In today’s episode of Skip the Queue I speak with Alastair Barber, Marketing and Communications Manager at National Parks.
We discuss how the parks have communicated with their audience during lockdown, how a focus on being outside will encourage new visitors and the future of tourist attractions in the UK.
“I think we’re in a place now where we’ve broken old habits and we’re going to learn some new ones.”
What will you learn from this podcast?
- How National Parks have communicated with their audience during lockdown
- Managing demand when your tourist attraction is free to attend
- Being more outside
- Breaking old habits and making new ones
- The future of tourist attractions in the UK
You can also read the full transcript below.
Your host, Kelly Molson
Our guest, Alastair Barber
Kelly Molson: Alastair, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. It’s lovely to have you here.
Alastair Barber: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Kelly Molson: So we know each other already. Rubber Cheese are working with National Parks at the moment on a really exciting project. Maybe we’ll talk about that a bit later. So Alastair and I do know each other, but I’m still going to ask him the icebreaker questions because he doesn’t get away that lightly. So we’ve got icebreaker questions just to try and find out a little bit about the real Alastair. Are you ready?
Alastair Barber: Yeah. I’d forgotten about this bit.
Kelly Molson: Well, you don’t get to prepare anything.
Alastair Barber: No, exactly.
Kelly Molson: Right. Okay. On a scale of 1 to 10, how good a driver are you?
Alastair Barber: Oh, see, this is something that men always overestimate, isn’t it?
Kelly Molson: Yes.
Alastair Barber: I’m all right. I’m going to say 7. How boring, the standard answer.
Kelly Molson: It’s a very average answer there. I would have expected higher actually being a camper van owner. I was thinking you were going to go, “Oh, I’m 10. I’m in my van all the time. I’m proficient.”
Alastair Barber: I would have been. But for the fact that the last time I drove it, I crushed.
Kelly Molson: If you could travel back in time, what period would you go to?
Alastair Barber: Oh, I’d like to go all the way back. If I could choose a place as well, I’d like to be a patrician in ancient Rome. I think that sounds like the life to me.
Kelly Molson: Oh, yeah. It does.
Alastair Barber: A bit of business in the morning and then bath in the afternoon.
Kelly Molson: Being fed some grapes.
Alastair Barber: What more do you want?
Kelly Molson: It sounds delightful, doesn’t it? Yeah, I definitely need to rethink mine. Because I was thinking, “Oh, I’d go back to Jurassic and see the dinosaurs,” but then risk of being eaten or a lovely bath in the afternoon. I’ve got this all wrong, haven’t I?
Alastair Barber: I think with my stomach and I think it would have been good eating from back then.
Kelly Molson: Yeah. Good answer. Tell me something that you’re not very good at.
Alastair Barber: Oh, decorating. I get very bored very quickly and very sloppy. I’m bad at that.
Kelly Molson: Okay. Your house looks quite nice behind you though. So this is obviously a room that you’ve taken some care over.
Alastair Barber: No, no, no. I paid somebody else to do it.
Kelly Molson: Thank you for indulging me in my silly icebreaker questions. So tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to be at National Parks.
Alastair Barber: Okay. Well, I started off in… I’m not from this world. I’m not from tourism or nature conservancy or anything like that. I started off my career in communications. So I did the tour of all the agencies. So I worked for a PR agency, an advertising agency, internal comms, branding, done all that. And then lately, I ran my own business for 15 years as a consultant. Kind of troubleshooting, so I go and solve business problems using communications. And that was great. But as a gun for hire, you kind of haven’t got much choice about who you’re working for.
And I started thinking, “Well, what do I want to do with all of this experience and stuff?” And I thought about the projects I liked best, the ones I enjoyed working on. I used to work public and private sector. So all sorts of different organizations. And the projects I really liked… I did some projects with the NHS, with nurses and that’s really good. Helping them think about how they care for patients better and putting the power in their hands about how they sort of design patient care and looked after safety. And then, I did another project for Network Rail, where I was helping them think about how to reduce suicide on the rail network. And then, projects that stuck with me. And I thought, “Well, what is it that’s in common?” And they were projects with a social purpose.
