How are gardens increasing their visitor numbers?

More creativity, unusual partners and wider customer base helping to drive success.

Inverewe Gardens: visitor numbers success is a result of ‘doing interesting things’ and ‘being much more creative’ - © Ray Cox
Inverewe Gardens: visitor numbers success is a result of ‘doing interesting things’ and ‘being much more creative’ - © Ray Cox

Diversifying your customer base, linking with unexpected partners, good marketing and being creative are all key to increasing visitor numbers, according to garden managers who oversaw increases in 2016.

As already reported in Horticulture Week, gardens and arboreta were blessed with a combination of great weather - leading to many reporting their best autumn colour in decades - and the Brexit effect, which encouraged a record 37.3 million inbound visits to the UK, up 3% on 2015, due to the weak pound.

"It's three things," says Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) chairman Bernard Donohue. "Firstly, reasonably good weather. Last year it was really good in parts of the UK, Scotland in particular. Secondly, our gardeners and curators of horticulture collections are doing interesting things with unusual partners. They are being much more creative. Thirdly, good capital investment. Hampton Court Palace's significant 34% increase is almost all attributable to the Magic Garden, which has proved to be a huge hit with local families and children.

"The fall in the value of sterling after the June referendum clearly had an impact. We saw an increase in some visitors coming to the UK because we represented a better-value proposition. But it's also that since the 2008 recession Brits have fallen back in love with holidaying at home.

"During times of political uncertainly visits to gardens, stately homes, National Trust and English Heritage properties go up because people want to reconnect with either their own history, which they find reassuring and definite, or reconnect with things that are important and emotional and spiritual like gardens and landscapes."

Ways to boost your visitor numbers

1. Capitalise on desire to connect with heritage and nature in times of uncertainty

2. Create new attractions with new partnerships: eg. Westonbirt Arboretum + Magic Light production company = Gruffalo Trail

3. Appeal to families: eg. apple festival, tree-top walkway

4. Educate: eg. Kew's Science Festival and a World War Two re-enactment camp at Audley End House & Gardens

5. Host the arts: community music festivals, theatre and film festivals

5. Social media: harness your garden team's enthusiasm with regular posts

6. Capital investment: Kew expects its Hive installation to pay for itself within two years

7. Good food and a warm welcome

Many of the biggest gainers in visitor interest invested in capital spending. Hampton Court Palace's 34% increase took it up 21 places up on last year's ranking due to the opening of the Robert Myers Associates-designed Magic Garden that attracted many families. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew had an increase of 18.6% following the installation of The Hive from the UK Pavilion at the Milan Expo 2015 and the opening of its Great Broad Walk Borders. Westonbirt, The National Arboretum in Gloucestershire saw a 15.5% increase following its hosting of a Gruffalo trail and the installation of a new treetop walkway, which attracted more of its target family audience.

National Trust had a 9% average rise and English Heritage 6%. Kew's Sussex Garden, Wakehurst Place, was up 20.3%. Other big winners include National Trust for Scotland (NTS) properties Crathes Castle (134.5%), Pitmedden Garden (112.5%) and Inverewe Gardens (62.2%), although the huge rises in the first two are due to historic undercounting, says an NTS spokesman. In fact, gardens overall have done so well that ALVA headlined one of its press releases "Blooms and blockbusters".

Being creative

Kew director of marketing and commercial enterprises Sandra Bottrell says a combination of factors is behind Kew's success. "It's wonderful landscape, The Hive, the Broad Walk Borders and the first year of the Science Festival." The Broad Walk Borders has wide appeal that speaks to a horticulture audience but The Hive is an art installation, an enjoyable experience but also an educational experience that teaches visitors about bees.

Working with unusual partners" and "being much more creative" has been a driving force for Kevin Frediani, property manager at Inverewe and Corrieshalloch Gorge Wester Ross in the Scottish Highlands. He joined the garden in January 2016 and reversed a trend of visitor number decline. Garden owner NTS spent 12 months trying to recruit for the job.

Having noted that his property is on the "sublime road journey" of The North Coast 500, billed as Scotland's answer to Route 66, Frediani made a connection that had a big impact. "One of the first things I did was engage with the Adventure Travel Film Festival," he says. "I wrote to Austin Vince, who co-runs it, saying: 'I like what you're doing, how do you feel about co-hosting?' He said if you're prepared to run it, I'll show it. I started the job in January and in July I came up with the concept and we delivered it in September. I gave half my staff a heart attack but it was wonderful.

