Friday, October 30, 2009

Half-term; Halloween and holidays!

The mild weather has given us a very strong half-term week with many visitors enjoying spooky Palace tours; ghostly trails around the Pleasure Gardens and (most spectacularly) the amazing autumnal colours and hues throughout the Park. We hope the dry mild weather will last through to the end of the weekend but the forecast implies rain + gales are on the way - of course they are as the Hoy Family heads off to Cornwall on Saturday for a week's holiday!

On Tuesday we "celebrated" the completion of the extensive works surrounding the Blenheim Dam and Cascade and we had a photocall with the press so that the Duke could thank the contractors/project team and so that we could announce that the area is open again and visitors can complete the walk around the lakeside and see the "new" cascade. I say "celebrated" but that may not really be the most appropriate tag as we have had to sink around one million pounds of our hard earnt money into ensuring compliance with the wonderful Reservoirs Act 1975 - with no government support or grant money available for this world heritage site - shameless! Roger File - our property guru - has led this project with great skill and all of our on-site teams (particularly Chris Keeler and his maintenance team) have supported brilliantly. The area looks fantastic and well worth a visit - and it came in under budget - phew!

Wednesday morning saw a crew from GMTV on site doing some live links from Blenheim Palace to showcase the mild weather and the stunning scenery - well I say 'live links' but it actually became a 'live link' (singular) as any slots between 7am and 8am seemed to get lost in the ether and we ended up doing one extended piece/interview at around 8.40am. Those that saw it say that Blenheim Palace looked amazing - strangely silent about my appearance - maybe it was my wrong side!! Always fun to get a chance to do "live TV".

Yesterday it was over to Broadwell (near Stowe-on-the-Wold) to give a talk to the North Cotswold Probus Club - a mixed "Ladies Day" gathering and a very full room to entertain. I hugely enjoy giving talks to Probus Clubs as the members are almost without exception absolutely charming - and in most cases they have had fascinating careers and they remain very interested and willing to learn/explore new things. Yesterday was no exception as they were a lovely audience but I am kicking myself that I was unable to stay for lunch due to meetings back here at Blenheim Palace as they had a mobile Fish and Chip Van delivering them their lunch. I had to walk out of the Village Hall past the Fish and Chip Van parked up outside to get to my car - the smells, the wafting aroma of fish and chips; the hint of vinegar - yum yum - it did smell delicious! I drove back to Woodstock feeling very very hungry.

And so I need to get my desk and inbox reasonably clear today as we are off down to Cornwall on Saturday morning for a week - bizarrely my girls get two weeks half-term holiday - and we have rented a lovely house on the south coast and a couple of other families from school are joining us - 6 adults and 6 children in total - should be fun! Lots of long walks and sightseeing - hopefully the weather will not be too unkind.

Tomorrow - halloween - is our wedding anniversary! 11 years ago Tracy and I got married and we had a very special day despite the fact that it rained cats + dogs for most of the day!

Here we are and 11 years on and our wedding anniversary again lands on a Saturday - lots of memories from that special day - not least Tracy arriving 30 minutes late for the service because she forgot her flowers and had to go home to get them! Not sure what the vicar thought as Tracy and her father in a vintage car drove into the church car park and (without stopping or saying anything!) drove out again to return to our home to get her flowers - whilst inside a nervous groom plus 200 guests were waiting patiently! The vicar kept his silence but he must have thought "she's done a runner!"

It all ended very happily and we will celebrate tomorrow!

Have a good weekend and I will write again after our short break in Cornwall.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Keeping everyone happy!

With around 85,000 annual pass holders now subscribed since we launched back in February 2009, the scheme has been an unqualified success and we have had lots of very positive feedback - we are though facing our first real challenge as we tackle the forthcoming Living Crafts for Christmas event which takes place from 20-22 November 2009.

This event, a high quality christmas crafts event with around 100 exhibitors, is staged in marquees sited within the courtyards adjoing the Palace and as such it is the only event in our calendar where space constraints exist and where we need to work hard to protect flows, to avoid congestion and to ensure a safe environment exists for everyone.

It would be grossly irresponsible of us to blindly go forward into this event without considering how our high numbers of annual pass holders will connect with us over these three days and as to how this will impact upon the running of the event - we believe high numbers will attend and we have thus taken the difficult decision to restrict free entry to annual pass holders to AFTER 3pm each day and to ask them to purchase Park and Gardens tickets (albeit at slightly reduced rates) if they wish to visit before 3pm. We have extended the show opening times to 7pm on the Friday and Saturday in order to increase the access times for annual pass holders and we hope all round that we can keep everyone happy and safe.

Inevitably we are being shouted at by some but I believe it would be irresponsible not to have take some pro-active steps to "manage" capacity and flow at this important event - we apologise for causing any inconvenience but we hope the vast majority will understand what we have done and why we have done it.

