Our First Birthday
Wed 25 Mar 20
To celebrate one year since re-opening the Painted Hall and launching our new visitor offer, our Head of Visitor Experience, Retail and Marketing, Sasha Greig, reflects on the last year and what we have learned.
My name is Sasha Greig, and I have been at the Old Royal Naval College for nearly two years, joining the organisation after moving to London from New Zealand. Reflecting on the last year has been a great opportunity to think about all the ways we have adapted and all the things we have achieved. On a personal level, the last year has reinforced the importance of listening and adapting – it would have been impossible to foresee every challenge that we have faced since reopening the Painted Hall, but I am incredibly lucky to lead a team of passionate and knowledgeable staff and volunteers who are always willing to share ideas and try new ways of doing things. I am so proud of where we are now, and excited about what comes next for us.
March 23, 2020 marked our first birthday at the Old Royal Naval College. Although our celebrations are slightly muted by the fact that we cannot currently welcome visitors due to the global pandemic crisis, we are still recognising our achievements over the past year. While we often celebrate our ‘500 years of history’, new exciting developments have happened in the heart of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site over the past year.
On 23 March 2019 we re-opened the doors of the Painted Hall following an ambitious £8 million project to clean and conserve over 40,000 square feet of Baroque paintings which was generously funded in part by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Alongside the re-opening of the Painted Hall was the launch of a completely re-developed visitor offer. Over 3,000 people attended the opening weekend which, while being a wonderful opportunity for us to delight our visitors and share the amazing work that had been done in the Painted Hall, tested every part of our operation and made it very clear that much like a human in the first year of its life, we very much needed to walk before we could run.
Testing and Refining
As a team, we were completely blown away by the 31,000 people who visited the Painted Hall in the first month of opening. Many had been to see it during the Ceiling Tours which ran during the conservation and were excited to see it finished, others were Greenwich locals who were happy to be able to come back in after it had been closed for a few years. Others were visiting for the first time – attracted by the excellent media coverage we had received.
From the very start, we wanted to invite visitor feedback. Many of the first comments were about the speed of many of our processes. We weren’t able to deal with queues effectively and the process for selling tickets and setting up annual passes was slow. The café also needed re-thinking as the layout made queuing difficult. We had also planned to go live using wristbands to identify ticket holders, but they further slowed down the admission process and were difficult to see when most visitors were still in coats and gloves for the first month or so of opening. Finally, we hadn’t worked out an effective system for handing out and collecting multimedia guides before entering into the Painted Hall, which led to more queues.
This is not to say that everything needed fixing. In fact, what the opening weekend, and next few weeks, taught us was that we had the foundations of a fantastic visitor experience, and our offer was first class. Our wonderful staff and volunteers took everything in their stride and impressed everyone with their calmness, knowledge and friendliness.
“It was a wonderful experience; it was breathtaking. The guide was extremely knowledgeable and thought provoking. On arrival, all the staff were very helpful and charming, beginning at the check in desk through to the start of the tour.”
We knew we wouldn’t get everything right immediately, so we had put in place a lot of effective mechanisms for collecting, examining, and using feedback from both our visitors, and our internal teams. We prioritised getting our visitor survey up and running so that we could collect feedback from day one, and we created a comment card that we asked visitors to fill out on the opening weekend for more immediate responses. We then fed this information to our front of house staff and volunteers and asked them what we could do to remedy some of the issues raised. And it worked. We made some immediate changes like moving from fiddly wristbands to stickers for identifying our ticket holders and changing the layout and set-up of our multimedia guides so it was easier for staff to keep them organised and charged.
We invested a lot of time in longer-term changes as well. We are constantly in a state of refining our visitor experience, and we made some changes to our queueing systems to bring them closer to what people were naturally doing. We also worked closely with the café to create a space that worked better for visitors, and for them to more effectively display food and utensils.
Of course, addressing the big issues in the first few months doesn’t mean it has been smooth sailing ever since. We are constantly responding to internal and external feedback, refining our processes, providing more training for our staff and volunteer teams, and developing our offer so it remains engaging and meaningful for our visitors. But the challenges we faced in our first year of operating in this way have helped us do all of those things more effectively – we are better at gathering and using feedback, we are more in tune now with the needs of our teams, our stakeholders and our visitors, and we are better at knowing what is mission critical and what can be moved down the priority list.
Doing all of these things has brought us some incredible successes in our first year. Not least that we have welcomed over 1 million visitors in our first year, but also our annual VisitEngland Quality Assurance Assessment returned a score of 90%, up from the 79% we had received in the previous year, with the assessor saying “It is clear that recent investment and other enhancements have contributed to a significantly improved visitor experience.” We have also had lots of brilliant reviews on TripAdvisor and in our Visitor Survey.
“My visit to the Old Royal Naval College did not disappoint. While my main purpose was to see the Painted Hall, the rest of the buildings were also fascinating. The staff at the Visitor Centre were very helpful and the audio guide was excellent. The whole visit was worth it. I will definitely recommend it to my friends.”
Our wonderful team of Visitor Experience Assistants and Volunteers are frequently mentioned by name in reviews because of their excellent customer service, engaging tours, and the extra miles they go to in their efforts to make every visitor feel welcome. One of our Volunteers, Jim Morrison, is even a finalist in the VisitEngland Tourism Superstar of the Year competition, which you can vote for here.
But perhaps the most exciting recognition of all of the work everyone has done over the last year was winning Visitor Attraction of the Year at the London Tourism Awards in March 2020. Whilst we have won lots of awards in the past year for the amazing architectural work in the Painted Hall and King William Undercroft, and the conservation project, this was the award that cemented our place as a leading visitor attraction in one of the tourism hotspots of the world. It recognised the incredible work of everyone across the organisation – the front of house staff and volunteers who provide a first class welcome and bring the stories to life, the learning and interpretation team who create engaging tools for people to learn more about our history, the grounds team and cleaners who keep all of our spaces looking clean and inviting, and everyone else working behind the scenes to ensure we deliver the best we can for all of our visitors every day. We could not have asked for a better first birthday present.