Programming is a way of structuring and layering activities at heritage sites throughout a year, encouraging repeat visits and building vital local support.
Today historic castles, manors and estates (HCME) face stiff competition from other leisure pursuits and simply opening the doors is no longer enough to entice people in.
The National Trust has found that the best way to grow audiences is not traditional marketing or even free tickets, but by changing the offer. Short of appearing in a Hollywood movie, which always drives up visitor numbers, cultural programming is the next best thing.
This is a way of creating and organising new experiences of your HCME, and presenting them in a way that appeals to your target audiences, or even different audiences concurrently.
Outdoor sites and gardens attract people back time and again, for a gorgeous walk or a stunning view, and more naturally programme themselves through the seasons. But static historic interiors may be perceived as one-off experiences. Programming allows the site to have multiple layers during the year, to one theme, thereby attracting an audience back mutiple times.
National Trust programming is sometimes an adjustment to things an HCME already does (like daily knighting ceremonies) or it can be more ambitious (turning Powis Castle back into a school) or a high-profile art installation. Historic places are not just an incidental backdrop, in each case they are integral to the whole enterprise.
Main stakeholders are the public and property managers. Artists and the creative industries may also get involved, often funded by public sector grants.
You don’t need a large site or a big budget to run an effective programme. You do need patience however as it can take time for new approaches to take root and sometimes they aren't always an instant hit. Programmes also need to be planned well in advance to make the most of marketing opportunities.
Evidence of success
The Trust has shown that programming can improve performance: higher visitor numbers and longer dwell times (more secondary spend). Visitor Experience scores at a property that arranged summer water-based activities for families went up to 86% (from 61%), retail and catering returns were up 12-13%, for example.
It also shifts perceptions of the Trust, broadens appeal by engaging local communities in the off-season or families in the school holidays and keeps spirit of place alive.
It is important to stay focussed on your core offer and not get distracted by too many programming ideas. National Trust evaluation shows that fewer, longer lasting events work best. Activities don't have to be one-off and can be regularly repeated or refreshed, and developed incrementally.
Potential for learning or transfer
Cultural programming can help policy makers see the value of being open to new ideas and an element of managed risk. It is not all rock concerts or food fairs however, and it is important to match activities to the DNA of the site.
Site managers can be inspired by the storytelling at Powis where the history of the Castle’s transformation into the ‘Welsh Girls School’ in the 1940s was told through the evacuees’ eyes. Or at Croft Castle where a family ancestor was one of the Monuments Men and a simple quiz tells the story of artworks lost during the War.
Programming broadens appeal by engaging local communities in the off-season or families in the school holidays. And it establishes more control, enabling property teams to manage seasonal variations in traffic.
It can also promote the wider societal benefit of heritage by addressing sensitive issues through playful and attractive way. A project at Calke Abbey challenged the stigma surrounding loneliness and social isolation.