So I started looking around for a home. I’d always sort of been sort of freewheeling and I thought, “Well, I want to cause I want to put my shoulder too.” And I thought it’s either going to be environmental because I see the environmental challenge as being the challenge of our age; it is the main challenge to the human race at the moment, or something to do with mental health. And came across this role at National Parks and it just ticked all the boxes. And it took me back. It made me nostalgic as well because I spent a lot of my childhood at the Lake District. My dad would drag us up mountains and some really fond and intense memories. So it felt like the universe was giving me a message.
Kelly Molson: Oh, that’s lovely. I totally hear you on the Lake District as well. It’s one of those really special places that just evokes the most incredible memories, isn’t it?
Alastair Barber: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: It is a really beautiful, beautiful place.
Alastair Barber: Well, my mom always says… She wasn’t around for my childhood, but she said even for her, my childhood… She thinks of me in the Lake District because we’ve got all of the family albums whenever I go back. When there’re stories that me and my sisters tell about childhood, it often goes back to that. But one thinks of… You think of the National Parks and people tend to think about the Lake District, the Peak District, the more obvious ones. But I started thinking about how different parts of my life had been crisscrossed by different National Parks. And I started going down the list and I thought, “Well, I’ve enjoyed most of them.” Sometimes without even knowing I was in a National Park.
That kind of brings us around to what this role is, which is National Parks are wonderful organizations, but they call themselves a family of 15 and they’re all sort of autonomous individual organizations. But this role is about kind of putting a wrapper on that and helping people understand the value that they deliver for the country, for the UK. And it’s an untold story and I think it’s important that people do understand the value that they deliver because everybody pays for them.
Kelly Molson: Absolutely. And that actually brings me on to what I want to talk about for today. So I want to go back a little bit to March, which seems like a really long time ago with everything that’s happened, but let’s go back to March and to kind of just pre lockdown, just before lockdown. The public’s reaction to being outside was really pretty intense. And there was lots of press about people flooding to National Parks days before lockdown. A huge amount of people, an influx of people. And I think you can kind of… People often say, all press is good press, but attention was really on the parks at that point, wasn’t it?
I guess it’s been difficult since then because I’d like to kind of ask you how you’ve approached marketing the parks during the lockdown and communicating with your audience? But also asking them to stay away, which is not what we’re usually telling people about parks. You’re normally trying to encourage them instead… How did you feel about that, and how have you been able to approach it?
Alastair Barber: Going back to basics. It’s good. It’s made me examine what the fundamentals of the role are. And I think the bulk of it, the idea of marketing… It’s about communication rather than marketing, I think. The staying away… So parks are about… They’ve got this dual purpose, they’ve got statutory purposes, and they balance looking after these special environments whilst also allowing people to have access to them and benefit from them. And so, the communication during lockdown was about how people can still access nature connectedness. So when lockdown was hard, when people had to stay in the house basically, or could only go outside for a very limited period of time and not travel to parks, the communication was about how you could still have nature connectedness because it’s like a silver bullet for modern life.
It helps with physical and mental wellbeing. It helps de-stress and it’s what everybody could benefit from whilst going through this really strange and scary time. So it was about helping people do that. And then, as lockdown as eased, it’s about how people can access nature in general and the parks specifically in a safe way. So putting the power in people’s hands to understand how they can access in a way that helps them keep themselves safe, but also respects the need for fellow visitors. But also, UK parks are kind of unique in the world in that people live there. They’re the shop floor and the homes of lots of people. So how people visiting parks can do so in a way that allows the people who live there to feel safe as well. So it’s about how to still get the most from parks but do so in a way that’s considerate about your own safety and the feelings of safety of other people.
Kelly Molson: And we spoke quite a lot during that period around what you could do. I mean, you couldn’t travel, so you couldn’t go to parks. You couldn’t really go much further than on your doorstep really. We talked quite a lot about what you could do, even if you were lucky enough to have a garden, an outside space. Just being more outside and being more connected to nature in that sense, that’s a good thing. That’s one tiny step forward that you could take. That was something that has really stuck with me. And I think that’s something that’s really stuck with the team as well throughout lockdown, is that feeling of being more connected to nature, be more connected to the outside because we were allowed that hour to go out. And so that hour became very precious.
