a range of walks and activities.
However, the land does not currently have any visitor facilities such as toilets, a café or parking. A development loan could unlock this potential by creating a countryside base complete with parking and a small café or tea room at Fresden Barn, in the centre of the parkland.
Not only would this improve access to the countryside, but would also bring a financial return on investment, through parking and café revenue.
The White House, Buscot and Coleshill, Wiltshire
The White House is derelict 3 bedroom residential property that has fallen into disrepair. The tenant farmer who farms the land around the cottage is very keen to live in the cottage on a long lease, and has the finances ready, should it be renovated.
Siobhan Smith, Estate Manager at Buscot and Coleshill, said: “The initial capital investment will bring the property back into use, providing a regular rental income, and therefore a return on the original investment. Additionally, this work will create a home for the farmer than their family, as well as conserving the building for years to come.”
Hinton Ampner, Hampshire
Ten years ago, around 35,000 people visited Hinton Ampner each year. This year Hinton received over 150,000 visitors. Though visitor numbers have increased fivefold, facilities have not and now need investment to make them fit for increased visitor numbers.
The property faces a number of challenges:
- Parking is limited and is on grass, rather than an all-weather hard standing surface. At busy times overflow parking has to be on fields and in inclement weather has seen up to 100 cars a day having to be towed off the grass.
- Additionally, deliveries and coaches have to come in along the main visitor route, leading to potential health and safety concerns.
- The property has very limited toilet facilities (just 3 for ladies, 1 for men and 1 disabled facility) and as a result frequently has to hire in portable toilets to address visitor need. This comes at a cost, and temporary toilets are not a sustainable solution.
Gordon Gardner, General Manager at Hinton Ampner, said: “This is a fantastic opportunity for Hinton Ampner. We’ve got the gardens, we’ve got the house, we’ve got the superb estate as well, we just don’t have the infrastructure.”