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Bodmin Jail: opening a new attraction during a pandemic

Martin Lyall & Chris Wilkes of Bodmin Jail discuss the challenges of opening to the public during the COVID-19 crisis

Bodmin Jail attraction cornwall opening in a pandemic

by Mollie Bishop, Sarner International

Martin Lyall & Chris Wilkes Bodmin Jail
Martin Lyall & Chris Wilkes

In October 2020, the renovated Bodmin Jail attraction in Cornwall opened to the public, offering an all-new, immersive guest journey. The £8.5million visitor experience at the historic venue was developed by international visitor attraction experts Sarner International.

As they make their way through the former prison, which was built in 1779 and closed in 1927, guests enjoy a series of linked immersive experiences that explore what life was like for the prisoners, as well as learning more about Cornwall’s past.

The attraction is also home to the new Bodmin Jail Hotel, which is ready to welcome guests once the UK’s current lockdown restrictions lift.

Now, six months after the opening, Sarner sat down to chat with Bodmin Jail’s Martin Lyall, CEO, and Chris Wilkes, Commercial Manager, to find out more about the process of opening in a pandemic.

Why was the decision made to open the Bodmin Jail Attraction in October and not push the opening to 2021 in line with the Bodmin Jail Hotel opening?

Martin Lyall (ML): “The opening had been delayed because of COVID. So, we were under financial pressure to open as soon as possible and October was our last opportunity to open while the county of Cornwall still enjoyed some two and a half million visitors. “

Sarner Bodmin Jail

“Ultimately, it proved to be the right decision and we welcomed in excess of 11,000 visitors in October. It was an extremely successful opening and was an ideal opportunity for us to test run the attraction.”

What have you learnt while delivering such a complex project during the pandemic?

ML: “Flexibility and ability to adapt.”

Chris Wilkes (CW): “We had to review our whole way of working because during lockdown we had to adhere to very strict rules as to how to work.

“There were also lots of businesses that were supplying us that weren’t open. Traditional methods of procurement have had to be altered and we have had to really think outside the box to get the result.”

Bodmin Jail attraction

What changes did you have to make before opening the new Bodmin Jail attraction because of the pandemic?

ML: “We had to change the visitor numbers, the pod size. The business model is based on forty people per ten minutes. We opened with a very cautious half a dozen in twenty minutes. Then we reviewed it until ultimately, we were doing twenty people every ten minutes.  In a nutshell that is probably half capacity.”

CW: “Apart from the distancing markers and ensuring a one-way flow there hasn’t been any form of structural alteration that we have had to make while opening in a pandemic. We put a lot of effort into training the staff who were brilliant and welcoming, gently guiding people in the right direction.”

bodmin Jail corridor opening in a pandemic

ML: “In many ways, the fact that it was a boxed attraction very much worked in our favour. Because it was controlling numbers by definition.”

Tell us about your experience in the first month of opening

ML: “We had projected numbers of six thousand and we almost doubled that to over eleven thousand. That said arguably we could have done more because we had reduced pod numbers.”  

“In terms of talking about working practices, one thing that will have come out of this pandemic is it will have accelerated visitors habits with a drive to online booking. However, despite the fact that we said on the website and social media ‘online bookings only’ we still attracted twenty percent walk-ins.”

Dark walk experience sarner

CW:  “For these people, there is a ticketing machine in the entrance lobby that you can walk straight up to and put your credit card in and get a ticket.”

You also opened a gift shop and a café on site. How did these perform upon opening in a pandemic?

ML:  “The gift shop was very successful against targets.” 

CW: “It is right at the end of the customer journey. The layout inside is excellent, the lighting is great and it has a really nice atmosphere to it.” 

dark walk experience opening in a pandemic

ML: “We are enjoying about eleven percent of our customers who are buying from the gift shop.  Our target is nearer twenty, aspirations are north of twenty. It has gone well and, as Chris says, it looks the part. We have introduced some new lines but there is room to develop and grow. 

“The Jolly Hangman Tavern, the new café at Bodmin Jail, enjoyed in the region of twenty percent of the attraction’s visitors. In the half-term week, they were extremely busy.”

What feedback have you received from visitors on the new Bodmin Jail attraction and what are the key takeaways?

ML: “The feedback since we have opened the Bodmin Jail attraction has been tremendous. There is nothing like it in the South West or arguably anything like it in the country. To have a world-class attraction designer such as Sarner onboard has been a real privilege.

“From early days working with Sarner, it was about what language you are using, what market are we pitching. We can’t afford to not have the family market. We have introduced a PG system. In other words, we are only recommending that it is for eight years old and above. But it is up to the parents ultimately.”

opening in a pandemic

One of the big challenges Sarner faced during the project was how to make the stories as accurate as possible, without being too gory or scary. Wilkes feels this balance was achieved:

CW: “[Gory and scary] is not what this place is about.  If you want the gory, scary go to London Dungeon or a horror show somewhere. This is about an immersive interpretation of real-life produced in a tasteful way that actually gets the message over. I think we do have the balance right.”

Do you feel the immersive approach to storytelling is an appropriate solution for heritage attractions to stay relevant and communicate stories effectively to modern audiences?

CW: “Yes, absolutely.  I think gone are the days of walking around looking at a static, lifeless display and reading a printed board. You have to now take the guest on a journey and engage and surround them and immerse them in the message that you are trying to convey.

“If you get it right and you have the balance right, they leave educated and richer for the experience.”

dark walk opening in a pandemic

How will the development benefit the local economy following the pandemic?

CW: “You are buying an experience. After you have come and enjoyed yourself at the Bodmin Jail attraction, and maybe had something to eat or bought from the gift shop, there is still a part of your day that is left. Now you may decide to leave your car in the car park and wander into Bodmin. Or visit one of the other attractions in the town.

“There is enough now in Bodmin and there are some great offers to make Bodmin a day destination. We have helped to give the prospect, post-lockdown, of lifting the economy of other attraction offers but also lift the retail and café culture within the centre of the town.”

ML: “We will be the magnet within Bodmin. As the hotel here opens that as well will be a positive benefit for the economy.”

CW: “If you look at where a lot of our supplies have come from, for example, steel, concrete, timber. They are all local Cornish suppliers. Stone, the lime mortar for the cement is local.”

Finally, on the topic of opening in a pandemic, Lyall and Wilkes note that the partnership with Sarner was key to the project’s success:

ML: “Sarner definitely thought outside of the box adapting to the challenges thrown up by the COVID pandemic. The ability and desire to rethink the offer has been commendable.”

CW: “Very true.”

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Mollie Bishop Sarner

Mollie Bishop

Mollie Bishop is Production Manager at Sarner. Since joining Sarner in 2016, she has worked on several projects including the Bodmin Jail attraction, the Calvados Experience, and a branded VR experience for Fédération Internationale de Volleyball. Mollie enjoys developing client and supplier relationships alike.

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