December historically was a difficult month to attract visitors to an outdoor attraction, even more difficult when it focuses on plants or trees. More and more outdoor properties are looking for ways to keep the visitors coming. Christmas lights are becoming exceedingly popular across the country, with the likes of Kew, Longleat and the RHS getting in on the act. After 21 years as one of the biggest players in the battle of the illuminated trees what can be learnt from the National Arboretum at Westonbirt?
Westonbirt, The National Arboretum, Tetbury, Gloucestershire. GL8 8QS
Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays From the 1st December until 23rd December
Pre-booked timed ticket only. Tickets available via website and phone. Admission every 20 minutes.
Adults: £14, children; £7, Friends of Westonbirt half price, group discounts available on 10+ people
Westonbirt is perhaps the most well known of arboretum in the country, and is the National Arboretum managed by the Forestry Commission. The whole arboretum extends to 600 acres and about 18,000 trees, the Enchanted Christmas trail uses the majority of the Old Arboretum (approx a third of the site) which is home to rare and exotic species in a designed landscape of avenues and vistas.
Enchanted Christmas is an illuminated trail with the same name each year which starts at the visitor centre loops around within the Old Arboretum, past the gift shop and finishes back at the visitor centre and Christmas village.
A Christmas village marks the start and end of the trail. With Ferris wheel, carousel, various food and drink outlets, hook a duck and tee-pees housing free children's crafts, craft stalls and seating. Live Christmas music is also performed within the tee-pees.
The trail uses existing footpaths and takes approximately 1.5 -2 hours to complete at a leisurely pace. Unlike other illuminated trails there are no illuminated sculptures, the lights focus on the trees and shrubs of the arboretum but this doesn't stop there being variation across the trail or several wow moments.
Different types of lights are used to create atmosphere. The ethereal music and dripping lights, disco balls suspended from the trees send little jewels of light flickering across the fallen leaves, illuminated dry ice and smoke rings add to the magic.
The major wow point of the trail comes approximately half way around the trail with the light show set to music. A ridge of specimen trees are illuminated with projected light displays set to music.
There are several interactive light installations, such as a microphone linked to the lights so the louder the noise you make the more lights turn on and another where you can project your face onto a tree. Drums which light trees and the obligatory Christmas wish tree (write your wish on a tag and it is hung on the tree) are also present.
The lights have been chosen with care, the installations which look like rain are placed on trees with a weeping nature, interesting bark is illuminated and specimens off the trail are illuminated creating a greater sense of depth and scale. The trail actually winds around a relatively small area for a mile but is made to feel even bigger because of the borrowed viewpoints and the darkness creating a sense of displacement.
Christmas is only a very small part of the trail, it certainly is not Christmas themed in fact there is no discernible theme. The Christmas element is really confined to the Christmas village at the entrance/exit where there is music and a small number of designer makers selling Christmas items. The whole trail is very well done but it does not leave the visitor feeling in the Christmas spirit.
There are no illuminated sculptures only trees which personally I enjoyed, the feeling was far more sophisticated than the often used polar bears, reindeer or giant flowers. The look and feel was of contemporary art installations using the trees and left you in no doubt of what the star of the show was, the trees not a sculpture that had been placed there for four weeks. This was the most contextual of all the Christmas/ Winter light experiences I've seen and after 21 years hasn't strayed from it's roots (no pun intended) of showing off the arboretum in literally a new light.
The lights seem to allow the personality of the tree to shine through, be that the slightly sorrowful weeping trees or the huge and imposing 'Rock star' trees and their rock soundtrack and stage setting.
We came away working out how to recreate aspects at home in our own garden with a spot light and a glitter ball, I just wish I knew what some of the trees were so I could plant them but I couldn't find the plant labels in the dark. I'm just going to have to return in the spring to find them, and surely that's the point of the whole thing.
The visitor experience at Westonbirt is in short very good. Booking is easy online, the downside is that you have to book in advance (and quite far in advance) so it means that there's no spur of the moment or checking the weather forecast before hand about this trip. It does however help to create the sense of occasion and build excitement, especially with younger children.
All tickets are in advance and timed, this as with Harry Potter Studios Tour, means that staff can plan perfectly so that the experience should be flawless and indeed it almost is. The huge advantage this gives is you can plan with much greater ease staffing levels and as someone who's had to make predictions and plan accordingly for anywhere between 98 and 10,000 visitors a day at the same attraction knowing exactly how many people will be on site is a godsend.
