An Expert View With…


VISITOR SERVICES, Houses of Parliament

How have you approached understanding groups and learning what works?

I was personally new to the groups market when I started at the Houses of Parliament but, fortunately, tours were well established in this area. The Blue Badge guided tours have proved popular with GTOs, and have won a number of awards in the past few years, so I had a strong base to build upon. In my view, the only real way to fully understand the groups market is to talk to people operating in the sector. Meeting people is an essential part of my role and I can learn more about the groups market by spending a day at an event like Excursions than in a month sat at my desk! I have gained more in-depth knowledge through our memberships of organisations such as the Group Travel Organisers’ Association and the Coach Tourism Council, and I attend the Group Travel Business Forum meetings where the presentations and discussions invariably look at the groups market from a different angle.

You have embraced new technology in terms of your group offer – why did you make that decision and how?

Our guided tours remain an essential part of our visitor offer but the structure of a guided tour doesn’t suit everyone. We wanted to offer visitors the choice of taking a fully guided tour or a self-guided tour so we worked with Antenna International to develop an entertaining and informative audio tour. Embracing new technology means we can broaden our appeal to a wider range of groups, engage with new audiences both from the UK and abroad, and hopefully encourage previous visitors to come back. Mid 2014, we added a free ‘Explore Westminster Hall’ app.

What needs of group visitors influenced the recent upgrade to your visitor experience?

Increasingly, feedback about the visitor experience we offer is posted very publicly on forums such as TripAdvisor and Twitter. Fortunately, most of the feedback we receive is very positive but we can’t afford to stand still. Aside from introducing a choice of tours this year, we have made a number of other significant changes to enhance the visitor experience. A constant grumble was the lack of seating opportunities on the tours, which we responded to by building sit down stops into the guided tours and including designated seating areas along the audio tour route. This has already helped to create a more relaxed atmosphere. We were becoming increasingly aware that many of our visitors with disabilities or restricted mobility have to carefully plan their visit well in advance. Therefore, we have just produced a 15-minute access video, which sets out essential information such as the number of steps, lift availability and facilities for guide dogs. After the successful launch of afternoon teas as a tour add-on last year, we changed the room in which we do this to the 70-capacity Terrace Pavilion to accommodate most groups in one sitting.

Any tips for those looking to provide an exceptional service to groups?

It’s been said so many times that tourism is a ‘people’ industry and I absolutely believe this. I learnt from two glorious summers as a Visitor Assistant for The National Trust that the positive interaction between the visitor-facing team and visitors is what really makes for a memorable day out. Also, that a smile goes a long way! Like all visitor attractions, we face challenges. Our group visitors to Westminster have to make the often tiring journey into Central London, many using public transport. Then on arrival they have to clear the airport-style security before they can start their tour. It is therefore essential that we provide a warm welcome from the time visitors arrive at Parliament to the time they leave. The pre-tour experience, particularly for GTOs, shouldn’t be overlooked. As I mentioned, we constantly monitor and act on feedback. I am delighted to say that we are bringing ticketing in-house this autumn. Having our own bookings team will enable us to develop an even stronger relationship with our visitors, and understand their requirements right from the outset.

Following many years working in financial services, Ian re-trained and was awarded an MSC with distinction in Tourism Marketing by the University of Surrey, quickly developing an in-depth knowledge of the industry through roles with New Zealand tour specialist South Pacific Travellers World, marketing and PR agency Elliotts, and The National Trust. Ian Lacey was appointed to the newly created role of Marketing & Travel Trade Manager at the Houses of Parliament in October 2012.