Monday, 7 October 2013

Ace cafe with quite a nice ancient monument attached..

This is what the BBC Headline said.  Now, I don't go to visitor attractions (VAs) very often, but having been on holiday twice in the past six weeks I have, and this article rubs me up the wrong way.

The initial section of the article is taken up by a food writer, and of course he's going to say the cafe and food provision is important.  No, you don't want food poisoning, but as long as it's of edible, decent quality you don't need a Michelin Star either.  As a food writer he has a vested interest in there being more places to eat.  I can accept that people want to be fed and watered, depending on the size of the VA they may need a meal half way round in order to spend enough time there to see everything, however the food should never take precedence over the VA itself, and if it does you have to ask 'Why did you bother visiting in the first place, just go to a restaurant if you want to eat out..'

The second point is one made by several people quoted in the article who made their feelings known on the Trip Advisor website.  Ancient monuments, living museums - such as that at St Fagan's, the Museum of Welsh Life - and stately homes etc are old and should be viewed in a setting which is in keeping with their natural age.  I would personally find it extremely jarring and unpleasant to visit, for example, a Georgian house to find a modern steel and glass cube next to it as a visitor's centre cum cafe.

There is of course justification for combining the old and new in some instances.  The Cutty Sark visitor centre in Greenwich, London for example. Here they have intelligently used new materials and architectural techniques to build an ultra modern facility to enhance the visitors' experience by illustrating how the Cutty Sark would have looked at sea, and in doing so have created an extra bonus as the method used serves to preserve what remains of the clipper.  In situations such as this it makes perfect sense to utilise facilities in this way.

The argument is made in the article that the visitors' centres and cafes subsidise the entrance fee and fund the upkeep of the VA, however there are other ways of doing this without spoiling the experience for the visitors who actually come for the VA itself, not just because they make a nice cup of coffee.

To illustrate my points I will refer to two VAs I visited recently on holiday:

St David's Cathedral in West Wales.

1500 years old and, quite obviously an ancient building which would jar very badly with a modern structure.  However equally obviously they need funding for maintenance, to pay guides and other staff who work there and the usual costs of running a VA.  There is no mandatory entrance fee but, according to their website, they require an average of £4 per adult to keep financially stable.  So, how do they manage this?

Firstly they recognise that many visitors, even atheists such as myself, admire the incredible architecture and the achievement and skill of constructing such a large building and will want to take photographs.  A £2 fee is charged for a photographer's permit, and given that I shot 63 photographs while I was there, equates to 3.17 pence each, which is ridiculously cheap by any measure.

They also have a shop within the cathedral, but they have made intelligent use of the space available in the cathedral itself, cordoning off one small section of the nave with wooden friezes carved in keeping with the rest of the architecture, which are unobtrusive and do not spoil the overall feel of the place, yet simultaneously provide a defined area where visitors can go to purchase souvenirs and gifts.

Adjacent to the cathedral is the Bishop's Palace, of a similar age, and here I noted an instance of extremely intelligent integration of the old and new.  Self evidently visitors will at some point require a public toilet, and obviously a modern portaloo or something of that ilk would look quite out of place next to a 6th century ruined building.  To solve this they do have toilets built there but, as I noticed, the normal Men/Women/Disabled signs to indicate their presence had been carved in the same type of stone, using the same style, as the rest of the building, such that while they were recognisable as modern symbols for a modern purpose, their appearance was in keeping with their surroundings of 1500 years of age.

Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.

My second example of good planning is the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.  This is a much more modern VA than the cathedral obviously, and yet it still needs to retain the authentic feel of the original, a working RAF Bomber Command station of World War II vintage.  You enter via the shop, which in the more modern setting is perfectly acceptable as all the merchandise is in keeping with the whole theme, indeed some is specific to that Centre itself, such as the DVDs telling the story of its creation.

Here they also recognise that visitors will at some point require feeding, inevitable in fact given that they offer full day VIP passes as one of their attractions.  To facilitate this obvious need they utilise the NAAFI, the original service eatery which service personnel would have eaten at during the war.  At the same time this is located right next to the dispersal where the main attraction of the centre, 'Just Jane' one of only two operational Avro Lancaster bombers in the UK can be seen outside, maintaining the atmosphere of an age gone by.

Unlike the cathedral, the LAHC has a unique product, the opportunity for members of the public to have a taxy ride in a Lancaster and experience the sights, sounds and smells that the brave men of 70 years ago experienced on a daily basis - minus flying and being shot at of course!  The VIP days too which incorporate a taxy ride are a unique selling point, and so perhaps they do not have quite the same need to gain funds through the gift shop and NAAFI.  However, I would argue that even if this were the case - and everyone needs funds to keep their operation going - they have ensured that the facilities they provide are sympathetic to the age and purpose of their main focus.

That final point is, in my view, the key to success for all visitors.  If you want to create an extra revenue stream, consider charging a small fee for a photographic permit - depending on the nature of the VA this may not be viable, but I think is worth considering in most cases.  If however you cannot, then by all means create a gift shop and restaurant in order to maintain revenue, but in doing so please keep the look and feel of the new facilities in keeping with that of the VA.  A sympathetic solution to this question will please not only the visitors the BBC article alludes to - those who only go there for the food, but also the visitors such as myself who go there because we want to experience the VA itself.