What's driving growth in garden visitor numbers?

Innovation, good weather and domestic tourism are contributing to visitor numbers.

Hever Castle: visitor total exceeded 300,000 last year - image: Hever Castle & Gardens
Hever Castle: visitor total exceeded 300,000 last year - image: Hever Castle & Gardens

Good weather and the Brexit vote drove record visitor numbers at public gardens and arboreta last year, but more important than both is constant innovation, according to experts.

The National Trust recorded a total of 24.3 million visitors in 2016 - a rise of 9% on 2015. "It was down to a combination of various events and exhibitions our properties are hosting, extended opening hours and fairly good weather over the second half of the year," says a National Trust spokeswoman. "The weakening pound has also probably boosted domestic tourism."

Capability Brown landscapes did better than the National Trust average in 2016 - not surprisingly given that it was the year of the Capability Brown Festival, with nearly 500 events and more than 60 exhibitions celebrating his landscapes across the country. Croome saw a 43% rise, with 272,000 visits, up 82,000 on 2015. Stowe saw a 23% uplift with 216,000 visits, up 41,000 on 2015, and Berrington had 93,000 visits, 13,000 more than in 2015, a rise of 17%. "All have seen a big uplift, which is likely to be a combination of the Capability Brown celebrations and a wider programme of events."

Hever Castle & Gardens in Kent went over 300,000 visitors for the first time since 1997 during its period of measurement, which runs from 1 October to 30 September. The site experienced a year-on-year increase of seven per cent and welcomed 319,308 visitors over the period. The castle says there is no particular visitor demographic that grew more - Hever saw more groups, more day visitors, more bed-and-breakfast guests and more on private guided tours, and there was a 12% increase in the number of annual memberships bought. Visits to the website were also up by 24% on 2014-15.

Head gardener Neil Miller says an ongoing focus on new projects in the garden has encouraged repeat visitors. "We like to be a bit different. We experiment with planting unusual plants and that hopefully drives the visitors to come back. There was a lot of positive feedback. Some people say: 'How can you plant that with that?' But we like to experiment. The owners are investing a lot of money in the gardens. They are seeing a return so they are willing to invest.

"Last year was great. The gardens are going from strength to strength. I think we're doing something right - we're opening up new gardens, new Astor vistas and new walking routes. The changes keep the visitors returning." But he adds: "The weather was good. At Hever it is all about the weather. If it is bad, visitors just stay inside."

Weather impact

Weather was a factor in disappointing numbers in the first half of the year at the four Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) sites. A really cool April and May "impacted quite strongly", says director of enterprise Heather Jackson. In total, 962,554 visitors came to its four gardens, Edinburgh was down three per cent at 857,268, Benmore was barely changed at 48,077, Logan was up two per cent to 22,890 and Dawyck was up 1.6% to 34,319.

"From July onwards the visitor numbers were well up but it wasn't quite enough to take us over these big numbers," says Jackson. The garden experienced a 3% drop from 2015 to 2016, although part of that was down to a spike in visits in 2015 due to the rare flowering of a giant Amorphaphallus. "Combined with great weather, we made a rod for our own backs in 2016."

But the gardens ended the year on a high after it brought its annual Botanic Lights event forward to coincide with school holidays, which "made quite a big difference and we got a bit uplift in family visits" says Jackson. The lights attracted 43,311 visitors over 23 nights in 2016, up from around 26,000 in 2015 and 23,000 in 2014.

Also successful in driving an uplift in visitors in the second half of the year were new marketing initiatives such as a map of RBGE translated into six different languages. "We've worked with the Visit Scotland information centre - that has driven a lot more international tourists down to the garden. We've had an excellent response to the map, which we sell for £1 each," says Jackson. "We're looking at doing another six now. There are lots of new flights coming into Edinburgh as well. There's definitely a Brexit impact there and with the devaluation of the pound there's no question that the international aspect is important. These factors have made Scotland a much more attractive proposition."

At the other end of the country, Batsford Arboretum & Nursery topped the 90,000 visitor number mark for the first time, welcoming 90,007 visitors during the 2016 calendar year, up from 74,946 in 2015 and 58,000 in 2012, something that operations director Stuart Priest says was driven by the arboreta's best autumn colour in 30 years as well as long-term planning and investment, particularly the £1.8m for a new visitor centre.

"The investment we put in was well worth it. It's paid for itself. Now by the end of September I know we've had a good year and where we used to worry sick about whether we had a good October, now if we do it's the icing on the cake."

He adds that Batsford is reaping the rewards of 10 years of planning and planting - more snowdrops, magnolias, wild orchid areas and wild flowers - to spread the appeal of the site more across the year. "I think it's all started to come together now - 10 years of hard work and planning and the investment has come good. We're really chuffed with ourselves."

The Eden Project in St Austell, Cornwall, also reported a good year, although its recording period is earlier - the financial year to 27 March 2016.

Its 11.6% rise in visitor numbers led to increased turnover and operating profits, allowing it to significantly cut its overall loss. Operating profit rose to £1.8m from £1.4m in the 2014-15 financial year. Turnover was up to £20.7m from £18m in the same time period.

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