Tourism Solutions from Business Sector Employees: the National Trust Meets Orange
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The tourism and business sectors have valuable lessons to learn from each other and skills and experiences to share. A training initiative involving placing Orange graduate employees in real life challenges within the National Trust illustrates the way in which new directions are opened for both parties. This article outlines the following.
- How such partnerships can be set up.
- How they can be of mutual benefit to the business and tourism partners, as well as graduate employees.
- How the tourism sector can draw on business skills and new perspectives at minimal cost.
- How the experience can change attitudes and attract new audiences.
Collaborative projects in which business partners place their employees within the tourism sector for training experiences offer enormous potential benefits for both parties. The tourism partner provides real business challenges to employees from other sectors. These business challenges offer powerful analogies for the non-tourism employees, acting as a catalyst for enhancing business skills and innovative thinking. The tourism businesses receive a fresh and unbiased perspective on their own challenges at little cost to them and with no conflict of interest.
The National Trust has been using this innovative approach to engage with the wider community. It has drawn on the expertise of employees from blue chip companies for ideas and to expand its connections with audiences and potential customers that they would not traditionally be known for attracting.
The National Trust has followed one particular path for forming links with partners, but there is potential for individual customisation and adaptation to suit other types of tourism businesses, both large and small.
- A hotel or a B&B could have a group of young, hard working individuals focus on how off-peak occupancy rates could be improved.
- A large attraction could benefit from research and fresh opinions on how to adapt pricing and attraction strategies during the credit crunch to retain, or even increase, ongoing custom.
- A coach operator could work with a group of young professionals on ideas for effectively differentiating from the competition.
The tourism sector is in an ideal position to take advantage of such low-cost solutions to problem solving and market expansion and only stands to gain from forming such cross-sector industry partnerships.
During the last six years Strategis, a learning and development consultancy, has developed this experiential learning concept. Working with the National Trust as a host organisation, they have created bespoke training programmes for large blue chip companies within the financial, telecoms and IT service sectors.
In principle, the consultancy acts as an intermediary, usually by establishing a training need within the client company and then matching them to an appropriate host organisation. A real project is identified within the host organisation to use as a basis for the company employees' learning.
Some client companies want to work with not-for-profit organisations, but others will consider different partners within the commercial sector, particularly if the client organisation wants learning to focus on business acumen skills. Experiential learning also works well where businesses already have close links and want an opportunity to deepen the relationship.
Once a suitable match is established the consultancy develops a learning brief with the client organisation and then discusses a range of potential projects with the host organisation. All work provided by the consultancy is paid for by the client organisation. (In this context the National Trust is the ‘host’ organisation and Orange is the ‘client’ organisation.)
The most usual pattern is that a team of eight to 20 employees completes a project over three to five days. The employees are often graduates aged from 21–25, although senior professionals have also been involved on some occasions. During the events, held at National Trust properties, company employees have the potential to learn the following skills, as well as the National’s Trust’s aims, objectives and work.
- Project management
- Team effectiveness
- Presentation skills
- Handling client expectations
- Working through conflict
- Stakeholder management
- Developing resilience
- Identifying strengths and dealing with constructive feedback.
Real business challenges are a key component in providing an experiential learning programme. Rather than learning in a classroom, focusing on concepts and theories, or in their own familiar working environment with established protocols, entrenched expectations and demands, the employees learn by working on a real issue in an unfamiliar sector, and solving it as a team.
The employees are encouraged to reflect upon the experience as it unfolds and are given feedback by the facilitators who observe the process. The employees are given the opportunity to work within a secure and confidential environment to analyse and review what they and their colleagues are doing to contribute to providing business value and to look at what barriers are getting in the way of success or progress. There is then the opportunity to adapt and modify how they are working, so they can see the benefits of trying different approaches.
It is critical that the project is real and time-bound as this creates a sense of urgency from the National Trust. Company employees see the relevance of the project, compare and contrast the experiences with their usual working life, and ultimately transfer the learning back into the workplace. The limited timescale simulates real life. This fuels the adrenalin of the company employees, making the learning experience memorable and enjoyable.
The following are a few of the projects that partner company employees have taken part in during the last six years.
- Advising on how to restore a water wheel to its former glory while providing the maximum amount of electricity to supply the energy needs of both the National Trust’s on site activities and those of the surrounding residents in the local community.
- Engaging with a local community to find ways to inspire residents to regenerate a six-acre site back to fertile productive allotments, benefiting the diverse community of residents and local biodiversity in the environs of the National Trust estate at Morden Hall Park in London.
