Friday, March 27, 2009

Going downhill - fast!

Another Friday arrives and I am rapidly clearing my desk before heading off to Zurs in Austria for a week's skiing with my wife and family - second year on the slopes for the girls and hopefully they will come on leaps and bounds (well not literally!) this time around - 40 cms of snow fell in the resort yesterday so conditions should be excellent.

We have all continued to support Mary, Dominic and Tanya in every way we can as they prepare to say goodbye to their Tony - I am very distressed that I cannot make it to the funeral on Tuesday but I know in my heart that Tony would have expected me to stick with Plan A and to go skiing with my family - but my thoughts will be with Tony's family and friends and with my work colleagues on Tuesday for what will be a very sad occasion - but what must also be a positive (and happy if possible) celebration of a great man who will never be forgotten.

'British Tourism Week' has flown by - commencing last Monday with an "Explore Oxfordshire" exhibition at the Barcelo Oxford Hotel which was preceded by a Tourism Business Breakfast at which I was asked to speak - always good to have an opportunity to "promote" Blenheim Palace and to also highlight the enormous tourism potential that exists across Oxford and Oxfordshire - so many strong brands, strong personalities and strong businesses - hopefully we can better harness and focus these opportunities for the County moving forward. Does 'British Tourism Week' make a difference - I remain to be convinced as to whether it has any effect whatsoever but at least an attempt by VisitBritain to raise the profile should be applauded and supported - especially during these challenging times.

Much of the week has been dominated by discussions surrounding world heritage site funding - the All-Party Parliamentary World Heritage Sites Group met at Westminster and was addressed by Barbara Follett MP, the Minister for Tourism, and it is always good to have a chance to interface with the Minister regarding key issues - and to be able to reiterate our view that we are badly treated here at Blenheim Palace in that we are the "only" UK mainland world heritage site that is ineligible to apply for any external funding (from the Heritage Lottery Fund in particular) due to our status as a privately owned site. This seems to us grossly unjust - world heritage status (granted here at Blenheim Palace back in 1987) should represent something very special and should be acknowledged as such through appropriate funding support. We are making lots of noise on this; we are being listened to very sympathetically in most quarters (for which we are most grateful) but it will take more time for funding changes to be introduced to level the playing field across all UK mainland world heritage sites - but we won't stop trying!

The week ends with plans being finalised for a premises licence application to be submitted to our local authority regarding a one day concert/event in June 2009 - this will raise money for a very worthwhile national cause and could be an exciting event in our summer calendar. Time is very tight for the licence to be sorted; artists to be contracted and tickets to be sold but the organisers are very focused and we are doing everything possible to support their efforts. As I have said before, watch this space and we will tell more on this when we can!!

And so it's off home to pack with time running out - reality will hit on Sunday morning when I realise that I should have done some exercises before launching myself down the slopes - the old bones will no doubt ache but hopefully we will all return in one piece!


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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Life goes on

Another week comes to an end - what a strange few days and what a roller-coaster of emotions as we all begin to come to terms with losing Tony White - our dear friend and colleague.

The fine spring weather has enabled us to trade very strongly in the visitor business this week and the year-on-year growth remains impressive on the back of our "Buy one day - get 12 months free!" campaign. The daily visitor numbers are now being boosted by the returning annual pass holders and we hope the coming months will see them connecting strongly with Blenheim Palace and acting vocally across the County as our Ambassadors - we are delighted to have received such a strong response and the viral campaign seems to be gaining momentum as everyone realises there really is "no catch" and it is a great value added offer at a time when everyone is having to be that little bit more careful with what they spend, where they go, etc.

The week has seen good progress on negotiations and planning around film location work here in late April/early May - now looking very positive and hopefully will go to contract within a week or so - a "giant" of a film that should be good for us when it is released in Summer 2010.

We have also made good progress moving forward plans for an outdoor one day concert in June - the organisers are talking to potential artists to hopefully enable a launch early next month but they are leaving it late and their success (or it's success) will totally depend on the strength of their line-up when announced. Watch this space.

The weather forecast is good for the weekend so we hope for good numbers and we have sold-out for Mothers Day lunches in The Orangery - hopefully lots of families will enjoy Blenheim Palace and it's award winning gardens before the weather turns (and the snow returns - surely not!?!?) next week.

Life goes on and we all go about our roles in managing this wonderful Estate and doing our part to ensure it's long-term restoration, survival and growth - but everything is now tinged by the sobering reminder about how fragile our lives are and how we must live for today.

We will do that - but also with an eye on having to plan for tomorrow and the future.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't know Tony very well but he had a charming and warm personality that I won't forget. You don't meet many people like that in life.

