Historic and Botanic - Gardens under pressure

A tough economy and poor weather hit botanic garden visitor numbers this year. Gavin McEwan asks how they are coping.

National Botanic Garden of Wales has held corporate events and weddings to help keep finances stable - image: HW
National Botanic Garden of Wales has held corporate events and weddings to help keep finances stable - image: HW

The prolonged poor state of the economy means that many households are reconsidering what they regard as affordable pleasures. Recent figures suggest that visits to botanic and historic gardens are among those losing out.

Birmingham Botanic Garden is unusual among such gardens in that it receives no external subsidy and is funded solely by its own commercial efforts.

Chief executive James Wheeler says the garden is suffering through no fault of its own. "The business environment we operate in has changed dramatically and appears heavily weighted in favour of our public sector competitors," he notes.

"We have publicly-funded and heavily-subsidised or free visitor attractions close by. Inevitably, as household budgets tighten, visitor numbers to cheaper and free attractions go up and although we only charge £7.50 our visitor numbers are down."

Receding revenue

More seriously for the garden, revenue from corporate entertainment has dropped by 35 per cent. "Since this income came from a subcontractor at very little cost, this has hit us hard," says Wheeler. "We had become too dependent on lavish spending here, which has been the first item to be cut or transferred to publiclyfunded facilities."

Furthermore, the Birmingham Outdoor Learning Service for Schools has stopped renting a teaching room at the gardens and no longer employs a full-time teacher on site. Even though the cause of the problem lies in unsustainable spending in the public sector, he says: "We in the private sector are bearing the brunt of Government cuts."

However, he is not despondent. "We are making changes to our infrastructure to ensure we extract the maximum possible income from more flexible use of all areas of our site. We won't go to the wall because after 179 years we have learnt to deal with the lean years as well as the fat ones."

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) has seen both the positives and negatives of the changing spending habits, says head of visitor services Alan Bennell.

"Our Edinburgh garden is performing beyond expectations. We believe 750,000 visitors by the end of the year is possible." The garden will receive around £12m from the Scottish Government in the current financial year and an announcement on next year's funding package is expected shortly.

"We don't expect to be immune - a 10 per cent hit is likely," adds Bennell. "We are geared up to cope with that by focusing on our core services." Although the garden is free, he says: "We find other ways to make people part with their money."

But RBGE's three regional gardens of Dawyck, Logan and Benmore, which each charge admission, are down around 20 per cent this year with a month of the season to go after having already seen dips last year (see table).

"Generic tourism and spending in rural areas are down. In fact, our regional gardens are faring better than other attractions in those areas," says Bennell. "While breaks to the major cities are still holding their own, people aren't travelling as much outside them. They are less likely to stop at Dawyck on their way up to Edinburgh and pay £20 for a family of four to get in. But we have recently invested in press and marketing and have boosted our website to include tourable panoramas of these gardens."

Diversifying appeal

Edinburgh has the added advantage of hosting the world's largest arts festival in August, which the botanic garden has long treated as an opportunity. "We had a rich programme of activities, but those had to compete against 24,000 other activities in the city," says Bennell. "Even so, we managed growth of 15 per cent, despite indifferent weather."

Meanwhile, the Edinburgh garden's John Hope Gateway biodiversity and information centre, opened two years ago to diversify its appeal as well as make the garden less weather-dependent, "has upped our game and raised our profile as an attraction", says Bennell.

"Things such as corporate catering are up and the investment is already looking to have paid off handsomely. But we still want a five-star rating from Visit Scotland. That means standards of catering, the toilets and the welcome that visitors receive are all critically assessed. It's about a lot more than just a fancy building - it's the whole experience."

The new gateway notwithstanding, the gardens remain heavily weather-dependent, he says. "We had more than 100,000 visitors at the Edinburgh garden in April, when the weather was lovely. But people still decide whether or not to come on the basis of how the weather looks that morning and it's been a fluctuating summer."

Indeed, many parts of the country experienced their coolest summer for 20 years, with more northern parts bearing the brunt. According to a National Trust for Scotland representative: "Easter got off to a strong start with some gardens boasting record-breaking visitor numbers. However, as the weather has become more unpredictable, numbers have varied. Some of our gardens have had to close for a day or two due to high winds."

Welsh approaches

The National Botanic Garden of Wales, which struggled financially in its early years, is now on a more stable footing, according to head of marketing and communications David Hardy.

"We are on about level pegging this year. It's tough going in the current economic climate, so we have to be pleased with that." He adds: "We do okay for weddings and corporate events, although we don't like closing off parts of the garden too often."

The Carmarthenshire attraction continues to try new approaches to drawing in the crowds. "We made the garden free in January, which is not a busy month," says Hardy. "If you can get five times more people in, you make back in secondary spend what you lose in admission. In fact, the visitor numbers went from 2,000 to 13,000."

Currently in the first year of a three-year funding package agreed with the Welsh Government, this "seems to have survived" the spending cuts, he adds. The garden also teams up with other attractions both locally and nationally, where they are compatible, he adds (see box). "But there's no magic bullet."

Paid-for admissions on the slide
Admissions Change
Attraction in 2010 on 2009
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 1,141,973 12.2% (Down)
Eden Project 1,000,511 2.7% (Down)
RHS Wisley 803,986 16.2% (Down)
Wakehurst Place 402,180 12.0% (Down)
Stourhead 361,730 1.0% (Up)
RHS Harlow Carr 246,563 4.8% (Down)
Nymans Garden 211,036 5% (Down)
Bodnant Garden 191,069 3% (Down)
Claremont Landscape Garden 157,270 2% (Down)
RBGE regional gardens 101,418 8.9% (Down)
Source: Association of Leading Visitor Attractions.

Attractions team up

A group of 12 leading environmental destinations met at the Eden Project earlier this month to firm up ways to share marketing and promotional initiatives.

The Eco-Attractions Group includes Eden, which has registered the greendaysout.co.uk domain for the purpose, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (RBGE), Kew Gardens, the National Botanic Garden of Wales (NBGW), the Wildlife & Waterfowl Trust and the Living Rainforest.

"They are all attractions that espouse green values, and each is a major attraction in its area," says RBGE head of visitor services Alan Bennell. One joint initiative was a two-for-one entry offer to gardens in the group in April for readers of The Guardian.

NBGW head of marketing and communication David Hardy describes the group as "a loose coalition of like-minded attractions that gives us promotional clout in the market".

Garden visitor facts

- Visits to free-to-enter gardens went up by three per cent between 2009 and 2010. Visits to paid-for gardens went down by seven per cent.

- Larger attractions are generally faring better than small ones. The top 10 per cent of attractions by numbers of visits put on four per cent, while those with fewer than 10,000 visitors saw a drop of two per cent.

- Visits abroad by UK residents fell two per cent last year, following a 14 per cent drop in 2009. But that has not translated to a rise in UK holidaying - overnight trips made in England by English residents fell by six per cent. Overseas visits to the UK remain high.

- The average adult admission charge to gardens rose by eight per cent in 2010 - from £5.22 to £5.64. The average rise for all paid attractions was five per cent.

Source: Visitor Attractions Trends in England 2010 (VisitEngland).


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