It also means that entry to the arboretum is quick, once you've parked (a little more track way would have been a good idea) visitors head to the main entrance building where printed tickets or phones are scanned. No monies are taken so queues are minimal, it also means no cashing up at the end of the night for the main gate and easier security arrangements.
Other great advantages of pre-booked tickets, they're non-refundable so regardless of the weather (the biggest issue with outdoor events in the UK) you're guaranteed the income even if they change their mind, you can control costs and waste especially in catering much easier as you're staffing for the number of tickets sold not a predicted number.
Where the timed tickets came into their own however was on the trail itself, by staggering the entrance times and limiting the numbers of tickets (the night I visited it was sold out) the trail is beautifully quiet. There are of course other people but far fewer than many other illuminated tree events where they do not use timed tickets. This really did enhance the event, the feeling is quite ethereal for a lot of the trail which would have been ruined if there had been crowds. Certain points did create a crowd, the main show stopper installation was the main point where there was a crowd however this was only relative to other points on the trail.
The paths chosen were good underfoot, wellies would have been an advantage as it was muddy but they were generally a good surface and sufficiently wide enough for wheelchairs/ prams and pedestrians. The paths were not illuminated, which also enhanced the trail. Because none of the paths had any hazards the look and feel was not compromised by lighting along the edge of the path.
Catering outlets were dotted along the trail route with seating, the lighting had been thought of here which was very pleasant to see. A trail such as this creates a feeling and atmosphere which is often lost with the visitor jerked back to reality as soon as elements such as catering are added in, it's always essential that the same vision is cast over all aspects of the experience as visitors do not make a distinction between which department looks after which element. The hanging coloured lanterns over the seating, the small scale of the outlet being slightly tucked away did not distract from the trail or the feeling that had been already created.
Signage was generally fine, a little unimaginative but serviceable. A small point but one that did impact on the look and feel was the white PVC 4x4 tent at the entrance to the trail itself, supposedly for ticket checks. Despite having staff inside no one did check our tickets and to be honest I'm not sure why this was necessary as our tickets had already been checked. The white PVC tent for staff welfare was a choice that really did detract from the experience, not being in keeping with anything else, except the event loos and the acres of white track way which also did nothing to enhance the look and feel. The tee-pees chosen for the Christmas village were perfect for creating the look and feel of Christmas and something a little bit different, something along these lines would have fitted much better.
Extra event toilets are provided, these were not being used despite the queue at the main facilities. Partly due to when given the choice most people will choose to wait to use the nicer facilities but mostly due to the fact that the additional toilets are located after the main arrival and there's no signage to direct people to the extra facilities. Queues were worse predictably at the arrival times for each group of ticket holders, every 20 minutes.
Retail and Catering
The Christmas village is the main centre for catering and retail. The what seems like acres of white track way is practical but does not enhance the look and feel, nor does the music played by the fair ground rides.
Catering is provided by outside suppliers in a mixture of wooden chalets and trailers, taking the form of the usual suspects for example pulled pork baguettes and chips. Only a small amount of seating is provided within the tee-pee as half is used for the craft stall holders and another large chunk used for musicians who sit within inches of tables. This makes it almost deafening to sit at fifty percent of the tables while they are playing.
As this is an evening event in December more indoor seating is required, the craft stalls could either be removed entirely as they did not add much or expanded to a sufficient number to merit their own tee-pee to give extra seating. Extra space is also required as a core audience is families, which come with children who need to sit to eat and also come with pushchairs/prams.
The tee-pees were however great, far far better than the usual depressing white PVC marquee. They created an atmosphere which was cosy and Christmassy and managed to feel warmer than the usual catering tent.
The Westonbirt shop was open with carols being played (not live) and a snow machine to entice the visitor from the end of the trail into the shop.
Overall it's easy to see why Enchanted Christmas at Westonbirt has endured, but what's more pleasing and impressive is that it's stayed true to what Westonbirt is about. It's about showing off the trees. Making you look at them in a new way, giving them their own individual personality and making you want to come back to find out more and that's far more important both in terms of cause and also for long term loyalty than driving temporary footfall and hitting income targets.