An expert view with…

jogn simmsJOHN SIMMS


What’s been important in developing the group profile of the West Somerset Railway?

Since 1994, we’ve developed the commercial operations of the railway, such as establishing a database of visitors including GTOs and coach operators so that we can keep in touch with them. My experience as a volunteer (for 16 years prior to a full time role) brought me in touch with many different visitors, and I was able to find out what they wanted to see and do on a visit. I’ve found that face to face contact with potential visitors is equally important. For this reason, we attend trade shows throughout the country including Excursions and the South West Group Travel Show and, as well as making new contacts, it’s always good to catch up with GTOs who have already visited us, and to hand out new, updated information. At shows outside of the south west, we also carry leaflets about other attractions and accommodation in the county because groups are more likely to be visiting as part of an overnight or extended break and this helps them to see what the area has to offer.

What types of groups visit the WSR?

We cater for all kinds of groups from those brought by coach operators such as Shearings or Johnsons to private groups like WIs, school and youth groups, the U3A and many more. We have regular groups from the Indian sub-continent and many visitors from continental Europe, and have dipped our toes into advertising in the Chinese market. We try to help GTOs plan their day, and our leaflets and website contain suggestions of things to see and do along the 20 miles of line from Bishops Lydeard, near Taunton, to Minehead. We sometimes carry cycling groups – who may want to ride one way and then cycle back – although there is a limit to the number of bikes that can be carried at a time. We also have a range of events for railway enthusiasts. These include Steam Galas in March and October, the Winter Steam Festival and a Diesel Gala in June.

How do you make the most of your marketing budget?

We advertise in a range of media including trade magazines, local newspapers and on local radio, and we ensure that leaflets are distributed throughout the south west at accommodation and TICs. From my time as a semi-pro musician, touring the clubs and pubs in the 1970s and 80s, I learnt the value of communications since many of the venues we played at were not very proactive at organising PR! It was up to me to contact local newspapers to tell them about our events and news, and in that way let people know where we were playing. At the railway, I continue to ensure our news is well communicated and so I send out a monthly newsletter, by email. This allows GTOs to find out what’s happening at the railway, details of the shows we will be attending and ensures the railway is kept in the forefront of their minds. The website is also useful in supporting other marketing efforts and it allows people to book online, but we find GTOs still like to ring and personally talk through their visit and to confirm all details.

How do you ensure the WSR maintains its visitor numbers?

The WSR has over 200,000 visitors a year and is one of the biggest attractions in Somerset. There is no easy way to maintain this interest. You have to keep hammering away and not sit back and think that the website alone will keep people booking tickets. I find there is no substitute for face-to-face contact and for regularly staying in touch with the contacts we have made. We also plan different events and take advantage of evolving technology, and have just unveiled a free Railway App, which features an ‘augmented reality’ scanner – finding hidden targets at stations unlocks 3D moving images and content – as well as general information about the railway such as timetables.

John Simms worked in the computer department at Debenhams in Taunton as a Controller and Scheduler before joining the West Somerset Railway full time in 1994. For 16 years prior to this, he had volunteered for the railway and was based at the Somerset and Dorset Railway Trusts Museum at Washford Station. During the 70s and 80s he was also a semi-professional musician touring around the south of England and South Wales. At the WSR, Britain’s longest standard gauge heritage railway, John is responsible for commercial operations including marketing and liaising with groups, advertising and press releasing amongst other jobs.