Special event 29 November 2010

Managing a National Trust property from spiralling decline to a good news story, a talk by Julie Smith, National Trust


With the help of one of our members, who works for the National Trust, we were able to arrange this unusual talk, based on the personal experience of the manager of a National Trust house, garden and grounds. Despite a tube strike and desperately cold weather our speaker arrived safely and was welcomed by an enthusiastic audience.

The speaker was Julie Smith, who joined the National Trust five and a half years ago as Property Manager for Upton House near Banbury. Julie went to the Trust from Fired Earth where she had become Logistics and Business Excellence Director in 2002. Prior to that she worked for Marks and Spencer for 20 years where she held a variety of management roles, including 8 years in their Baker Street Head Office, responsible for the management of £1bn of store costs, and as Head of Retail Operations for a portfolio of stores with sales totalling £150m.

For several years Upton House and Gardens had been in decline. Julie was under pressure to tackle costs when she arrived, as the property was on course to deliver a full year deficit of almost £200,000. Falling visitor numbers and increasing financial deficits over a number of years had led to low investment which in turn led to low staff and volunteer morale. In her time at Upton House she has increased visitor numbers by 55%, improved the financial result seven-fold and produced a surplus for the first time in over 20 years.

Julie and her team have recently completed a £1million building and restoration programme, including the conversion of a 1930s squash court into an exhibition/ interpretation area and conference centre. Upton House was also one of the first properties in the National Trust to embark on the controversial challenge of ‘bringing the property to life’ – moving the property from being a traditional art gallery/museum into one which allows visitors to feel the atmosphere of a 1930s country house weekend party, and to learn about the people who lived and worked in the house in its heyday.

So what was the secret of Julie’s success? And are there lessons for Gunnersbury Park?

The house and grounds were in much better condition than that in which the Gunnersbury Estate finds itself, but Upton House was seen as a ‘cinderella property’. An endowment had been provided when the family that owned it gave it to the National Trust and they continued to live there until 1987, which meant that it was kept occupied  and in good condition. However, when they left the endowment was no longer sufficient to maintain Upton and the indications were that expenditure of about £2 million was needed to put it into good heart and provide a new presentation of the property to attract more visitors. As much as 90% of the income comes from visitors, but Upton could not take a great increase in numbers while its opening hours were concentrated only in the summer months.

The whole operation of the property was reviewed. Julie argued against cutting the salaries budget, and asked for time to plan and decide on the new approach. She reviewed the roles and responsibilities of her team and considered how to boost morale amongst existing volunteers as well as recruiting new ones. There are now 250 volunteers, and they are manager by a volunteer! She took a lot of advice from specialists within the NT, ‘walking the property’ for two whole days with them. They identified the fact that the House was not very welcoming because there was no sense of the people who lived there. In addition the ticket office was in a scruffy portakabin whose replacement had been planned for years but never implemented, the old squash court at the house was full of buckets to catch the drips and there were unused cottages in the grounds.

   Julie proposed a £1 million development which the National Trust agreed to support. This was based upon the concept of engaging visitors, including children who had not really been welcome there before, by presenting the house as if they were arriving for a 1930s house party, hosted by the millionaire owners. So in addition to a new wooden chalet which acts as the reception and ticketing point, anda refurbished squash court which shows an attractive short film to visitors but can also be used for meetings, the row of rayburns in the kitchens is operating and used for cooking, opening hours have been extended across much more of the year, a new shop and plant sales area have been created and two cottages can now be hired for holiday bookings. The House has been used as a set, with luggage stacked in the lobby by the back door, family photos and 1930s sheet music on top of the grand piano, you can play billiards if you wish, or settle into a sofa and listen to 1930s radio broadcasts or records. This means that the art and porcelain collections are on display with laminated cards providing information about them nearby, but it is the life of the residents which is prominent.

   Visitor surveys show very much higher levels of satisfaction (from 51% in 2006 to 71% in 2009) and this winter’s theme has been the servants, using memories of past workers and attic and basement tours. Visitor numbers have increased to 95,000 in 2010, bringing in much needed income. Future work will concentrate on upgrading the grounds. The perception of the estate has changed, not only to outsiders who might visit or become volunteers, but also within the National Trust – and Julie has now been asked to take on more properties!

   Gunnersbury is very different in that the grounds are huge in comparison and are open to all without charge. They have to fulfill a role as a public park as well as the grounds of the Mansions. Whereas Upton not only has most of its furnishings intact, along with the former owners’ art and porcelain collections, Gunnersbury’s Mansions have none of their original furnishings. The Museum, however, has the most wonderful and substantial collections of objects and art works relating to the history of Ealing and Hounslow, most of which are in store at the moment and many Friends are longing for these to be brought out in new and exciting displays.

   The idea of returning it to a moment in time when the Rothschilds lived there might be fun – but it would be complete fakery. It would also then be offering another ‘stately home’ experience in West London, where it would compete with Syon, Osterley, Ham and Chiswick Houses within a very short distance. Gunnersbury’s strengths lie in the potential for providing a great Museum Service to two boroughs and in the historic grounds which are nationally important and could attract visitors from a wide area. In the present structure there are few opportunities for earning an income, even if visitor figures increased hugely and this will have to be borne  in mind in all future planning.

The big lessons seem to lie not in project management, which is what Julie expected when she arrived, but in

  • careful analysis of what resources are available and what visitors need, before defining a clear purpose and making a master plan for implementation
  • looking at spaces to make sure that good historic interiors are accessible but do not overwhelm displays within them
  • telling good stories about people and the place to engage those who visit
  • bringing in an entrepreneurial spirit and working with confidence, and
  • encouraging community involvement in ways which not only enable people to join in running the estate but also bring in the skills which are needed.

Gunnersbury also has a mix of providers, some local authority, some commercial, but no coherent vision is guiding its management yet. Creating that vision for the future is the next step and will underpin all the applications for funding which are made to implement the restoration.

Val Bott Newsletter Editor