"We had people come up from Dorset, Somerset, Wales, Germany. The visitor feedback was the nice thing to see. We had a cinema in the house, hired a hall in the village. We had a ball, both staff and visitors. It was something people weren't expecting." Also significant, says Frediani, was NTS opening up the house, a £2.5m project that allowed the festival and other events to take place. The garden opened a new £500,000 glasshouse.

Investing £1.8m in its new Treetop Walkway has given Westonbirt a new focus for marketing, according to head of visitor attraction Paul Cody. The Forestry Commission-run arboretum raised all the money from outside sources. It gave Stihl naming rights and sourced the rest from private trust funds and gifts. "It's been a good response and hopefully it won't be a novelty, people will continue to come," says Cody.

Less expensive but no less appealing is the Gruffalo trail, which launched at the arboretum in February this year and runs until the end of August. It uses augmented reality - visitors download a smartphone app before arriving and are guided by signage to point their phones at certain points of the trail to see animations from the famous Gruffalo story and have pictures taken with them.

"We worked with a company called Magic Light who own the rights. It was part of their promotion so they paid for most of it," says Cody, adding that both the app and the trail have brought in people who would not normally come to the gardens, especially families and younger adults.

"It's particularly important for us to develop this market. We're a traditional arboretum, popular with older people, and part of the awareness of the campaign was to make it attractive to the families. Then when they get here they realise there's a lot more to the arboretum than just the Gruffalo."

This was also the experience of The Hive at Kew. "It's very much on-message for us and it looks so wonderful in the landscape as well. It continues to bring in visitors," says Bottrell. She does not want to reveal Kew's investment in The Hive but says it will be paid back within two years. Kew can keep it for five years but it may be replaced before then by another novelty. Last year also saw Kew's first Science Festival, which drew in 40,000 visitors over the August bank holiday weekend and brought Kew's famous scientists out into the garden to interact with visitors.

Creative partnerships and events like these are partly delivered by commercial necessity, says Donohue. "Linked to that they attract more diverse audiences, which is really reflective of the communities in which they are based."

Cody adds: "We could see that the older persons market has a limited appeal with the changes in pension age and how well off people are. There is also a lot of competition for that market. About three or four years ago we looked at the demographics and thought we needed to focus on the family market and youth and teenagers." The arboretum has discounted entry for students and a community outreach programme where children at risk of being excluded from school come to learn coppicing and other woodland work.

Bottrell says Kew is also trying to broaden its appeal. "We're not complacent. We live in very competitive times and we want to make sure that we remain relevant and compelling for people. We have a programme of investment in the gardens and the visitors' offer in order to make sure that we've always got something new and interesting to offer." But it's important that innovation continues to communicate the botanic garden's "overarching scientific message", she adds.

English Heritage property Audley End House & Gardens, which saw a 10.1% increase in 2016, is also targeting school-age children with programmes such as getting school groups in to help with picking in its historic apple orchard. "We're trying to do a lot more with our educational team to get schools out and make it interesting because a lot of kids will switch off on history. We're trying to make it more interesting. It's an area we want to expand. Head gardener Alan North is fantastic about coming up with ideas of things to attract people to the gardens."

Capability Brown Festival

Another factor that boosted visitor numbers in 2016 was the Capability Brown Festival, held 300 years after the birth of Lancelot "Capability" Brown. Donohue says this "was an incredibly useful vehicle to tell the story of both the landscape gardening genius Capability Brown but also the effect of landscape gardening shaping our view of what the English landscape looked like. For stately homes it gave them another opportunity to tell their story again to potentially new audiences."

As festival director Ceryl Evans told HW in January, it helped to enrich the status of public gardens and landscapes as they are increasingly seen as multifunctional spaces and "landscapes as entertainment" rather than "just that nice bit outside". There were nearly 500 events and more than 60 exhibitions in the 250 Brownian landscapes, varying from light and music shows to poetry slams and hyper-local interactive Wi-Fi networks driving augmented-reality landscape interpretation.

Audley End in Essex ran three Capability Brown weekends last summer, with garden tours and historic re-enactments. "It was the first time we've done it," says general manager Jamie Osborne. "We had an external company come in and visitors get greeted by a historic figure. That's worked really well for us."

Bottrell says: "We're learning from the museum sector - constantly giving people reasons to visit. The problem with a permanent collection, and we have a permanent living collection, is that people think it won't change and they will get round to it one day. You need to introduce reasons for people to visit now."

