Groundwork South (GS) supported the development of a new, sustainably built (straw bale) Visitor Centre in the HCPLNR. At the very outset GS helped to secure significant EU Interreg monies to support construction costs, and throughout the build process we have been playing a key role to help ensure a world class sustainable visitor centre is provided for the benefit of the local community and visitors to the park from further afield. We researched and commissioned the interpretation elements (part funded through the ‘Hidden Hastings Heritage’ programme), created the retail offer and designed and fundraised to landscape the immediate outdoor space. Through our wider Hidden Hastings Heritage (HLF) programme we have been raising awareness of the park, providing volunteer, school and family activities, supporting wider new interpretation and signage and creating new pathways.
The Groundwork board approved the signing of a lease with HBC to manage the Visitor Centre for a period of 10 years. For the first 3 years HBC will cover and be responsible for all building management and maintenance, including rates, insurance, utility costs, cleaning, maintenance (building and grounds) and has a council approved £20k p.a. budget to do so. Linked to the lease is a management agreement covering how the centre is to be run and detailing Groundwork’s KPIs (that are included below in this report).
We will need a good period of 12-18 months, particularly with potential ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, to fully understand the best basis for successfully and sustainably managing the Visitor Centre. Income to cover staffing costs will come from a mix of café and retail income, as well as from grant funding and events/private hire. Any in year surpluses attained by Groundwork in the management of the Visitor Centre will be reinvested into the Bale House, or wider Hastings Country Park projects, as determined by the monitoring group (made up of HBC and Groundwork). The Management Forum will be given details of annual financial performance at the appropriate time.
There are currently 4 paid members of Groundwork staff working towards a successful Visitor Centre operation:
Mark Howie - Visitor Centre manager (1.0 FTE)
Tanya Reid - Visitor Centre Steward (0.4FTE)
Jill Tyson - supporting volunteers and wider park conservation volunteering (0.5FTE)
Alistair Chadwick - Kickstarter Programme (0.8FTE)
Mark is line managed by Becky Spake, Groundwork Operations Manager, and the Bale House management programme sponsor is Ben Coles, Director.
Groundwork has considerable experience of running Café’s in country parks; this experience has given us good learning into the challenges and potential opportunities that must be considered when undertaking successful café business modelling. Supported by café consultants Boyd Thorpe Associates in exploring the café opportunity at the Bale House Visitor Centre, we determined that the best model, at this current time, was to engage a local delivery partner to work with us to provide an appropriate café offer. The café and Visitor Centre are not mutually exclusive – they have to work together so we needed to find and work with a café operator that fully understood and bought into this concept.
We identified a suitable local delivery partner, The Grumpy Cook, to take this component on in a sub-lease arrangement with Groundwork. Further to financial due diligence, review of certifications and mystery shopping at other Grumpy Cook establishments, Groundwork agreed to go into partnership and has put in place a sub-lease arrangement that, in the main, mirrors the Groundwork lease with HBC. The concession contributes a percentage of café net profit towards the costs of staffing the main Visitor Centre. In year one this is 7.5%, rising to 8.5% in year 2 and 10% in year 3 allowing and encouraging the concession to develop and grow the business. The café concession allows Groundwork to fully understand the income generating potential of the café whilst managing our own financial risk.
We have been working with local business Judge Sampson to create an appropriate retail offer which is now in place (see pictures below). Judge Sampson have designed and produced goods and will receive 50% of the sale value with 50% being retained to support the Visitor Centre running costs.
HBC / Groundwork Bale House Performance Monitoring
The first monitoring meeting took place on 4th November, covering the period from opening in mid-July through to the end of October. A list of KPIs is detailed in the table below.
After a challenging first few months (with a brand new café team, ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, difficulties relating to the delivery of café supplies and coping with much larger than anticipated footfall) the café service has been improving. Reviews and feedback in the comments book reflect how well the service is run and the standard of products is considered to be very high. There is still an issue with sound, but once the over counter board is installed this should be improved. There is also, on some days, a lack of seating but with the delivery of the new picnic tables this is also set to be resolved. There is an issue with the noise from chairs being scraped across the floor but we are planning to purchase a series of rubber caps to be placed onto the chair legs to resolve this problem. Overall the customer journey within the café side of The Bale House is very positive with lots of locals becoming steadfast regulars.