March 26, 2009 at 12:35 PM  

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

They broke the mould!

Our lives are so fragile and none of us know what lies ahead of us - the terribly tragic loss of our Construction Manager, Tony White, on Tuesday evening (apparently from a massive and unexpected heart attack whilst out with his dogs) has shocked us to the core.

On Monday evening I attended a seminar at Unipart (ran by Business Link) and the keynote speaker was from Olivier Mythodrama Associates regarding "Inspirational Leadership" - all based around Shakespeare's Henry V. One part of that story was the journey that King Henry undertook through "the dark night" and part of that process was to download and listen to someone close - his sounding board - in this case "Gloucester".

Tony White inspired all of those around him and he was a sounding board and close friend to so many people - he was a truly wonderful remarkable man who will be missed by all who met him. Our heart and prayers go out to his dear wife Mary and to their children, Dominic and Tanya, at this sad time and as they try to come to terms with their immense loss.

There will only ever be one Tony White - they literally broke the mould - he was a "diamond geezer" and we will miss him immensely. His laughter, his smile, his generosity, his kindness, his zest for life, his top skills within the building trade and so much more.

Life will never be quite the same after such a sudden loss - but I do know that Tony would expect us to "get on with it" and to not make a fuss - so we will try to do that in honour of his memory but with very heavy hearts and with so much sadness.

Rest in peace Tony - you will never be forgotten.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tony was indeed a diamond geezer. He will be sorely missed by so many people, especially all his friends in Wokingham. I doubt I will ever be able to down a pint of Guinness again without thinking of Tony. Those of us who knew him were lucky that he touched our lives, even if he didn't quite get round to finishing our patios! RIP Tony, our memories are all happy ones.

March 20, 2009 at 10:25 AM  

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Glass half full!

Blenheim Palace and Formal Gardens have now been open for 4 weeks of the 2009 season and the early indications are (perhaps rather surprisingly) positive with visitor numbers up year-on-year for that period.

We haemorrhaged visitors through the summer months in 2008 and the months from then through to mid-December 2008 when we closed were tough as the global economic issues hit hard across most sectors - including leisure trips and tourism.

In response to this we prudently cut hard into our costs through quarter four 2008 in order to re-shape ourselves and to prepare for a tough 2 to 3 years trading as the world economies re-stabilise - we also wrote cautious budgets for the 2009 season with all of this in mind. The final piece of the jigsaw was a radical message and our "Buy one day - get 12 months free" marketing campaign was devised and launched from opening on 14 February 2009.

Initially launched exclusively with the Newsquest Oxford Group, the response has been very strong - albeit operationally very challenging from an IT and fulfilment perspective on site but our staff were brilliant in coping through everything thrown at them!

So where does this leave our view of the 2009 season - there is clearly a hunger for high quality "value for money/value for time" experiences and I am confident that Blenheim Palace - "Britain's Greatest Palace" - can deliver on that as one of the very special treasure houses within the heritage sector.

Other positive indicators, aside from the glorious summer that we are certain to enjoy (!), are:

>> A raft of national awards delivering high profile PR - national finalist in the Large Visitor Attraction category at the Enjoy England Awards for Excellence 2009; winner of the Historic Houses Association/Christie's Garden of the Year Award 2008; and shortlisted as the "most coach friendly tourist attraction" within the UK National Coach Awards 2009.

>> The weaker pound has a double benefit - we are more attractive to our overseas visitors and domestic business may be more inclined to holiday at home this year - emerging focus on "staycations" - although it is a dreadful word!

>> A strong events calendar with some good new events including an emerging outdoor concert in June - watch this space!

>> Strong supporting business - a big film booking is about to confirm for May (again, watch this space!) and there is a good pipeline of other enquiries despite the challenging economic outlook.

The global impact is clearly very severe and almost everyone has been affected in some way or other other - but I do believe that there is a determination to "get on with it" and to enjoy ourselves despite the many current challenges - for instance the crowds at Cheltenham this last week, the rapid sell-out for Glastonbury (before any acts were announced!) and the remarkable response to the 50 Michael Jackson dates - for that reason we are determined to adopt a "glass half full" attitude and to drive ourselves forward on the front foot through 2009.

For the sake of the challenges we face in restoring and conserving this wonderful world heritage site - including substantial money on the Blenheim Dam this summer - I hope I am right!

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Blogger pembrite said...

It's very sad to learn of the loss of Tony White. It's also sad to say goodbye to Stephen Duckett-another valued colleague.
Blenheim goes on and it's encouraging to see the Visitors coming in goodly numbers to enjoy this great Palace!

March 22, 2009 at 1:41 AM  

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