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Once upon a time the end of October heralded the closing of gates and the putting to bed of houses until the grand reopening in March ready for Easter. Not that the work stopped, but the income did. Nowadays few heritage sites can afford to close entirely for the winter; Christmas has now become a season in it's own right with it's own targets, budgets and a planning group. Like in the retail world how you perform at Christmas now plays a major part in overall performance for the year.

Each year there are reports in the media of a Winter Wonderland attraction that fails to be either wintry or wonderful. However this is not true in the heritage world, we do it rather well actually. The Guardian's round-up of the best outdoor activities are dominated by heritage attractions.

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/dec/03/best-outdoor-activities-christmas-2017-ice-skating-markets

From ice rinks, Christmas markets and the increasingly popular light displays the location is just as important as the event. Half the charm of Bath Christmas market is wandering through the Georgian architecture with the chalets in the shadow of Bath Abbey. Ice skating somehow is just more Christmassy with a backdrop of Hampton Court Palace, Somerset House or Winchester Cathedral. Heritage makes Christmas.

This isn't wholly surprising, for many people Christmas is a traditional affair and if it's one thing a heritage attraction can do well it's traditional. The idea of creating memories and their own traditions plays a large part in this, this is even greater when children form part of the family group. Parents and grandparents wish to pass on their own Christmas memories, with a hint of rose tint.

Why are you doing this? You'll ask yourself that a lot,I promise. Most General Managers, Chief Executives, Directors et al want everything, that is not possible. If they are defining the objective get them to priortise one goal.

Below are a few things to consider to keep your Christmas on track.

  • Start Early.

Have your first planning meeting before the end of January at the latest, most events planning occurs around 12 months in advance.

This allows you to do what you want and with the suppliers you want, not who hasn't been booked yet. Time can make even the most ambitious plans possible.

Make sure your wash-up meeting from the previous Christmas happens before the first planning meeting. Wash-up's need to be held while things are stil fresh in your mind but with a little time for reflection. Book it in the diary early.

  • Do your research

What's the competition? If you are going to offer the same event it better be twice as good. Far better to offer an alternative.

Visit other places, you might not have their budget but you can still get great inspiration. Take colleagues with you for shared experiences and lots and lots of photos.

  • Have a Theme

It should reflect and enhance the surroundings and your story.

This makes life much easier, it helps with messaging and gives a coherent look and feel to the whole event. It should reflect and enhance the surroundings and your story. Ensure this is carried through to the details, such as retail product in the shop and menu in the cafe. Work with the catering and retail managers, it will help drive secondary spend which after all is the lifeblood to generating income.

  • Decorations

Better to concentrate on a few areas with the highest dwell time and do them well than try and decorate the whole 400 acre estate.

Visitor expectations have risen over the years, if you're going to do something do it well. A few fairy lights and tinsel isn't going to cut it. Better to concentrate on a few areas with the highest dwell time and do them well than try and decorate the whole 400 acre estate. Consider the durability and locations of the decorations. Do they need to withstand the general public, the weather for six weeks and be used next year?

Health and safety requirements are a priority, everything you do must come up to the required safety standards. Indoor lights used outside and waterproofing a multi-plug using a carrier bag and sticky tape is never acceptable, I've seen this more than once over the years. Waterproof boxes specifically for this job are available on line and are inexpensive. It may not be sparkly but could be the best purchase you make.

  • Family Activities

Adults want to get involved just as much as the kids

Family activities are perfect for this time of year. Think about your audience. Age range is all important but also what type of activity are they looking for.

Christmas is generally a time for families interacting with each other, so something that involves the grown ups is always a winner. My favourite family at an activity a few years ago was the two sets of grandparents, mum and dad and the sleeping six week old baby. Proving the adults want to get involved just as much as the kids.
If it's a traditional experience you're looking for stay clear of technology for this. Maybe save the downloadable app you're itching to use for the summer.

A visit to Father Christmas is an integral part of Christmas with young children, however proceed at your own risk if you're thinking offering a grotto alongside your children's activities. Think about how you're going to manage queues and the boredom, frustration and tantrums that accompany small children and their parents having to wait for sometimes long periods of time often in the cold. Rarely does this increase the excitement of meeting the man himself.

