Adapting the Stonehenge experience from international to domestic audiences. With James Rodliff

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode I speak with James Rodliff, Operations Manager at Stonehenge, part of English Heritage.

James is currently the Operations Manager at Stonehenge, Europe’s most famous prehistoric monument and one of the UK’s busiest visitor attractions. He is responsible for overseeing the day to day running of the large site, leading the operations, admissions, volunteering and education teams in delivering a world class visitor experience. He is also involved with English Heritage’s brand and training groups. At the end of 2020 James was one of eight individuals chosen as the UK’s ‘unsung heritage champions’, a Heritage Lottery Fund initiative honouring remarkable individuals who have worked tirelessly to keep the UK’s heritage accessible during the pandemic and beyond.

Growing up in Cornwall James held a number of roles in tourism and heritage before going to Cardiff where he completed his post-graduate studies in Archaeology. He then spent two years at Lloyds Banking Group where he thrived in training and improving customer service. In 2012 James landed a dream role working for the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth; here he commenced a seven year journey through the installation, launch, relaunch, and rebranding of the multi-award winning Mary Rose Museum.

James loves the great outdoors and, when not at work, can often be found hiking, biking, or jogging the length and breadth of the country (Covid travel rules allowing), often visiting attractions and heritage sites en-route.

We discuss the challenges and positives to come from a changing audience this year – from international to domestic, and how Stonehenge will maintain a blend of physical and virtual events for the future.

“The other thing that worked really well was our staff. They have just been absolutely outstanding, and I just can’t thank them enough. All the way through this process they’ve been practical and intuitive and supportive, and they’ve just wanted to make it work. They love the place. They really, really love the place, and you can see that in how they approach everything.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • The challenges and positives to come from a change in audience this year – from international to domestic
  • How Stonehenge will maintain a blend of physical and virtual events for the future

To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.

James Rodliff Blog large

The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, James Rodliff


Kelly Molson: Right James, thank you so much for coming onto the podcast today. I’m super excited to have you on. I feel like we’ve spoken a lot on social media, but we’ve never properly had a chat, so this is going to be fun.

James Rodliff: I’m really excited. Thanks for inviting me on. I’m a big fan, so I’ve made it. I’ve made it onto Skip the Queue, this is amazing.

Kelly Molson: I love this. This is like the highlight of my day that people are excited about coming on here. Thank you. Right, well as you know, if you are a big fan, we always start with our icebreaker question. So let’s get going. I would like to know what is the greatest, either TV show or film from your childhood?

James Rodliff: Ah, lots of options. I’m going to have to go to Goonies, straight up. The Goonies. It just ticks every box, it’s amazing. For me, I was really interested in the history and the maps, I’m a nerd, but then finding this treasure. I was also really worried that the treasure got destroyed at the end, you know? I’m the same when I watch Indiana Jones, I love Indiana Jones, but at the same time I’m panicking when they’re destroying the temples or this precious or archaeology’s being lost. But yeah, no The Goonies is just fantastic.

Kelly Molson: Great, great choice. I am a child of the ’80s, and those films are a comfort to me. Whenever I’m a bit under the weather, and I have a little diva day, it’s always an ’80s film that goes on. Something that you’ve watched a billion times that’s just really comforting. That is definitely one for me. