Blenheim Palace, the principal residence of the Dukes of Marlborough, was among the first of the UK’s major visitor attractions to announce detailed re-opening plans.
It reopened its gardens to the public on 30 May, welcoming annual pass and permit holders only for the first week, followed by general visitors from 6 June. Bookable time slots and safety protocols ensure visitors feel safe.
Blooloop spoke to CEO Dominic Hare to hear about the reopening protocols, green initiatives and mental health strategies, and how the landed estates that own a third of the land in the UK have the power to bring wider positive change.
Hare read Jurisprudence at university. Realising within a term that while he loved studying law, he didn’t want to practice as a lawyer, he then trained in accountancy and moved into corporate finance, then investment banking.
“I was lucky enough to do some quite high-profile deals,” he says. “They weren’t big, but they were famous – things like Chris Evans buying Virgin radio and [Hit Entertainment – the company behind] Bob the Builder buying Thomas the Tank Engine and Barney, the purple dinosaur. So I had fun.”
Dominic Hare and Blenheim Palace
In 2002, when the dotcom bubble burst, Hare took a sabbatical:
“I got to know Oxford and decided I wanted to work locally. I was lucky in that it was the right time for Blenheim to hire its first finance director. The fact that it was their first time was also useful because I had no experience.”
Landed estates, at this point, were just beginning to see themselves as visitor attractions. They were realising that they needed a new management structure.
“Up until 1979, the world looked very different. Nothing much opened, and there was no professional sport on a Sunday. There were three television channels. Out of town shopping didn’t exist. Cinemas were basic, not the multiplex affairs they are now.
“It was a good time to be a stately home. On a Sunday, the only places your parents could take you to were a motorway service station or a stately home. There are some wonderful old pictures of Blenheim with queues snaking right through the courtyard. There was no competition.”
The early days of stately homes as attractions
The owners of stately homes, forced to open their homes to the public, did so without proper management and on a shoestring:
“Then, from about 1979 onwards, you start to get a choice as to what to do with your leisure time, seven days a week. Multiplex cinemas were appearing. The Tussauds Group, as it was, started to open up, investing in management and marketing.”
“The trend increased. As all the graphs of pay-TV penetration, retail, shopping and cinema moved in one direction, attendance at stately homes went the other way. By the late nineties, many stately homes, lacking both the capital and the management structure to compete with a burgeoning commercial attractions industry, were struggling.
Often, they were still managed by the incumbent or the heir, without management training or visitor attraction experience.
“Suddenly, you see stately homes starting to appoint external managers. It is a story that can be traced at many landed estates. They will have brought in professional management in the early 2000s, and will have found capital to invest.”
Seeing the potential
When he arrived at Blenheim Palace, many of the estate houses were boarded up, needing work.
“The belief was that there wasn’t the money to do it,” he says. “Yet a house that needed £50,000 spending on it would bring in rent of £20,000 a year. Professionals would look at that and see a 40% return. That’s a 2.5-year payback – you don’t normally get that kind of opportunity.
“So money started to be invested. I was lucky to arrive at that point, and that we were able to grow very quickly. There is a very supportive family and trustees here. And there were so many opportunities. Real low-hanging fruit, in many cases.”
Having begun as finance director, Hare was asked, in 2016, to take over as chief executive.
“The experiences I’d had started to coalesce around this idea that we weren’t just the business. Landed estates are different. They have this long-term connection to the land and the success of the local area.
“At the point when I was being asked to be chief executive, we’d started to set out a purpose statement. We want to be the lifeblood of the local economy. We want to enhance the life of local people, and we want to share and protect this extraordinary place. Our 10 goals are a 10-year exposition of that.
“It is based on a realisation that, if we get this right, we will be there to reap the benefits in 100 years.”
Blenheim Palace and COVID-19
The anxieties around relaxing the coronavirus lockdown, Hare explains, didn’t hit him until the run-up to the reopening.
“Our park had stayed open free of charge for local people. As we got to the spring bank holiday weekend, which was going to be a scorcher, I had a series of calls from the local community, worrying that, although we weren’t properly open, thousands of visitors would come.”
“I didn’t want to be the person who, because I was determined to reopen when allowed, caused a disease outbreak in Woodstock. These are our communities.
“So we’ve been gentle in our opening, keeping capacity constrained. For that bank holiday weekend, I sent a message to 50,000 of our annual pass holders, saying: ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this weekend, please stay away.’”
Blenheim Palace is now open to the public once more, with safety measures in place.
“Visitors have to pre-book,” says Hare. “Those who come are being careful and making much shorter visits. We’ve installed big outdoor toilets, where PPE-clad cleaners wait outside. So, if the toilet is used, it’s quickly cleaned. Hardly anyone is using them.
“The research suggests the visitors are local. These are people who know us, and they are choosing not to do anything they perceive as risky.”
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Blenheim Palace is fortunate in that, while summer is an important time, Christmas is also key. There is a big indoor fairy-tale event that usually takes place throughout the palace. And an even bigger light trail through the park.
“We’re lucky, compared to many attractions that are more summer-centric. We will launch the light trail, but we’ve decided that we’re not going to do Christmas inside the palace. I don’t think we’re going to get the same level of family gathering for a while. The light trail, which is outside, in the park, which is big and where we can limit numbers, will feel safer.”
Taking advantage of space
For all attractions, making people feel safe is vital. Here, again, Blenheim has an advantage:
“Our biggest card to play in that area is that we’re big. If we’re limiting numbers, people know – they can see, on our webcams – that there is no crowding. We’re doing nothing extraordinary. Just the normal PPE, cashless transactions, limited numbers, timed arrivals.”
We’re Good To Go ✅ We’ve been accredited with the UK-wide industry standard and consumer mark for adherence to government and public health guidance on Covid-19 safety, making us one of the safest places to enjoy a day out this summer. @VisitBritain #WereGoodToGo pic.twitter.com/5PS39Rhep5
— Blenheim Palace (@BlenheimPalace) July 7, 2020
“We survey continuously online, and around 97% of our visitors say our precautions mean they feel safe. In that, the big thing is the big open grass parkland.”
New audio guides at Blenheim Palace
The COVID crisis, Hare contends, may be the instrument of long-term changes in the way attractions are experienced. He outlines, as an example, a change made recently at Blenheim:
“For the first time, we have outdoor audio guides for the gardens and park. Several years ago, I visited Ickworth, a National Trust property near Cambridge.
“They had come top in every customer service score in terms of ‘quality of experience’ benchmarking, something that seemed to have come from nowhere. I rang them up and said ‘Congratulations. I’ve just read these results, and it’s amazing. How did you do it? May I come and out and look?’
“I spent ages with the staff, walking around, then sat down with the manager. He said, ‘We worked out that one-third of our visitors went to the house. The rest walk around the park and garden. And those who go into the house only spend one-third of their visit time there. So that means only about 10% of our visit hours are inside the house. And where do you think we put all our staff?’”
Like most similar attractions, the staff were in the house. Changing that model was transformative:
“I think we’ll see a lot of that with places that have big parks and gardens,” adds Hare.
Carbon negative goals
Blenheim Palace is in the vanguard of a revolution among large landed estates. It is pushing forward a series of goals which will see the UNESCO World Heritage Site become carbon negative by 2025.
Further targets include having 50% of visitors arriving in a carbon-friendly way by 2025, generating double the energy it produces now, reducing the carbon footprint of its current buildings by 25%, and constructing all new buildings to EPC Grade A rating.
“There is something about the way a landed estate manages its land that is very different from the land around it,” says Hare. “Our practice is different and our motivation is different. Because we’ve been in that spot, in one way or another, for 1000 years, and as the home of the Dukes of Marlborough for 300.
“We know it will be here in 300 years. We can look at it and say, in 60 years, my successors will be the people standing on farmland that will no longer be capable of a harvest. So we start from the point that this problem is personal to us. We can point to the people who will be affected if we don’t look after things properly.”
Using brand power to make a difference
Blenheim Palace also packs punch in terms of brand power.
“We are aware we’re in the public eye, so will be, hopefully, more quickly held to account,” Hare says. “And, positively, we can influence more people and make a bigger difference.”
When Hare moved to Oxford 20 years ago, he would take his children for walks around the outskirts:
“We’d see tadpoles in the stream, butterflies, bees. I now walk in the same kinds of places with great-nephews, and a lot of that wildlife seems to have vanished.”
It has not, however, vanished from places such as the Blenheim Estate, where farmers, foresters and shepherds are actively caring for the landscape in ways that have been lost outside the boundaries:
“For example,” Hare says, “We have reintroduced cattle to our ancient woodlands. They do a far better job of maintenance than sending staff in with chainsaws. They eat away the things that should be eaten, they crap on the ground and fertilise it, they trample things underfoot.
“I drove in there with a shepherd three weeks after we’d reintroduced the cattle. He was almost in tears at how quickly the woodlands had opened up and come back to life.
“The point is, that’s what landed estates do. We know that what we do to that land is what we’re left with. It absolutely matters to us.”
Green strategies at Blenheim Palace
Then there are the universal green strategies everyone is familiar with:
“We try to be efficient in our power use and we recycle. The estate can do this more efficiently than most people because we don’t have to contract with someone else to do it. We can run an entirely in-house recycling and food waste operation.”
Hare and his team began to think about ways in which Blenheim Palace’s public presence and long-term connection to the land could be leveraged.
“We are carbon zero at the tier one level, generating more energy than we consume, having committed to generating green energy three years ago. We’re also just about to apply for planning consent for a solar farm. This will take us from generating 25% of what we use today, to generating all of it, plus a surplus.
“Again, it does rely on us having the money to invest, and having land to invest in. We have that. We’re lucky.”
Looking out for the local area
The next step was to think about how to help the area.
“Our effect on the area is a hell of a lot more than our energy generation versus our energy use,” says Hare. “For instance, we have nearly a million visitors a year, and 95% of those come by car. The vast majority are couples, so even as car use goes, it’s not efficient. We want to find a way to out-generate even that kind of consumption.”
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Blenheim Palace can add more energy generation. However, Hare feels it is also important to work towards persuading people not to come by car:
“More buses are coming our way than there used to be, and two stations in Oxford. If we infill with our own buses, we ought to be able to make it quite easy. We already do this at Christmas, with a good park and ride system. We need to find a way to make that run better all year.”
In mid-February, Blenheim launched a promotion that gave people 50% off if they came by bus, train or bicycle:
“We doubled the proportion of people coming that way compared to the year before. It was something that was starting to gather momentum as coronavirus came along. It got dropped because the business simply stopped.”
Accessibility and sustainable transport
Attractions in city centres are accessible in a green way. Tourists, Hare feels, will be likely to choose them for that reason:
“Stately homes tend to be built in the least travelled, most remote bits of the country. As a group, we have to figure out how to make public transport and bicycle access work. We will have to skew towards a more local population, for that reason. If we don’t, we will struggle in the long run when jumping in a gas-guzzling car is not socially acceptable.”
As part of its development programme, Blenheim is planning to build shared work and social facilities in the area, joining local communities with a network of cycle and pedestrian routes.
“We’re consulting on this now. The plan is to use our land to join up all the villages and the towns around us with really good cycle tracks and pedestrian walkways. So, people can move around the area in a green way. That includes commuting to boats, the stations, or down to Oxford. This, to me, is the future.”
New ways of working
Part of that is a commitment to add a shared work hub to each of those villages, areas and towns. One of the few positive residues of the pandemic, Hare says, is that many people have learned they can work from home:
“Our area has a high prevalence of people who can work from home, academics, professional couples starting their own businesses. We want to ensure each of these areas is joined up by green cycle routes and has shared work hubs. In some cases, we’ll simply build them and run them.”
“In Bladon, however, we have part-funded the community to buy a pub that was being sold. This is going to be reopened as a community pub, shop and work hub. Somewhere that people can have coffee and cake and work.”
