Written by Dominic Hare, CEO, Blenheim Palace
Blenheim Palace has been closed for nearly a month as I write this, except for free entry to the Park for our local community. Our construction sites remain closed and the Mineral Water plant is mostly closed. So, just as it has for many of you, we have seen revenue fall to zero in many of our businesses.
The Park and Palace are being maintained by mixed continuity teams, one for inside the Palace and one for out in the Park. The focus is on caring for livestock and keeping the Park in good condition. We also have a well-resourced security team in place!
Remote working, while intrinsically frustrating for some of us, is working very well (we practiced this hard over the last few months) and we have a new in-house mail management system which serves up our paper post onto our computers – great use of Power Automate in Office 365! Our systems are well-tested and many elements of this will be carried into our working lives when normality returns.
Several Blenheim staff have lost near relatives and we will of course remember the legendary Paul Duffie (former Administrator of the Palace) in an appropriate way when permitted. The world feels smaller and less colourful without him.
We have been grateful for the chance to support a wide number of community volunteer initiatives in the area, both financially and practically. I feel that the memory of the extraordinary way friends and neighbours have rallied to support each other should last every bit as long as the memory of this vicious virus. We share this place with extraordinary people.
We now find ourselves planning and delivering the following initiatives:
Supporting our staff
The response of our teams has been humbling. Nearly 80% of our people are furloughed, with the balance taking pay cuts – and I continue to be overwhelmed by offers of help and encouragement by Blenheim people. For our part, we have added an extra Hardship Fund to our package of support and have just launched a scheme to pay for online training courses for those who wish to use the time positively – courses on Udemy and LinkedIn Learning ranging from beer making to coding! All voluntary and I am now choosing mine. It will involve cake… The number of virtual pubs springing up is testament to the sense of community shared here. The biggest gifts we can give our people is to be there to bring them back and encourage them to upgrade all personal skills which excite them.
Supporting our community now
We have engaged in several initiatives, although it must be said that the voluntary community response has been astonishing, and we support while being simultaneously in awe of our staff and our partners. These include:
Building the thehelphub.co.uk site for the remarkable Ruth Chalenor and funding operations (the latter with our great friends at Owen Mumford), this site has been a significant part of Woodstock and Bladon community support for vulnerable and isolated people and also links a significant number of trained counsellors giving free support sessions to those who need it – this is now national with over 200 counsellors online.
Supporting with a vehicle loan the Long Hanborough COVID-19 Mutual Aid Group, who provide food and other support to vulnerable/isolated people. We have just added to this the supply of seeds and pots for distribution through Long Hanborough for an online growing competition.
We are working on a voluntary delivery infrastructure for Woodstock shops to deliver pre-ordered goods to the area and are now email marketing all local online businesses to our database.
Our chefs are working with food banks to cook meals for a group of vulnerable people.
Bottled Water supplied to NHS staff, office space provided to dislocated key workers, food products donated to Food Banks and ongoing distribution of educational resources online.
Helping our community bounce back
As an estate, we are very exposed to the success of the very local economy; it in turn is very dependent on us. We will be focussing on promoting Woodstock businesses, spending our money locally, keeping people employed, pushing on with truly affordable housing (needed now more than ever) and continuing to work with the community organisations we currently support in the midst of the crisis but which I think will have a longer role.
It is a long game but our ability to deliver both a form of local QE but also to bring high spending visitors to the local area will be a key to our shared ongoing success and the most important thing we do for our neighbours.
Making use of the shutdown
On shutdown, we set up three teams to take advantage of the strange moment to allow us to rethink every element of the way we practically do our business. Like most businesses, we are the product of iteration and incremental changes. Attempts to blue-sky think or zero-base plan generally struggle to gain momentum. But we now have a unique opportunity to reset ourselves to deliver the required customer outcomes in wholly new ways and bring our teams back into those new systems.
This is the exciting opportunity within this enforced shutdown, and we have to take full advantage of it. Those teams use Agile techniques to quickly solve problems and propose/deliver highly effective and simple working solutions.
Aligning ourselves to what the world will want going forward
The world is changing, and we will have to be ready for the new reality both on re-opening and in the longer term. We cannot assume that people will always be so willing to cross the world to see us, or will view rental properties or eat food onsite in the same way. Or that local people will want to see large numbers of tourists lured onto Woodstock High Street, or that employees will be keen to do face to face work.
The world is changing – but Blenheim (that most adaptable of institutions) will change faster.