It’s time for the final blog of 2013!
This time, ‘On Tour’ has been exploring the recently refurbished Kensington Palace to see what Historic Royal Palaces have to offer the world of British Racing.
Situated in the resplendent Kensington Gardens at the western end of Hyde Park, Kensington Palace is well-known for having been the London home of Queen Victoria, Princess Diana and currently, housing the Young Royals – ‘Wills’, Kate and Baby George. The Palace, having undergone a two-year, £12 million refurbishment, re-opened in March 2012. The refurbishment sought to shake up the public’s preconceptions of what a visit to a royal palace might be like – involving both a physical and cultural transformation. The result is an intriguing and unexpected guest experience with plenty to learn from.
A key aspect of the refurbishment was the opening up of the Palace to the rest of the park. There are no barriers or signs signalling the end of Kensington Gardens and the beginning of Kensington Palace. Approach to the entrance is via level access only. Aggressive ‘Keep off the Grass’ signs are long gone and one can easily imagine spending a summer afternoon picnicking on the lawns – something Kensington Palace actively encourages.
The same welcoming ethos has been applied to the entrance to the Palace itself. Visitors can use the shop, café and toilets without having to purchase a ticket. The intention being, that once inside the building, visitors will be tempted to explore further.
Tickets are purchased from inside the ‘White Court’ a room that, pre-refurbishment, was a damp and useless external courtyard. Now – with its elegantly dressed and well-staffed ticket desk, the ‘White Court’ sets the tone, or the throne, for the theatrical spin Kensington Palace gives its guest experience.
So what does it cost? The price of a visit to Kensington Palace is £16.50 for an adult, £13.75 for a concession and free for children under the age of 16.
Retail and the food and drink offer
The Palace’s retail offer is divided in two. One section, entitled the ‘Family Shop’, contains merchandise that is primarily geared towards children. Yet the concept of a shop for families and only families is prescriptive and potentially off-putting to customers who may not classify themselves as part of a ‘family’.
Things are more grown-up in the second shop adjoining the café. Royal Family memorabilia as well as themed sections, such as the Victoria and Albert display, dominate the product offer here. A curiously-placed display cabinet separates the café from this section of the shop and contains a selection of premium jewellery that seems at odds with the setting.
Nevertheless, the atmosphere is bright and inviting, fixtures are well-organised and excellently presented.
The proximity of the retail offer to the café is designed to encourage impulse purchases in both directions.
In terms of the café menu, the team appear to have done their research with a selection of produce that holds its own against the plethora of Prets and Eats the modern consumer is all too familiar with.
There appear to be some functionality issues with paying and queuing, especially on busy days, which will be addressed in the near future.
Nonetheless, the café’s atmosphere matches that of the shop, bright, clean and welcoming. Nice touches like free bottled tap water and a selection of condiments show the team at Kensington Palace are committed to being a generous host to their visitors.
At the heart of the Kensington Palace experience is a commitment to bringing history to life through great storytelling. The curatorial team have devised four such great stories: Victoria Revealed, Modern Royals, Fashion Rules and William and Mary. For each story, there is a corresponding route around the palace.
Blink and you will miss the four ribbons or routes painted on the walls of the entrance hall that thread their way around the Palace. But if you do manage to spot them, they make for an original and aesthetically pleasing way to direct visitors.
Once one has embarked on a chosen route, the way in which the history is presented stands in stark contrast to your typical stately home experience! Non-existent graphic panels, projections on staircases and walls, playful theatrical installations (interpreted and implemented by theatre company Cony) as well as a conscious decision to rely on the staff or ‘explainers’ in each room rather than an audio guide to get the brunt of the history across make for a decidedly different approach.
It also means that questions from overseas guests may go unanswered – unlike with the now ubiquitous Acoustiguide which speaks to you in your own language. The Kensington Palace team believe that electronic guides create a ‘distance’ between the story and the visitor. Hence the brave decision to revert to the well trained (mostly English speaking) ‘explainers’.
The result has been what some would describe as a ‘Marmite’ reaction to the Palace – you either love it or hate it.
‘On Tour’ can empathize with both viewpoints. The exhibitions are certainly beautiful and feel refreshingly vibrant, yet on busy days, one can imagine ambling through the routes without really getting to grips with the depth of history Kensington Palace has to offer. For some audiences this is likely to prove frustrating.
The most successful route is perhaps the most recent one, Fashion Rules. This features an exhibition of dresses of HRM The Queen, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana. Here the team at Kensington Palace have resolved the three issues they struggle with in the other routes; information, orientation and lighting. This seems to be achieved by conforming to a more traditional exhibition format with the inclusion of information panels on the walls.
Even so, Fashion Rules does maintain some of the typical quirky features you find throughout the Palace including wall projections.
A very entertaining and well-executed iPad feature allows you to colour in your own dresses and post them on to the Palace Tumblr account. A delightful way to end the route.
5 star service
As mentioned earlier, the refurbishment not only saw a transformation of the physical look of the Palace but also involved cultural change in the organisation, namely the implementation of a ‘5 star service’ philosophy.
To achieve this change, staff were organised into three teams and attended relevant training workshops to unpack what it means to deliver ‘5 star service’. They also visited other London attractions, such as the London Zoo, and reported back on their findings to their colleagues. Job titles changed to better describe the roles, for example, staff on the ticket desk became ‘Welcome Hosts’ and managers became ‘Experience Managers’. Other changes included elegant Jaeger-designed uniforms and a fancy new mess room.
The overall result is a team who appear motivated and proud to work at Kensington Palace.
All in all Kensington Palace is an excellent example of a visitor attraction that dares to challenge the status quo.
The refurbishment sought to change what a visit to a Royal Palace meant to the consumer and it has certainly confronted those expectations head on. The implementation of the 5 star service philosophy appears to have made a genuine difference to the guest experience with confident, animated staff on hand every step of the way. Likewise, the Palace’s attempt to bring history to life adds a vibrancy lacking in many historical homes throughout the country.
For those racecourses out there with a story to tell, the Palace provides an excellent example of history and heritage being told in a new way, less dependent on static graphic panels, opting instead to thread their history through the fabric of the building, product lines and staff service culture.
So will Kensington Palace succeed as the trailblazer, the renegade Palace, leading the way for all others to follow? Only time will tell.
Our special thanks to Natasha Woollard, Head of Kensington Palace and Kew Palace, for taking the time to guide the ‘On Tour’ team through the Kensington Palace story.