Alastair Barber: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: And it was either in your garden or it was discovering a new walk or discovering something… A new place that you hadn’t been in your local area. It definitely helped with our mindset and our mental health throughout that period.
Alastair Barber: Yeah. I think this being more outside is, it’s sucking the marrow out of the experience. It’s really getting the most from it. I think about my mom who is recently widowed and then lockdown came and obviously, me and my sisters were really concerned about her feeling lonely and cooped up. But what we’re talking to her about, she is lucky enough to have a garden and that was her solace, to walk around the garden and to notice things.
And that’s how you build that connection with nature. It’s not necessarily about how long you’re out there or even where you are, it’s the level of connectedness. It’s paying attention and noticing. So you might go out and run for an hour and a half, but if you’ve got your headphones in and all you’re doing is looking at your Garmin watch and keeping the pace, you’re kind of not really connecting with the environment that you’re running through. Whereas 10 minutes going outside and sniffing the air, watching the birds, and picking up a bit of paper or something, caring for nature, you become more connected. And there’s loads of emerging science now about the benefit of that connection. So physical and mental.
Kelly Molson: Yeah. It’s hugely important. It’s funny, actually. That’s something I was thinking about this morning is that whenever… So I have a couple of dogs and we walk them in the mornings, we walk them in the afternoon. And I’m a really… Litter really bothers me, really, really bothers me. And actually, throughout lockdown, I’ve actually been quite hesitant to pick the litter up because of the risk of… And it sounds really stupid, but the risk of you don’t know who has had that before you. And I said to Lee this morning, I need to get gloves so that I can carry on doing that because it’s really annoying me that I’ve stopped doing something that is really… It angers me that I see the litter in the park. So there’s no reason for it. So you’ve reminded me, I need to get my gloves out so I can go back to doing the things that I’d normally do.
Alastair Barber: Those habits that you can… Those little [inaudible 00:13:10] just to remind you, that’s the sort of thing I do. It’s good to have those. I pick up litter when I’m out, but if I remember to take a bag to put it in, it’s better. Because it’s horrible walking around with a plastic bottle full of cider in your hand, it kind of detracts from the walk. But I think those new habits… I think we’re in a place now where we’ve broken old habits or we’ve been forced to break old habits and we’re going to learn some new ones. And I think coming out of this, if we’re talking about recovery, it’s about helping people be conscious about the new habits that they’ve picked up and perhaps decide that there’re ones that they want to keep so that when the opportunity to go back to how you were before is there, you don’t kind of lose any of the good stuff that you’ve discovered during lockdown. Because I’ve not enjoyed locked down, it’s been pretty difficult to bear, but there is stuff that I’ve done in it, that I think, “Well, I should carry that forward.”
Kelly Molson: Yeah, definitely. That’s something that we need to be mindful of encouraging now that people are starting to go back to work and starting to go back. So let’s talk about lockdown easing because we actually saw a really similar reaction. As soon as lockdown was eased, people again came out in masses because they wanted to be outside who can blame people, but people were flocking to outside spaces and quite overwhelmingly. There’s a huge demand for outdoor attractions like Zoo’s and Wildlife Parks when they were able to open.
I wondered… Because you mentioned something earlier, actually that was interesting. About sometimes you wouldn’t realize that you were in a National Park.
Alastair Barber: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: And some of that is related to the fact that they are free. And so, there is no… You don’t have to book a ticket; you don’t have to pay to go into the parks. And so the kind of boundaries blur a little bit between in them and outside of them. So I kind of wondered how is that going to be managed by the parks, the fact that they’re free to attend and you don’t need people to book, how do you manage that demand when there isn’t that requirement to book in advance to visit them?
Alastair Barber: Well, you can’t manage the demand. So we can’t. Like I said, there’s no gate, there’s no entrance fee. If people feel the need or the want to step over the boundary of the park they can. So I think it’s about talking to people as adults, having an adult, adult communication, not wag a finger and not adult to child. And so, you must do this and you mustn’t do that. But to say, “Well, please be aware of what the situation is on the ground.” And I think mostly people are and people take responsibility for themselves. They kind of know that, but you have to help them. You might want to go back to a park that you’ve been to, that you’ve missed, and do what you used to do. That would be rock climbing or mountain biking, or whatever, but you kind of might not have appreciated what was there and supporting you to have that experience that might not be there going back now.
So if all of the pubs are shut, you might think, “Oh, well I can’t have a beer after me walk or after me ride.” But that also means that there are fewer toilets. So you’re more reliant on sort of public toilets or pay toilets, and there might be fewer of those because there’re issues around being able to clean them and provide them safely. And parks don’t necessarily own all of that infrastructure, they might be owned by partners or landowners or the local council. So it’s about giving people the information, helping them think it through. So we tried to give people a four-step process to think through and kind of just cast their mind forward about what it might be like. Whereas previously, especially if you used to go into parks, you plan for what it used to be like before March. So it’s just helping people think it through and do the right thing.
Kelly Molson: Do the right thing. I like that. So do you think that the focus on outside being safer is going to encourage new visitors to the parks or maybe increased engagement from different audiences that haven’t experienced the parks before?
Alastair Barber: Yes, and yes. So I think what it’s done for me is it’s opened my eyes to some of the visitors who were accessing parks already, who perhaps I hadn’t seen because I was trying to get my head around this obvious new behavior of kind of massive demand. But actually, it’s helped me see some people and how they access it. So some of the younger generation are accessing parks now that perhaps I’d kind of assumed they weren’t there. And it’s great. Some of the stuff they’re writing on Instagram is it’s so wholesome.
If we wrote it in our marketing or communications sort of stuff, it would come across as really cheesy. But it’s lovely to see, and I hadn’t seen these on Instagram. I think how they use Instagram; it’s about helping show their lifestyle, helping show what they enjoy. And bringing these brilliant landscapes into their lifestyles as almost a background and talking about what it means to them in lockdown to be able to access this and what it means to their mental health and the experiences they’re having. It’s really great to see.
I think also there’s been people going out and walking with their family during lockdown. Especially, when we have that you could leave the house once. And I think people have enjoyed that. And I think that’s when I talked about the habits that I want people to look back on saying, “Oh, I quite enjoyed going for a walk with my family.” You communicate in a different way when you’re walking, and you don’t have to maintain eye contact. You’ve got that shared experience of being… And I think some people will have done some stuff that they enjoyed and they’re quite surprised that they enjoyed it. So I quite like to help them take that to the next level and explore what it was that they enjoyed about that, and do it a bit more.
And that’s the great thing about parks, they’re great places to push yourself a bit further because they are safe. You’ve got that environment of care. They’re designed to allow people to access it the way that they want to access it. So you’ve got your own sort of comfort level with risk or adventure and getting out there. And the parks cater to all of those different levels and people I don’t think necessarily know about. So I want to be able to speak to these people who have been doing things that they haven’t done in the past and say, “Hey, do you want to do a bit more of that? These are great places to do a bit more of that and to do that next step.”
Kelly Molson: Yeah. I love that. I love what you said about… Because we’ve noticed that, a lot more families out walking together. Especially, during lockdown when we had that hour. One of our dogs is slightly reactive. So we were like, “Oh gosh, there’s so many more people around that we’ve got to avoid,” but it was a really nice thing to see. It wasn’t just the same faces that you were seeing constantly. And what’s really nice about walking is it seems to be a really good thing to do when you’ve got decisions to make. So Lee and I will always… If we’ve got a big decision to make or something that we need to talk about, we’ll go for a really long walk with the dogs. And there’s something about walking next to each other and being outside in the open that makes you just communicate a little bit more… How can I put it? There’s just like a calmer level to what you’re thinking through and what you’re talking about. And the environment definitely plays such a huge part in that.
Alastair Barber: I think it’s a thing. I used to say to one of my old bosses, I used to say, “If I say, can we go for a walk? Just a warning, I’ve probably got something important to tell you.” But there is something about either the pace of it, or the fact that you’re in a different environment, or the fact that you don’t have to maintain eye contact, it does something to the communication that changes that. I think you’re right.
