September 2018: Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned

I’m writing this blog the day before my summer holiday and am full of that familiar mix of exhaustion and anticipation which tells me it’s time for a break.

Despite wrapping up both of our main construction contracts earlier in the year, it’s only now that I’m really able to step back.  That was always going to be part of the picture since our intention was to upgrade and improve the building and the visitor experience and then take immediate advantage of our new facilities.  But delays in finishing work inside the Cathedral have made things much more complicated than we’d hoped.

Our timeline showed an extremely logical sequence: main construction finishing; followed by installation of our new visitor welcome and other kit; followed by staff and volunteer training – and all in time for the arrival of our main visitor season.  It was a great plan, not least because it factored in a bit of respite for colleagues who would have lived through 12 months’ of noise and disruption.  But delays have meant countless different contractors and fabricators working around each other with little room left for training and familiarisation in the way we’d planned.

I’m not quite sure how to word this tactfully but neither the Church of England nor Gloucester Cathedral are particularly swift to adapt to change.  I’m sympathetic to that (for most people change is uncomfortable at best) but there’s no doubt that other organisations might have been able to cope with these circumstances more easily.  I’m thinking of smaller, newer, younger organisations as well as those who are more digital or even virtual.  But when you start with an ancient and precious building with a long and storied tradition and a spirit of place that is calm, contemplative and a living example of tradition, the more time you can give yourself the better!

One of the other knock on effects has been on the Cathedral’s bottom line.  Cathedrals only seem to be not of this world when the truth is that we are absolutely subject to the same financial circumstances and pressures as anyone else.  In fact, if you’ve been watching the entertaining second series of Location, Location, Location meets Britain’s Stately Homes, you’ll know that buildings like ours need particularly deep pockets to keep them as intended!  So this year, Gloucester Cathedral factored into its annual financial planning an increase both in visitor donations and in sales of our new Cathedral Guide, with funds kicking in at the start of the new Visitor Season.  And therefore any delay in properly embedding our new Welcome and working out how and when to best approach visitors so that they don’t feel subject to a heavy-sell has a noticeable, negative financial impact.  It’s not disastrous but it has caused us to spend a significant amount of time checking and double-checking our assumptions and plans to be certain that we’ve identified the most effective way of balancing visitor experience with visitor income.

Now that we’ve finally been able to take a breath, we’ve also started to look around again.  Colleagues have been undertaking a series of best practice visits to Cathedrals around the country which have a reputation for getting this right.  We’ve also sent questionnaires to all other Cathedrals asking some searching questions about the thorny topic of “Income Generation”.  We still have much to learn.

As Pilgrim Project Manager I’m peripheral to that work but there’s no doubt it’s all part of the same plan.  My own contribution at this point relates more to our project evaluation and the fact that within the next month we’ll begin close collaboration with consultants to find out what impact Pilgrim has had so far.  Completing a meaningful evaluation is effectively part of our agreement with funders but it’s anything but a tick box exercise.  As time has gone on, we’ve re-shaped our original thinking and now we’re hoping for some initial analysis and conclusions early in the new year to help us think about which parts of the project we should find room for as part of our permanent offer.  By the time we get to the middle of next year, an updated set of conclusions will help us shape the next phase of Project Pilgrim.

So the challenge this month is to come back to the Cathedral with energy and fresh eyes.  Over the next twelve months we need to take every advantage of our previous hard work and good fortune so that Pilgrim really will have been worth the wait.


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