Looking outside horticulture is also something Osborne and his team have been doing. "We look at what other people are doing, whether that be National Trust properties or other museums. You have to think differently. If you're a visitor attraction that has a beautiful garden or a beautiful house, you can't just expect that space to attract an audience on its own. When we were looking at our events programme for this year we thought about how we can tie all these different activities together. If we are just looking at it in isolation we couldn't draw as big an audience."

An example is the garden's biggest event, a World War Two re-enactment camp that drew more than 5,000 people over two days - a record for the garden. Audley End was once an SOE base for Polish operatives trained to parachute in behind enemy lines and there are still pillboxes to visit in the landscape. Audley End can connect the garden to the house and the history.

Frediani also "looks to engage, entertain and inform using the story of our founders to celebrate the natural and cultural heritage of the garden and wilderness landscape that is Inverewe".

Pop-up events

It is also important to have a series of regular events. Inverewe has a number of pop-up events, such as wandering poets, ephemeral art and Shakespeare plays by professional companies in its walled garden. "It's like street theatre and engagement," says Frediani. "I want to be entertained and have fun, I don't want to think about what's going on in the world when I come to somewhere like this. My test is does it enrich the spirit of Inverewe? It's about promotion of natural heritage and access to it. Does it do those things?"

Bottrell says Kew's "Lates" evening events have "really got traction now". This year's Orchid Festival Lates sold out for the first time, with the India-themed festival 30% up on last year. A winning formula was to enlist the help of the Indian community to develop the programme. In return, Kew saw a lot of the community come to the festival.

Audley End's Apple Festival gets 4,000 people over two days. Pitmedden has increased its regular events. Burgess, who was a police officer and CID and Fraud Squad detective before retraining in horticulture, has found that good "partnership working" is essential to both careers.

"Part of my role is to work with the community, partnership working. We host a music festival that's run by the community. It's very much aimed at families and because we are close to the village people can walk up. We have over 2,000 people coming to that event. We have spin-offs into the garden. We also have theatre, such as David Walliams' Billionaire Boys, Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor and murder mystery Murder on the Terrace, and tribute bands like Abba Mania, mostly in the gardens."

Successful gardens also know when to link up to popular events, attractions and organisations. In 2014 Pitmedden became a partner garden of the RHS, allowing it to "benefit from the big marketing machine" and to feature in The Garden magazine, says Burgess. Audley End had an episode of The Antiques Roadshow filmed in its garden on a beautiful day in May.

Gardens do not have to get lucky with traditional media, however. Properties across the UK are reporting much success with social media. The trick is to regularly engage with your audience, be varied and use pictures to their full effect.

"We've really pushed social media," says Osborne. "The garden team does a post every week - a nice shot of the landscape advertising our tours, for example. Someone in our team is dedicated to that. The other teams do it too. It's growing exponentially and we're seeing a lot more engagement." So far the team is only using Facebook and Twitter but he says the garden team is taking the lead. Their posts get the most engagement and the most "likes".

"It can make a massive difference. One of the best posts is a picture of the gardens, the river, the house in the background, frost on the ground, sunrise. The engagement we had was absolutely massive." Gardens can use this engagement to encourage new as well as repeat visitors by using beautiful pictures to advertise membership taster days, discounts, events or book signings, Osborne explains. "The best way to do it is make sure it's not just one-sided. We're telling the story of the site, telling the story around the site, in different ways."

Finally, one theme that crops up again and again is the importance of giving visitors a warm, friendly and personal welcome, good home-cooked food and home-baked cakes and remembering that good, engaged and happy staff can make or break the visitor experience.

Custodian Awards - Profile boost helps increase garden visitor numbers

Winning one of the prized inaugural HW Custodian Awards in 2016 was a boost to Audley End's profile, according to Jamie Osborne, who says winning the prize for Best Gardens or Arboretum Team helped its 10% growth in visitor numbers last year.

"We definitely used the Custodian Award to promote the garden and in our marketing," he confirms. "It's inevitably had an impact on our visitor numbers. We mentioned it in social media posts and issued a press release that was picked up by local papers. It was really nice to be able to shout about it in the local community. To be advertised just before the weekend was really helpful.

"A lot of people knew we had won the award. Our volunteers who run the garden tours heard that from visitors. It was nice that they knew and they had seen it."

He adds: "The team was really excited. They are one of the highest performing teams I've ever worked with. They were just over the moon to be honest. They absolutely loved it. They're quite a modest bunch. They do such a great job and they're proud and the standard gets better and better, but they're very happy not to shout about it. We try and give them praise wherever we can."

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