So I think it’s been great to see families going out, doing it. People who might not have walked together. And then, I think you’ve got to make it a conscious thing. You’ve got to notice that for yourself and perhaps talk about that to the people that you’ve been going for a walk with and say, “Hey, we seem to like that. We should do that a bit more often.” And just saying it will make it more likely. It’s something I do, it’s a habit I’ve kind of cultivated. But if you don’t make a conscious effort, it kind of goes away. It’s a bit like exercise, but it’s getting that balance of remembering. You want to do it because you’ve enjoyed it.
Kelly Molson: And make a commitment to it then if it is something that you’ve enjoyed. You make that commitment to do it more often. Okay. So a couple of big questions to kind of end the interview on, but I’d like to know what’s next? What the next few months looks like for you and for the organization? But also, what do you think the future of tourist attractions in the UK are? It’s a big question and I guess most of us are, “Who knows?” right now.
Alastair Barber: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: But it’d be really interesting to get your thoughts on what you see for the next few months.
Alastair Barber: Start with parks. I think we’re in this sort of fuzzy phase at the moment between lockdown and normality. Whatever normality might end up being, that kind of stable state. Probably felt on some sort of vaccinations being identified. And I think for parks, it’s about helping people do that thinking through, do the right thing, access safely. The communications help them do that. And like I said, about helping people identify and explore new habits within the boundaries of what is safe and acceptable, and everybody can manage.
I think for tourist attractions, I think in the UK, I think it’s obviously massively challenging for people on the short term, in terms of business models having to recover from these last four months. But I think that there seems to be an opportunity there. I think people will rethink how they use their time. I think people will be more inclined to think about using their spare time, using their holiday time, close to home and the near future. Either because of the uncertainty of travel or the lack of availability of it. So there’s that opportunity of like, “Well, hey, discover this. You might find that there’s something close to home that you really like.” And I think it’s helping people take those opportunities to do something new that’s perhaps closer to home.
Kelly Molson: Yeah. I think there’ll be a huge boost. Well, I would hope that there’d be a huge boost in staycations this year.
Alastair Barber: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: Because of the uncertainty, which obviously will help the tourism trade. Okay. We end the podcast by asking you about a book that you could recommend that’s helped shape your career in some way.
Alastair Barber: Yeah. I’ve got a book called The Living Company. It’s by a guy called Arie de Geus, and Arie used to work for Shell in their planning department. So he was part of the team with Pierre Wack that invented scenario planning. So he comes from a pretty hard-nosed environment and Shell is not necessarily associated with kind of tree-hugging soft type.
So I think The Living Company is interesting. It’s a simple question that Arie asks, he says, “What if you think of organizations and businesses as living entities?” And you can think of it as a metaphor, but he almost takes it literally. He says that the organizations do share lots of attributes with what you would think of as something being alive. And why I like it, is it takes it away from the imperative of being the bottom line. He says if you think about an organization as a living entity and you nurture it from that perspective, then it’s going to be healthy. It’s going to be more long-lived and almost as a byproduct, it will create value. So it’s not been driven by the bottom line. I guess it’s one of the sides of that kind of purpose-driven thinking. It’s now got a lot more sort of common currency. This book was written in ’97, I think. So it’s been around for a while. It’s a really interesting… He writes beautifully. It’s not very thick, it’s easy to read.
Kelly Molson: Not very thick. Okay.
Alastair Barber: It’s not very thick and it’s in quite a big font. So you can rattle through it. It’s really well written and it’s very thought-provoking. And it changed how I think about organizations.
Kelly Molson: Oh, I love that.
Alastair Barber: In lots of things, complexity theory, the fallacy of planning, it’s good stuff.
Kelly Molson: What a brilliant testimonial for a book. Thank you for sharing that with us. I’ve never read it. I’ve never heard of that book but it definitely sounds like something I would love to pick up. If you would like to win a copy of Alistair’s book, as ever, if you head over to our Twitter account, Skip the Queue, and retweet this episode announcement with the comment, “I want Ali’s book,” then you can be in with a chance of winning it. Alastair, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. It’s been brilliant to talk to you.
Alastair Barber: Lovely to chat to you, as ever, Kelly.
Do you know someone we should be talking to?
Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?
If so, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org – we’ll get back to you shortly.