A better idea can be to have a roaming Father Christmas, no queues or terrified tots. There is the opportunity to have a chat and photo or just a wave from a distance for the slightly more wary child. Setting up a postbox (historic ones are perfect if you're lucky enough to have one) for letters to be posted along with a table with paper and pencils creates an activity, Father Christmas can even empty it at advertised times throughout the day.

  • Budgets.

This is an event, you will need extra budget. The purpose of these events is to generate income, to do this you need to invest a realistic budget.

Having the budget in place early means that you can make it stretch further, particularly in the post Christmas sales of lights and decorations. Small savings start to add up, as charities it's about making every penny count. Think about your buying power, are you part of a larger organisation or multiple sites and can buy in bulk and save money.

Buy things that can last. I'm certainly not an advocate of reusing items that are tired, however buying good quality in a timeless design may mean you can get two or three years of use rather than one.

Depending when your financial year starts you may need your budget to span two spending years, discuss this with your Finance Business Partner before your budgets are due to be submitted. Don't assume that they realise that for you Christmas doesn't end after the 25th Decemeber.

  • Ask for Help

It's the idea which counts not the department that comes up with it

This is a whole site affair, you'll need the support of your colleagues in other teams so get them involved early. Particularly regarding conservation requirements, what was fine for you to do in June might be completely off the cards in December particularly outdoors. They sometimes have amazing ideas and it's the idea that counts not which department comes up with it.

If you need staffing support over the festive period ask early before people make plans. Most importantly keep it fair and keep a record, if Boxing Day is working day make sure those who work get a reprieve next year.

  • Volunteers

Many people assume they can't get volunteers over the Christmas period, it's simply not true.

Most organisations with volunteers recognise just how wonderful they can be. Staffing costs and logistics over Christmas can be a nightmare, volunteers can really help with this.

Many people assume they can't get volunteers over the Christmas period, it's simply not true. In addition to your existing dedicated volunteers, many people can be very lonely at Christmas. Some charities stop recruiting in summer because demand is so high for the Christmas period, advertising on volunteering websites can be a great way to attract new volunteers just for this specific event. They may even become a more regular member of the team.

  • Marketing

Create opportunities for the public to share their wonderful day with you

Another reason to start early, make sure you have a clear message with images for the long lead press by the summer, each publication has their own deadlines. Your event should be summed up in 2 sentences. No one will come if they don't know what you're doing or when. Make sure you have identified your target audiences.

Create opportunities for the public to share their wonderful day with you, highlight wifi in cafes and give them photo opportunities as well as your own social media output. Word of mouth (or facebook status updates) can be the best advertising.

Finally and most importantly...

What's the purpose?

By defining the success criteria early on in planning brings much needed clarity to expectations and what you are to deliver

Why am I doing this? You'll ask yourself that question a lot, I promise.

Especially 3 days before the event when you're covered in glitter, have a headache from spray painting gold everything that doesn't move in a poly tunnel, have wrapped thousands of presents, finally filled the last Father Christmas spot in the rota and just spent the last 4 hours in the freezing cold decorating more Christmas trees than you care to think about.

However, this is a project like any other and it needs a purpose. Defining what makes it a success will help you focus, help evaluation in a wash up meeting and makes sure it contributes to strategic objectives. It helps priortise budgets and keeps the project on track. Most General Managers, Chief Executives, Directors et al want everything, that is not possible. If they are defining the objective get them to priortise one goal, others can be secondary but a project only works best with one. That could be to increase income, increase visitors, attract a new audience, increase brand awareness or sell membership. Ideally add a target,for example increase by x% on prior year. This may be a scary thought but you'll feel amazing (and relax) when you hit it.

Be realistic about what you can achieve. Assess what's possible with your team, budget, resources and facilities. You may want to increase your visitor numbers by 100% but can your car park, cafe and loos cope?

By defining the success criteria early on in planning brings much needed clarity to expectations and what you are to deliver. This may seem obvious but I have lost count of the number of projects I have been a part of where this has not happened even at the most senior level, the outcomes could have been so much better if it had.