Investing in the community
Hare is optimistic that the strategy will make a significant difference, starting to make the area more self-sufficient in terms of carbon transport.
“It is harmonious,” he adds. “We own much of that area. We rely on the area to provide the shops, restaurants, and hotels that our visitors come for. And we rely on there being enough people in the area who wants to come and work for us in various skills.”
“We rely on rent; we are the biggest house builders in the area. The estate has a couple of housing development businesses. We’re building quite a lot of houses in the area, and we own a lot of those houses when they’re built.
“So yes: investing in the community, community assets and green infrastructure achieves good things and feels good. But it will also make the value and function of the area more enduring in the future.
“If I want to persuade people to buy or rent our houses, or to open shops, cafes, restaurants and hotels in the area, I must convince them that this is the place they want to work, where they can find employees to join them.”
Blenheim Palace and climate change
Another project paused temporarily by the lockdown is the creation of a web of open sensor and data stations, allowing residents, schools and organisations to monitor and manage the impact of climate change on their communities, and the building of an interactive natural capital model to be shared with other large landowners.
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“At the beginning of the year, we figured out how to use a whole series of cheap sensors through the area. These measure air particles, temperature, average speeds of cars and air quality,” says Hare.
“We got enthusiastic neighbours in the area to take our sensors, put them on our network, and we linked up with the local authorities. We now have live maps showing the air quality. You can even map a walk home according to where the air quality is better.”
There have been start-up conversations:
“We have some of these at the school in Woodstock. The ideal is that the kids would build an app for their parents. So, the parents can see what happens at the school gate at 3.30 when they turn up and sit in their air-conditioned car with the engine running, and – hopefully – start to modify their behaviour. We passionately believe that information is good in this context, and kid power is very powerful.”
We passionately believe that information is good…and kid power is very powerful.
“The sensors can be used for science lessons using live data. Coding classes in the sixth form can help write the app. We’re looking to help them build an interactive sign that will go at the school gate. This will show a live readout of air quality.”
As far as eco-friendly housing is concerned, Hare and his team are consulting on two new communities of around 400 houses being built in Woodstock. They will, he says, be eco-passive houses:
“They don’t require any extra heating across the year. If we can, we’re also trying to learn how we can make them carbon positive in terms of the building materials.”
While concrete emits a substantial amount of carbon in the manufacturing and laying process, good timber locks up carbon:
“Through the way you build and the materials you choose, you can capture carbon into a house. And then, with good insulation, PV and heat exchange, you can ensure the house doesn’t require any carbon energy. You may well use your solar panels and solar tubes for heating water, but that’s it.
“We’ve moved quickly from feeling that this is something we ought to experiment with, to feeling we need to hit these targets now. Because people are demanding more.”
Hare believes that what people want is quickly overtaking regulation as the key driver:
“The government is making commitments to act by 2025. But a lot of buyers are saying, ‘I’m buying now; I want it to be green: figure it out, please.’ The same is true of coronavirus. It was evident going into lockdown that people were already taking more care than the government demanded. And it’s evident coming out.”
Hare is fortunate, he says, in working for a group of trustees and a family who recognise the long-term connection to the soil and the local communities:
“We know that we’re an important part of helping the world, particularly the world immediately around us, to flourish. But the same is true in reverse. There is no landed estate anywhere that is flourishing, while the communities around it struggle.”
One of Blenheim Palace’s initiatives is the introduction of truly affordable housing. Currently, the legal requirement for housing associations is that they can’t charge more than around 80% of the market rent. Hare explains:
“But around here, 80% of the market rent is still completely unaffordable. Our logic is, if this remains an area where people earning less than 80 or 90 K can’t afford to live, then this area will struggle. You need a broad cross-section of people to make the community flourish.”
“With that in mind, we have created a new model. We have brand new, stunning housing going out at a 40% discount to the market. We are pushing down towards 50% discounts. I should also stress that we’re making money on this, on all the models, including the environmental models.
“The biggest effect we can have is not the effect we have in a five-mile radius of Blenheim. It is: can we model and prove the economics of something that could be then copied by another landed estate somewhere else?”