It is a great christmas craft show and hopefully many will attend - and hopefully everyone will go away happy!

In the spirit of keeping everyone happy, we are always very willing to receive fam trips and other groups into Blenheim Palace as we are immensely proud to showcase this iconic world heritage site and to sow the seeds for future business generation.

This week we have received two such groups into Blenheim Palace:

>> On Tuesday we had a very high powered fam visit from top Chinese Agents organised by Trafalgar Tours - including Freddy Li (Regional General Manager for Greater China and Korea for Qantas Airways Limited) and Eric Li (Executive Director for Charming Holidays Limited). It was fascinating to meet with them all and very encouraging to hear their very positive predictions for growth in traveller volumes from China into 2011 and beyond. It has been a market that has been predicted to grow and to grow fast - so we await their arrival and we will give them a great welcome! The Chinese market has a very strong affinity with Blenheim Palace through their interest in Sir Winston Churchill - a very strong hook and one that also plays very positively into the North American market.

>> On Thursday we hosted a study tour from the Society of Local Council Clerks who were ultimately on their way to Daventry for their 35th Annual Conference. I gave them a talk on Thursday and started by informing them that I was also a Council Clerk! One of the quirkier sides of my role here at Blenheim Palace is that I am Clerk to the Blenheim Parish Meeting (which covers the area enclosed within the Park Wall) and as such I have responsibility for around 30 or so people and I control a healthy budget of £0! This compares with those that I met with on Thursday, who were mainly from America, with populations under their control (in one case) of up to 18 million people and a budget responsibility up to a maximum in one case of £1.1billion! Rather puts the Blenheim Parish Meeting in its place! They were a charming group and I have no doubt that Blenheim Palace left them very happy as they headed north for their three day conference.

Children across the country are breaking up for half-term and hopefully many will head to Blenheim Palace for some halloween fun. There is lots going on including a Ghostly Trail at the Pleasure Gardens which will be fun for everyone.

It only seems 5 minutes since they went back to school and already they are virtually into half-term and christmas is around the corner - time flies by but we must all make sure we take time to enjoy everything happening around us and to stay happy - life, after all, is too short and we each owe ourselves that pleasure!

Have a good weekend.

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Blogger Dominic Hare said...

Wot, no pictures?

October 23, 2009 at 5:36 AM  
Anonymous John Hoy said...

Thanks Dom - no time for the geeky stuff - just sticking to the core messages!


October 23, 2009 at 5:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The question lots of us annual pass holders want to know - will you be running the scheme next year?

Overall we have been half a dozen times this year - only went once in 15 years before this year! Every time we've been we have purchased something, or even taken paying guests, so it is a great scheme all round - so hope you repeat it!

October 28, 2009 at 5:20 AM  
Anonymous John Hoy said...

Many thanks for your comment - yes, we are going to repeat the annual pass scheme next year and we hope that all of those who subscribed this year will renew as their 12 month pass expires into 2010. The arrangements will be virtually identical for 2010 subject only to a small price increase for the individual tickets - an adult ticket will be £18 for next year.

I am delighted that you have connected so strongly with us this year - hopefully we can also keep you happy next year and beyond.


October 28, 2009 at 9:05 AM  

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Positive vibes - onwards and upwards

It has been a busy and productive week - as well as a week that we are glad to put behind us!

The Trustees meeting on Wednesday - an autumn delight - went well and all of the various budgets and reports were duly endorsed by the Duke and everyone else. Always pleasing but such gatherings are stressful as you can never totally predict the mood or outcome from the meeting and there is always the risk that they can stray off at tangents into unplanned territory which can open up other issues, etc. Thankfully that did not happen on Wednesday and everyone was in good form - I must pay huge credit to Dom (the bean counter) and Roger (the property guru) for all their hard work and support both prior to and during the meeting - they put in a vast amount of work preparing papers for the meeting and it is always a relief to get 'sign-off' - such a relief that we always reward ourselves with a nice lunch and a glass of wine afterwards. This week we headed to Langan's in Stratton Street and had a delicious lunch - but then we all felt uncomfortably stuffed as we travelled back on the train later in the afternoon! Working hard now to get the minutes written and dispatched whilst the meeting is fresh in mind - this also provides closure and peace of mind before we have to focus on the next meeting!

Wrapped around the Trustees meeting have been some other interesting meetings in a busy week. Over at The Compleat Angler Hotel in Marlow on Monday for a Tourism South East BBO Sub-Regional committee meeting and then on Tuesday over to the Williams F1 Conference Centre in Grove to meet with private sector tourism businesses to get them to pledge support to the emerging Destination Management Organisation ("DMO") for Oxfordshire. Slightly disappointing turnout but those present seemed positive and hopefully we can maintain momentum and get this exciting new tourism delivery structure in place for summer 2010.

