1 April 2014, St Martin-in-the-Fields, London
Always Welcome: Improving the Church Visitor Experience
An open church that extends the invitation of the Gospel is a constant and positive way that the church can be there for the community. A full report follows, click the titles for a link to the presentations. Click here to download the programme book.
Always Welcome? The Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
Bishop David's welcoming address emphasised the different ways in which people come to church. Some are reluctant to attend regular services, as it might imply an expectation of regular attendance, but will go to events such as annual services that happen rarely enough to go without being expected again. Why do people come? Some are special places with family links, but even non regular visitors expect a meeting with god, people felt welcome without a sense of obligation. Church buildings speak of permanence in a society that speaks of transience, and can reflect the significance of the experience. He noted two concerns, however: some churches feel like a clubhouse, hostile to outsiders; and others have tired church buildings, so which are worth investing in? That's the tough question for dioceses and others.
Wendy stressed the importance of keeping churches open, so that they stay at the heart of the community. In Hereford Diocese, two ecumenical church tourism groups are supported by the local authority and made up of volunteers with an elected executive. Their role is to create a good visitor welcome including excellent church interpretation. They provide training, publicity, and organised a festival of churches with every church in the diocese open on one weekend linked to events and telling the Christian story and sharing arts activities and refreshments. One great success was providing help with family history, another was with using social media.
Joanna began by noting that Pope Francis has recently asked for all church doors to be open! Good tourist venues are open, have clearly advertised opening hours, a welcome message, signs (outside the church, on major roads, and elsewhere), and good accessibility with an access statement on their website. They are tidy, letting people know they are expected, and providing them with great interpretation and things to touch and do. Books, dressing up, prayer trees, children's facilities, hospitality, and virtual tours were all mentioned as great ways to engage visitors.
Andrew introduced the Spirit in Stone project in the northeast, based around the Lindisfarne Gospels and the journey of St Cuthbert. 2013 featured a yearlong programme of events including the treasures of St Cuthbert, pilgrimages, and other events. He stressed the importance of working with tourism partners and other visitor destinations, including receiving advice. A major theme of Andrew's talk was the importance of collaboration and communication, and of understanding who visits churches and why. Many, for example, will visit other historic places before or after a church. For HLF applications it is important to focus on improving heritage conditions and increasing access, they are keen on helping projects but they will need to further their aims.
Tourism matters. Lady Cobham, Chairman, VisitEngland
Lady Cobham emphasised the breadth of activities historic buildings need to engage in order to increase their visitor numbers (and revenue). External events, occasions, and festivals can also be utilised, as, for example, with the Tour de France. She emphasised the popularity of church visiting and opportunities for increasing this by utilising the help of VisitEngland.
People care about the unique and authentic sense of place, in contrast to homogeneous high streets, so they are attracted by the localness of the church and it's contents and services. People care about the significance of a spot where important events took place and they love to meet enthusiastic, interesting volunteers - it's the main reason people come back or recommend the visit to other people.
ALVA lobbies government about tourism. Bernard recommended forming simple, powerful narratives using strong visuals and statistics to get points over. Tourism is the third largest employer but in was not in any of the main parties manifestos for the 2010 election. Heritage is increasingly popular as a tourist attraction, attracting increasing spends from visitors. Members, friends and volunteers are attracted not by good value deals alone but by a sense of ownership and belonging – friends' events can create a special, deeper relationship with buildings.
Crispin pointed out that although we need to remember that people love churches, partnership and good practice is necessary too. Visiting needs to be part of the continued use of churches, as well as worship. Community led tourism - with a broad range of people involved in encouraging visits can involve neighbouring facilities or institutions with higher dwell time, to make a package of places in one area. There are practical requirements like signage, mainstream tourism marks, and implementing good policy. People do want to visit visit churches, and thinking about the whole experience from the visitors point of view can help identify significant improvements.
Ian commended churches as being worth investment, and described the importance of good outcomes to support applications. There are several grant programmes: all must have heritage as their focus. The Repair Grants for Places of Worship scheme is worth £30m a year and can form 95% of funding. 70% of applications are funded. Ten per cent of project costs can be spent on lighting, heating, access and other visitor facilities. This includes interpretation, tourism and a broad range of other activities. All decisions start with the importance of the heritage asset to the community, whether it's at risk, the case for investment and the expectation of a successful outcome.
Allyson gave a summary of the different activities St Martin in the Fields engages in as well as how it works as a tourist attraction with 750,000 visitors a year. She talked of the importance of responding to a church's individual situation, training staff and engaging with the wider community. Good policies and careful negotiating are needed to ensure the safety and security of staff, visitors and the building.