The Bale House visitor numbers have exceeded expectations significantly, with approximately 25,000 people passing through the doors since opening in mid-July through to the end of October. We take average counts from the Epso system from the café till and café order receipts so we can estimate the number of people in a day, as well as using ‘clicker’ counters on typical weekdays and weekends in different weather conditions to provide an average footfall. At present on weekdays there are at least 150+ people visiting on any given day, this number over the weekend however, increases dramatically, numbering closer to 500 people a day. This is both considering people visiting for food, or casually passing through and interacting with the Visitor Centre interpretations. With the winter period approaching this may decrease but we are confident the Bale House will remain very busy.
Staffing and trainees
Staffing is working well across the Visitor Centre and with the café concession, with a strong sense of a ‘one team’ approach. As well as thorough staff inductions, staff have undertaken first aid and fire warden training. Within Greener Futures, a wider Groundwork South programme, we have a Kickstarter program which offers 6 months of employment to unemployed young person. In this instance Alistair was originally given the opportunity to volunteer at The Bale House and in time through dedication and his skill set he was offered 6 months of employment focusing on conservation. He is also currently arranging guided walking tours around the park.
We have 18 local Bale House volunteers from a wide range of backgrounds. They offer support on each day of the week and weekends and are a valuable resource. They use their local knowledge to help greet guests and answer any questions people may have. The volunteers all met one another on 3rd November to get to know each other, to ask questions or raise issues and to suggest ideas. More active volunteers will also be offered both first aid and fire warden courses. We also have a larger separate group of conservation volunteers who meet once a week to go into the park to assist with park management tasks. This activity, created through the Hidden Hastings programme, will be ongoing once HLF funding for Hidden Hastings has ended.
At present we have been approached relating to Bale House / HCPNR visits by several schools in the local area. As recently as this week a primary school teacher has approached us to gain more information ahead of an upcoming school trip. To tie in with the curriculum we will be offering learning resources revolving around a variety of subjects including coastal erosion, fossils, natural habitats, and so on. We are also in the process of re-imagining the old Visitor Centre to be able to be adapted into an interactive learning space, essentially a classroom away from school.
We have had a number of small events at The Bale House including, bug hunts, art walks, conservation events and new exhibition interpretations. These typically gain the attraction of between 25-30 people. We are now in the planning phase for guided walking tours, Christmas events such as a small fair and grotto with some arts and crafts for younger guests. In the New Year we will be using our links with local historians, archaeologists and artists to hold guest speaking events at The Bale House. This will not only give people another reason to visit but will also improve the circulation of knowledge around The Bale House. We are also planning to work with the Hastings Contemporary Art Gallery to create a joint exhibition revolving around smugglers in the area, piracy, and geocaching events as well.
‘Hidden Hastings Heritage’ HLF programme update
The Hidden Hastings Heritage (HHH) project is in its final phase and now with the unique Bale House open and new paths, maps and interpretation in place, Hastings Country Park and Nature Reserve is already proving to be a draw for new volunteers and members of the community. Through the project local people have become more passionate and knowledgeable about the County Park Nature Reserve and in some cases are coming forward to offer their time both in the centre and in the wider park, with over 50 volunteers supporting the centre and conversation activity regularly and many more attending our one off sessions. Capital works to improve access to the park for more diverse communities through path improvements and new signage and interpretation have now been completed.
Working with the CHART ESF funded ‘Greener Futures’ project, we utilised the Kickstarter programme which offers 6 months of paid employment to unemployed young people. In this instance, a long term Hidden Hastings volunteer was offered a 6 month placement focusing on conservation and will now leads guided walking tours around the park, continuing the legacy of the programme well after the project end date.
By securing funding, we are able to support volunteers after the end date of the project. Jill Tyson will still be based at the site part time and we continue to seek funding to enable the development of conservation volunteering programmes across the park.
The Groundwork team have also been working with Steve Peak from the Friends of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve to publish his new book on the history of the Country Park which will be on sale and available shortly in the Bale House.