Not even £9m of restoration work at Lowther Castle & Gardens could defend it from the downpour that marked its official opening in May. Like other historic and botanic gardens, it has struggled with sluggish visitor numbers and retail sales since the summer deluge.
Although milder autumn weather marked rising fortunes, many have been forced to take a drastic look at business plans and reassess everything from opening times to new café menus to try and lure more visitors through their gates. In some ways, Lowther had it harder than most — this new venture had no previous form to compare.
Commercial director Andrew Mercer says: "I’m still oblivious as to how things ought to be as this is our first year, but it’s been challenging in terms of the weather. We only had five sunny days in autumn but perversely people still came. Instead of sitting in their Lake District holiday cottages being glum about the rain, they visited our garden."
This contrasts what Mercer calls the "froth", locals who can pop in anytime or day visitors with no time to lose who stay away when it rains. Lowther has had 30,000 visitors since the May opening. Mercer’s business plan, such as it may be, was more "guesswork on the back of a fag packet" for such a new, unique project.
But he had hoped for 15 per cent more visitors and next year will get them plus some, he reckons. As big building work to the castle ruins and gardens winds down, a new shop and museum will start up. Mercer is optimistic that visitor numbers could double if the building work is not stalled by rain.
Milder weather over the past five weeks has given strong autumnal impetus. The garden is lush, suggesting good colour in spring, he says. Mercer is leaving nothing to chance and aims to set a world record in late October for planting daffodils. Around 100 people have volunteered but he needs 100 more to plant 110,000 bulbs in one day.
This is the kind of "counter-intuitive, innovative" thinking that owners of historic gardens need to beat harsh weather and economies, says Mercer. The counter-intuitive element is neither the daffodils nor the push to break records, worthy in their own right at luring visitors. The key is throwing open the garden gates for free on that day.
"Crucial to success is not to get too hung up with one particular income stream such as gate receipts. It’s so important to get visitors into the garden. People who fret how much we will lose at the gate miss the point. We will get 200 to fully engage with the garden, save on labour costs, buy into the ethos of the place and, hopefully, revisit."
There is another crucial ally in wafting away geographic and economic storm clouds — social media. For Mercer, the lure of Twitter is a mystery. But Facebook is a must for historic gardens, often run by those who traditionally mark time at the fustier end of the technological spectrum.
Within days of launching on Facebook, Lowther had more than 4,100 followers and Mercer swears by the real-time virtues of social media. Step-by-step photos of restoration work went up the day they were taken, communicating ongoing progress immediately — a big pull for potential visitors.
Andy Jackson has been a gardener for 30 years and never had it so bad as this year thanks to awful weather, micro and macro economic factors and broader issues such as the Olympics. Visitors at Wakehurst Place are down on last year 29 per cent, retail 21 per cent and catering 17 per cent, but a glimmer of hope lies in the last percentage.
The head gardener says people come less often but when they do, they continue to spend on food and drink, which seems fairly recession-proof. Sadly, not even recent milder spells have seen a big boost in numbers of visitors and no amount of "marketing, positioning and PR" seems to help, he adds. So the team at Wakehurst has focused on getting the food and drink spot on, with a strong environmental, regional and organic focus.
"People are willing to spend more if they feel it supports local businesses rather than a national or multinational company," Jackson explains. "The more we focus on making a difference at the small, rural level, the stronger the heart-pull and the more likely people are to spend."
Focusing on unique selling points strikes a chord with Association of Leading Visitor Attractions director Bernard Donoghue, who says botanic and historic gardens, hit by falling visitor numbers and sales, need them desperately. Leisure attractions have had one of their worst years since foot-and-mouth in 2001, but it is not all bad.
"The end of the Paralympic Games coincided with an improvement in weather so the last month-and-a-half has been as good as January and Febru-ary, which were fantastic months. Sadly, everything in between has been incredibly challenging. A key to success is to communicate the fact that gardens are year-round seasonal attractions."
Gardens that communicate that loudest and continue to shout from the rain-sodden rooftops throughout the year will build visitor loyalty, he maintains. Meanwhile, gardens promoting their seasonality with trails, sculpture areas and temporary exhibitions are doing "very well because they have given the visitor renewed reason to visit".
Donoghue adds: "We will always be at the mercy of the weather, which is not necessarily bad because it makes our gardens look so good. But if you can supplement garden attractions with refreshed retail ranges and offer new catering options, you are more likely to survive a bad summer next year."
Consultant Alan Sargent has also seen recent upswings at gardens, most noticeably in Sussex and Surrey. But the fact remains that they are taking a hit, says National Garden Scheme manager Chris Morley. Income from gardens is 10 per cent down this year, a "reversal of the graph" for the past few years, which showed year-on-year increases.
Meanwhile, market researcher Malcolm Tenneson says damage caused by the Olympic Games continues to "skew the picture", but those who "just sit and wait for visitors do worse than those putting on extra activities or being more flexible with opening hours".
There is a limit to throwing more activities, according to Great Dixter head gardener Fergus Garrett. As a "break-even, small-profit-making charity" every penny counts, but so does a brand as famous as Great Dixter. It refuses to tread the well-worn path towards themed events and wedding receptions every other day.
"Reputation is everything, so knee-jerk responses to squeezes are out," he insists. "We are looking at options such as carrying out more repairs in-house and putting greater emphasis on marketing. We may look at paid, targeted marketing instead of free press articles, but will protect the brand — historic gardens must remain true to themselves."
Historic Houses Association manager Sarah Edwards says it is too early for autumn figures but a sample of 60 houses across the UK revealed visitor numbers down 22 per cent between April and June. A key to outwitting the weather could be to cut out the weatherman by telling visitors to avoid relying too heavily on the forecast when planning a trip.
"We have frequently found weather forecasters predict doom and gloom yet on the day the weather is better," she says. "One or two of our houses have webcams so people can see the weather for themselves and, of course, if people do turn up and experience a quick shower they can always duck into the shop or tea room until it passes."
Hever Castle is one of the venues that has a webcam so potential visitors do not have to accept the Met Office "gloom gospel", says head gardener Neil Miller, who is writing to the office on the negative focus of its reports. Meteorological harbingers of doom apart, visitors have gone up steadily over the past month-and-a-half, he adds. "Not even the weathermen can pour cold water on this good news".
Essential advice for garden managers
Think counter-intuitively and avoid focusing too much on one income stream such as gate receipts — more free days may improve the number of revisits.
- ?Use social media such as Facebook to gain thousands of followers through real-time news updates to draw potential visitors keen to follow progress.
- ?Concentrate on getting the food and drink spot on, with a strong environmental, regional and
- ?Communicate loudly your garden’s year-round seasonal beauty throughout the year to build visitor loyalty.
- ?Promote seasonality with trails, sculpture parks and temporary exhibitions — and refresh retail and catering options.
- ?Do not damage your garden’s reputation with events that may blur the historic message or jar with the image you have worked to create.
- ?Beat the Met Office doom mongers by installing a webcam so that people can see the weather at your garden for themselves.