The National Trust has done away with what has become an iconic part of its identity, the car parking sticker. No longer can it be found on the first page of the handbook or adorning a significant number of the cars in the Waitrose car park.
Instead the Trust has opted for a new style of car parking machines, these have been on the cards for a few years now but the scheme has now been rolled out. The new machines issue tickets like a normal pay and display machine but as a member you get a free ticket. Upon arrival you scan your membership card at the machine and bingo out pops the free ticket.
This is an example of the Trust embracing technology and has several benefits for members. Gone are they days of almost exclusively single car households, nowadays just one sticker isn't enough so no more queuing at visitor reception to ask for another one. If you're out with friends or family who aren't members there's no need to take your car instead of theirs because you have the magic sticker and also there's no need to remember to actually put it in your car rather than it sitting in the front of the handbook for 6 months.
But it would be wrong to think this massive investment is for the sole convenience of the visitor, the Trust will benefit hugely from the data is can now gather. Scanning membership cards on entry has been standard practice for many years but this has been confined to properties with a pay barrier. It is estimated within the Trust that many of the countryside properties (landscape with a car park but little or no visitor facilities) without a pay barrier are often more visited than the traditional house and garden. However this is only an estimate, there's been very little way of knowing until now.
Using the membership data base to identify the core audience becomes much easier. Are visitors coming from far and wide to visit or are they all local? Do many people visit but only once a year or are half the visits due to Mrs Smith and her Spaniel who come everyday? Are most of the visits from people with individual or joint membership or family membership? All these answers can be obtained and can be used to better inform how the property is being used, what investment is needed and also any hard to reach audiences.
Now this will change. Members bring income regardless of whether there are facilities for secondary spend.
Being able to to have a better guide of visitor numbers and demographics will be able to better inform the types of facilities that should be provided at sites. Whether this is that the cyclical car park maintenance budget needs to be increased because all those pot holes are actually due to the amount of visitors you never knew you came to the site and not ruining their suspension adds greatly to the Visitor Enjoyment score. Or whether actually there is an untapped secondary spend opportunity or more importantly that it doesn't exist. Spending large amounts on a outdoor catering unit when 95% of the visitors are local dog walkers who'd rather nip home for a free coffee rarely makes sense. If most of your visitors travel for over an hour to get there a coffee and a loo is a no brainer.
Visitor facilities aside there is a more Trust specific consequence to this move. Individual National Trust properties receive their funding in a myriad of different ways, depending on the property this can be rather complicated involving endowments, external funding, rents, profits from commercial activities the list goes on. However one major source of income is the money received from member visits.
But there is a but... unfortunately the new whizz bang machines do not print money. The resources have not changed, they just need to be distributed in another way.
Members enter NT properties for free, flash your card and sail through the gates. But it is very important that the nice chap at admissions scans your card, the reason being that the National Trust centrally give the individual property money for each member visit. The amount per visit varies from year to year and can make a huge difference to finances, for the biggest pay for entry properties this has historically been around £1m per year. This sounds like a huge amount but it actually isn't, every single penny of this is needed. It pays for conservation work the core purpose of the Trust but also pays for all the facilities the hundreds of thousands of visitors a year need. That is a lot of wear and tear, cleaning and a lot of loo roll.
For the properties with no pay barrier this has not played a big part, funding has come from other sources. However with the change of knowing with far greater accuracy how many member visits occur at these properties it has the implication to shake up the funding as properties with the new machines will now be eligible for the member credit.
If properties have fewer visitors than previously estimated this has the potential to negatively impact their income from the Trust. This doesn't mean that this will happen as it won't be the only criteria the Trust will use to determine need but it could play a part in how funds are allocated. On the other hand if the property has many more visitors than the estimate it could mean they are now eligible for far more income due to their visitor numbers. Horray.
But there is a but... unfortunately the new whizz bang machines do not print money. The resources have not changed, they just need to be distributed in another way. This is a decision for the Trust as to how the resources are dished up, as ever there is never enough. The results are likely to be just as many disappointed General Managers as happy ones, a lot of head scratching and Finance Business Partners working some late nights trying to make it all work.
For some this will be financially beneficial, some will no doubt be disappointed and some will loose out. The properties likely to see the biggest impact are actually the ones undergoing the least change, the pay for entry properties. These are likely to see a reduction in their the amount of member credit they receive as providing the previous levels would be unsustainable.
Another potential consequence would be the increased competition for member visits from non pay for entry properties. Previously there was little incentive for many countryside properties to attract members to visit as they did not benefit from member credit and did not receive any car parking charges. Now this will change. Members bring income regardless of whether there are facilities for secondary spend.
This means that there is much greater incentive for the teams to start organising events and reasons to return, all fabulous for the member, the Trust and for its core purpose. The Trust started as a land conservation charity with the aims that open spaces were beneficial to the health and well being of everyone. But it might be less beneficial for local properties who now have greater competition but if properties work together to share knowledge it could be a great opportunity. Creating more reasons to become a member and so creating more memberships. As with everything time will tell.
I might not have to remember to put the sticker in the car but I do need to remember to scan my card at the machine...easier said than done.