The benefits of green infrastructure
Landed estates make up approximately one-third of the land in this country:
“At Blenheim Palace, we want to show them that adding green infrastructure to all their villages enhances the value of the assets they own,” says Hare. “And it improves the social contract with local people.
“If we can prove that good money can be made delivering affordable housing of a vastly better standard than housing associations do, so that locals feel their children have a realistic aspiration of living in this place, then it transforms the economics as well as the social contract.”
“If we can prove that green infrastructure and local work facilities work; that truly affordable housing makes a difference to the area and you make money from it, then you won’t stop landed estates doing it.”
Blenheim Palace and mental health
Hare is also an advocate for wellness and mental health. His team is working with local NHS providers to utilise the estate as a ‘natural health’ option to be prescribed.
“Over time, we’ve become pretty self-aware, as an estate, about the value of mental health and the need to support people.”
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“Sharing a sense of community is one of the five behaviours we push on everyone. We have mental health champions, mental health first aiders who are trained. We take care of each other. Some of that comes from the fact that I have struggled with my mental health.”
Blenheim Palace has been supporting a West Oxfordshire online service that is being created to offer support along with practical advice and guidance for individuals who find themselves isolated as a result of coronavirus.
The HelpHub, set up by psychotherapist Ruth Chaloner, is a free, online service offering emotional and practical support for those medically at-risk and older people who are self-isolating. Its website, designed by Blenheim’s Innovation Team, has been created with the potential for replication across the country.
Are you finding it hard to keep on coping?
We are here to listen to you and help you, in a free confidential web or telephone call. Make an appointment – for free – with one of our qualified therapists at https://t.co/0URZgJy2Zc#TheHelpHub #COVID19 #MentalHealthMatters pic.twitter.com/WyTyjvp1SO
— The Help Hub (@TheHelpHubUK) July 2, 2020
“We did a lot of very normal things in terms of response to coronavirus and supporting community initiatives,” says Hare. “But the HelpHub, which we funded and helped local councils to set up, became very successful.”
The initiative launched in mid-April, initially to offer help to isolated people in Woodstock and Bladon, who were either on a waiting list for NHS mental health support, or who couldn’t afford private therapy.
Extending the scheme
Since then, it has grown to the point where it can now provide around 2,500 online emotional support sessions each week. Use of the service is growing. It has also been endorsed by the NHS as a service available for the general public.
“It can now serve about two and a half thousand people a week. Those in need of support go on the website. They simply click and are matched, usually within about an hour, with a trained counsellor. We have about 800 volunteer counsellors. It started as a local thing, but after some publicity in the national press, it went national very quickly.”
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“We’re raising funds to extend it; so far the running costs have been met by us, with a couple of partners. The number of consultations is rising as the mental health impact of coronavirus starts to kick in. It is very worthwhile.”
Like the sensors for determining air quality, this is an infrastructure that other estates can use:
“While the opportunity for the HelpHub is around coronavirus now, I suspect it’s going to be more successful than that.
“There is a genuine problem for people suffering with their mental health. People who need counselling and support. In almost every area, there is a waiting list of a year or longer for NHS services.”
“We think there is an ongoing need for the HelpHub. It will probably mutate to being part of the support services people can be referred to. What we did – the tech stuff and the money – was, without diminishing it, easy. The important part was the idea and the volunteers.”
Blenheim Palace creates a new model
In conclusion, Hare says:
“By the time my 10 years is up, we would love to think, we’ve established this as the playbook for Blenheim for a long time to come.
“We also hope that some parts of this model, the green infrastructure, the truly affordable housing, the notion of a social contract with the place around us, are things that other estates will emulate, and base their strategies on.”
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— Blenheim Palace (@BlenheimPalace) July 4, 2020
“By hooking into that network of landed estates and working with them to figure out models that work for all of us, that is a way we can collectively achieve much bigger change.
“Those estates make up a third of the land. So if that third of the land can make it plain that green infrastructure is a crucially important thing, then we create a groundswell that will apply to the rest of the country.”