- Researching and designing an appropriate brand image for the National Trust’s involvement in the government funded ‘v’ youth volunteering programme for 16-25 year olds.
- Using customer research to identify solutions for increasing secondary spend in the National Trust’s retail and catering outlets at three sites in the Wessex and Devon & Cornwall regions.
In all of these examples, and many more, the National Trust has benefited from high quality input that has been used to benefit the organisation. Heather Worth, Regional Volunteering Officer for the National Trust’s Devon & Cornwall region highlights a number of specific benefits.
- The young employees who take part in these partnership experiences often have very different backgrounds and experiences from many National Trust employees. They bring with them a fresh perspective on the particular challenge that has been set. This can result in different suggestions or approaches being proposed from those the Trust would have come up with internally, or can confirm an approach the Trust is already taking.
- Having access to a focused, educated team of individuals completing and exploring a significant problem for the Trust over a short, intense period of time with an immediate end result. During 2007 a group on the Orange graduate training scheme produced a successful brand image and slogan (Give it some welly) for the ‘v’ youth volunteering National Trust and English Heritage project, which was immediately adopted.
- The programmes reinvigorate National Trust staff morale; having new faces on site with a fresh perspective, challenging existing practice and assumptions enables them to move forward in key areas, which has a positive impact on the business.
- Financial contribution from the blue chip company covers accommodation and catering, making this a low-cost solution for achieving innovation and progress.
- Changing the participant’s perceptions of the work of the National Trust, making them aware of the diversity of the Trust’s activities and the range of ways to get involved with their work.
- Participants have become National Trust members, visitors and volunteers as a result of taking part in programmes and have been inspired to get more involved.
Company employees often learn most when things go wrong. One group, which had been carrying out more than 200 surveys over two days on customer experiences at Prior Park in Bath, lost all of their Excel data when their computer hard drive malfunctioned. Another group of graduates from a large IT services consultancy were using an exhibition to promote green living. They conducted research into local people’s interest in adopting energy saving devices and exploring solutions that they could implement in their own homes. During the consultation process the exhibition was vandalised which seriously undermined their whole approach. These disasters create problem solving and understanding, never to be forgotten by the employees, regarding risk management and recovering from mistakes.
Klas Mellander speaks about the importance of creating ‘Aha! Moments’ in his book The Power of Learning. It is by creating their own experiences and making their own mistakes that the employees come to really understand the skill set they are working to acquire and develop. Real-life learning, including mistakes, leads to a much more rapid application of the lessons, which benefits the individuals and their companies.
The quality of the projects provided by the National Trust is the key to creating these powerful learning experiences for company employees. It is also worth noting that the employees benefit from moving out of their offices and working in the beautiful and inspiring surroundings of the National Trust properties. Employees have found that being away from their full email and voicemail in-boxes allows space for more creative thinking and innovative solutions.
An example of an experiential event in May 2009 illustrates the benefits for all parties involved. Nineteen graduate employees from Orange were set the challenge of coming up with solutions for increasing secondary spend in the cafes and shops of three National Trust properties: Killerton in East Devon, Dyrham Park near Bath and Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire.
Orange wanted to provide a stimulating learning experience to the employees after their first year of working with the company, which would provide an opportunity for them to further bond as a group of young professionals and also help them embed a number of skills such as project management, presentation, self direction, team leadership and commercial awareness.
Prior to the event the National Trust and Strategis, developed the project outline and the timetable of events for the four days. Strategis were keen to work to ensure that the project selected had a commercial focus as the Orange graduates would be expected to develop their competence in business acumen.
The Orange graduate employees were given a written brief about the nature of the project and why Orange wanted them to take part. The graduates knew very little about the National Trust and at this point none of them were members. The four-day programme had a noticeable impact on the perception of the participants about the National Trust.
Project management simulation – to highlight the importance of staying close to their key stakeholder, the National Trust, and to ensure that they delivered what was expected.
Stakeholder briefing – clients, Heather Worth and Richard Watson, talked about the National Trust’s retail and catering departments and clarified the expected project outcomes.
The graduates then divided themselves into three different sub-teams to research the different sites.
Key stakeholder meetings – with property managers, retail and catering managers, and visitor services managers.
Research – observation of stocking, merchandise and the layout of the commercial outlets; data on past sales performance was provided; customer interviews.
Analysis – each group considered their research and formulated ideas.
Group analysis – at the end of day the teams regrouped to share their experiences.