On Thursday we had our quarterly catch-up meeting with our catering provider, Sodexo Prestige, and it is always useful to focus on their prior performance and on the forward pipeline of activity as this is such a fundamentally important part of our business both for day catering and for conferences + banqueting. They are doing very well in a tough year - the surge in visitor numbers through our annual pass scheme has boosted their day catering revenues whilst strong wedding business has helped to offset a significant drop in conference and banqueting business - but there are signs that this area is beginning to slowly recover. We are an important contract for Sodexo and we are a tough client to please as we expect a 5 star service in every area - but they are working hard and we are making good progress in lifting standards in many areas. Our challenge to them is to lift the day catering standard so that we become a destination for the quality of the food on offer - we are not there yet but we are moving positively in the right direction.

Today we say farewell to the site foreman for Bentley's on the Dam Project as he heads off to his winter sojourn in the Caribbean - tough life! The dam project has slightly overrun timewise (by about 2 weeks) but has come in well under budget which is pleasing - and at least we now know that we are compliant with the Reservoirs Act 1975 and that "1 in 10,000 year flood risk" - phew!

At home it is very tense and exciting as Annabelle enters her last day as a 9 year old - the big "10" arrives tomorrow and she is VERY excited. We have finally relented and she will get her very own Pink iPod tomorrow - with "Annabelle Hoy - Princess of Pop" - on the back! To add to the exitement we are taking Annabelle and 8 friends on a very special birthday trip tomorrow afternoon - we are going to The Sound Cube in Watford where they get the chance to make a record and a supporting dance video. Annabelle has chosen "Toxic by Britney Spears" as her song and they have all been practising hard learning the lyrics - should be a fun day and I must resist muscling in and cutting a Chas 'n Dave number or similar at the same time!! Louisa - Annabelle's sister - and I are in charge of judging the 9 of them and we have created some fun awards which Louisa must assess - she will be Simon Cowell for the day!

Life as ever is entertaining and varied - lots of forward planning for next year but with an eye on closing out this season on a high. We will finish very close to 550k visitors and 100k annual pass holders - amazing numbers that could not have been predicted last January as we sat down to plan some front foor marketing plans for the season! I doubt if there are many businesses that have so radically transformed themselves in such a short time in the current trading climate - the challenge now is to look at the shape and delivery for 2010 to maintain and grow further!

Well done to all the Blenheim team - the support from the Duke and from the Trustees endorses and recognises everyone's hard work and commitment across every sector of the business - we are very fortunate (or should that be "they" are very fortunate) to have such a talented and hard-working team at every level!

Onwards and upwards!

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Anonymous Don Anderson said...

what an excellent year for attendance and annual pass membership! We live in the US and have enjoyed our previous visits to Blenheim Palace, looking forward to more next year. By the way, will there be a summer concert series in 2010? Each time we watch the Jamie Cullum DVD with the beautiful backdrop of Blenheim we want to grab our passports and post haste head your direction.

Enjoy the Christmas and New Year holidays, we'll keep tuned into your interesting and informative BLOG

October 16, 2009 at 7:50 AM  
Anonymous John Hoy said...

Hi Dom

Many thanks for taking the time to post a comment - good to get your feedback. We are working on some summer concerts at the end of June 2010 with Warner Music which we hope will come off - watch the website for info.

We hugely value the support from all of our overseas friends - visit us again soon!

Best wishes


October 19, 2009 at 12:50 AM  

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tussaud's + People

My 5 years with The Tussauds Group - from 1997 to 2002 - were some of the best years of my working life and they certainly were some of the most influential years in terms of shaping my career path.

I initially joined Tussaud's as Head of Operations (and ultimately Head of Retail as well) at Warwick Castle where I learnt a great deal about the running of a highly successful visitor attraction as part of a global multi-site group; and then in early 2000 I was given the chance to go down to Baker Street as General Manager for Madame Tussaud's and the London Planetarium - a huge honour, a big responsibility and a great opportunity.

The Baker Street operation was the cash cow for the business with c.2 million people snaking their way through the building each year - and the infamous queue outside the building!

I learnt so much during my time at both sites and I certainly would not be here today at Blenheim Palace if I had not served my time with Tussaud's - it gave me a point of difference and it added some commercial experience to my farming and land agency roots.

The most value though comes from the people and the connections made with a top organisation - many of whom are still on the radar today and many of whom we still engage with through our work here at Blenheim Palace. They really are a top bunch of very talented people.