- Those graduates visiting Killerton were particularly impressed by the community apple picking days and focused on the theme of local produce at the Killerton estate.
- The beauty and tranquillity of Dryham Park was what captured the imagination of the graduates visiting this site, including the proximity of the deer and other wildlife. This resulted in a multitude of suggestions, including the idea of selling picnic hampers to allow visitors to spend more time outdoors in the Park to appreciate the stunning scenery and atmospheric historical setting.
- The historical significance of Chedworth Roman Villa is what struck a chord with the delegates based at this site. They highlighted the importance of merchandising around this theme. This was a best practice approach which was supported by analysis of the on-site shop’s retail figures, which showed that merchandising to support a site’s unique selling point is a strategy that works.
Some conflict arose as to the best way forward, simulating what happens within real teams when working towards building consensus and agreement. Strategis facilitators offered guidance and helped to resolve disagreements, as well as giving feedback to graduates about where they showed potential and where they might need to develop skills.
Final preparation – Prior to the presentations, one-on-one coaching on presentation techniques was provided to the graduates by Strategis and Orange. Prototypes of products and marketing slogans were produced.
Presentations – research and proposals from the three teams was presented to about 20 National Trust and Orange personnel.
One way of measuring the success of the event, from the host organisation’s perspective, is if any of the recommendations presented are adopted.
At this particular event the graduates presented retail and catering ideas for Killerton. They recognised that the shop was very good at promoting local produce and the customers they interviewed saw it as a strong selling point. However, they felt that Killerton was not maximising this opportunity by communicating the stories of the origins of the produce.
The Killerton team are now in the process of implementing two story links for produce sold on site about:
- the flour which is milled on the estate, sold in the shop and also used in the food served in the restaurant and café
- their work with the Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education – Killerton provides wood grown on the estate to the deaf students who carve products to be sold in the shop.
Hilary Sluman, the Retail Manager for Killerton, was enthusiastic about the graduates work, saying,
'It was really nice and refreshing to get their ideas. It was lovely to have ideas without them being institutionalised or positioned in such a way as to why they would not be possible.'
Prior to this learning programme most of the Orange graduate employees were unaware of what the Trust had to offer young people. At the end of the event Heather Worth asked the graduates how many of them would now consider becoming members of the Trust. Some 70% of the group responded positively. This illustrates that participants can become enthusiastic fans and ambassadors for the host organisation.
This type of cooperative learning event provides a range of benefits for the tourism sector.
- Attractions or venues can access fresh perspectives and new approaches to their business challenges at little or no cost to themselves.
- Tourism businesses integrate the experience and business knowledge of their own staff, with innovative approaches that partner employees can offer.
- These events provide a catalyst for focusing on and resolving a business challenge.
- The tourism partner is introduced in a very positive and proactive way to new potential audiences: the participants in the learning experience, their friends and family, and the potential new customers that a fresh perspective will attract.
- This has benefits for both the individual organisation and for British tourism as a whole – encouraging young professionals to actively engage with the industry.
The experience Strategis has had in running these events is that all parties involved have found them a positive, enjoyable and productive means of improving a business. Although the primary purpose has, to date, originated from the perspective of the client organisation and their learning needs, there is no reason why that dynamic could not be reversed, with the tourism ‘host’ actively seeking partnership from other sectors in solving specific problems.
In either case the end result is real work and extra resources for the host organisation on important business issues, helping to stretch limited budgets. The partner organisation also comes away with a range of benefits for their workforce and their business along with increased community involvement and the scope for longer-term cross-sector cooperation.
- Mellander, K. The Power of Learning (1993). McGraw Hill.
Heather Worth, Regional Volunteer Officer, Devon & Cornwall is a regional advisor in the National Trust’s Devon & Cornwall region. Two of her priority areas are to develop corporate volunteering with local and national businesses and also youth volunteering, encouraging younger people to get involved with the NT. Heather has worked for the National Trust for nearly seven years, following a career in drug and alcohol social work, working in the UK, New Zealand and the South Pacific.
Sue Tye is Managing Director of Strategis Developments Ltd. Sue believes in creating highly realistic, fun and stimulating learning environments for corporate clients, specialising in experiential events and business simulations. Sue works across many industry sectors, including Telecoms, Financial Services, Travel and Tourism, Energy and Utilities, Consultancy Services, Retail, Regulatory bodies, public sector, and not-for-profit organisations.
Prior to setting up Strategis Developments Ltd in 2002, Sue worked as Director of Human Resources for American Express, throughout mainland Europe on major business transformational projects.