We had a reunion/gathering in London on Wednesday evening and it was SO good to see many of them again - too many to mention them all but great to see Mike Jolly (former Chairman and Chief Executive of the Group) and Sarah Montgomery (former General Manager at Warwick Castle) - both will always be a very important part of my career and I owe them both a great deal. Sarah for employing me at Warwick Castle in the first place and Mike for everything through my time with Tussaud's and then for pointing the headhunters in my direction when the Blenheim Palace job was being recruited - I value both for their continued wise counsel and advise.

I was sad to leave Tussaud's in 2002 but Pearson owned the company when I joined in 1997 and then the venture capitalists arrived the following year and the tone and culture inevitably began to change. Despite delivering budget and driving the business forward, it was clear that I was not one of their appointments and when "your face doesn't quite fit" it is time to be pragmatic and move on - which is what I did in early 2002 before joining Blenheim Palace early the following year - the interim period was spent with the National Museum of Science and Industry (Science Museum, etc) but that is for another day.

I have been so lucky in my career and my Tussaud's time will always be some of the best and most valuable years of my life - both for what I learnt and for the people/connections that I made.

People shape our lives and that certainly has been true for me.

Back here at Blenheim we have dispatched the papers out to the Duke and the Trustees ahead of our autumn meeting with them next week - always a huge relief and a huge credit to Dom (bean counter) and Roger (property guru) for all their input and support but I lay awake last night worrying that our wonderful Royal Mail could still screw everything up. We will cross our fingers that all of the packages reach their destinations otherwise next week could be rather interesting!

Time prevents too much of a review of the last week but suffice to say that "Bike Blenheim Palace" was a huge resounding success - this home built event has rapidly (only it's second year) grown into a meaningful part of the cycling calendar. The Brompton Bike World Championships and the Time Trials were all fully subscribed; the new Sportif and Cyclocross events went well and overall we had around 7,500 people on site. Lots of people worked their socks-off in delivering the event but particular praise and credit must go to Paul Orsi (our Head Forester turned Rural Enterprises Manager turned Event Supremo) and his brilliant Rural Team for all their hard work and dedication around the event - the success is down to them with huge support from Operations, Retail, Catering, Marketing and everyone else!

Again people shape what we do and what we deliver - we have an exceptional team here at Blenheim Palace and they should be very proud at what is being achieved day-to-day and year-on-year.

Have a very good weekend

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Just blogging!

Reunions are great fun and I had the chance to go to an old friend's silver wedding anniversary party last Saturday (a long slog to Cambridge and back in the same evening) and linked up again with a handful of friends from my school days. Adam, Johnny, Tim and I were in East House together at The Leys School in Cambridge from 1970-1974 (or thereabouts) and it was wonderful to catch up with them again and to remember some of the highlights (and challenges!)from those days so many years ago. True friendship survives time remarkably well and although we only see each other at such events every 5 years or so, it is just as if we were still sharing studies and classrooms and enjoying each others company much more frequently.

I mentioned in a previous blog that my daughter was now bringing home latin prep which was somewhat challenging given that my last exposure to latin was probably 37 years ago. Indeed I will never forget being met by my latin master - Mr Eric Southern - at the door into the examination room for my Latin O-Level with the words "Oh Hoy - I see you have bothered to show up - bit of a waste of time really!" But I showed him with a (very) narrow Grade 6 "O" Level pass - that 'success' meant a lot to me as he was probably right - my latin skills were far from brilliant and I probably was heading for a fail without his inspired and motivational intervention!!

I still look back on my school days generally with very positive and happy memories and I see that same fire and enthusiasm in my girls as they return each day from school.

Annabelle did get elected onto the Middle School Council after a quick fire campaign persuaded all the boys in her class to vote for her - she is very chuffed and very proud!

Here at Blenheim Palace, September has closed with excellent visitor numbers - up 55% year-on-year - and correspondingly strong performances in retail and catering. The highlights in the month were the "dry + sunny" horse trials and a hugely successful Literary Festival. Into October, with the weather threatening to turn cold and wet on us, we look forward to Bike Blenheim Palace this weekend and a ghostly halloween at the end of the month!

The year (as always) is flying by and my paper this morning is carrying headlines around christmas cards + postal delivery - how depressing - but then I touched on that same subject last week with regard to election manifestos and the desire to be first and be early!

We are I suppose no different as we had our staff christmas party planning meeting - which I have the honour in chairing - this week and big decisions need to be made - none bigger than selecting the theme! We have narrowed it down to three choices - will it be "Dress to Impress!" or "School Disco!" or "Woodstock '69" - various staff will be surveyed on this and we hope to come up with the right choice that pleases the majority! I will confirm the chosen theme in a later blog - so you will have to be patient!

Lets hope that the weather holds for the last big Park event of the year this weekend and I hope that many people will be here "on their bikes" to enjoy this wonderful world heritage park.

Whatever you are doing this weekend - make it a good one!

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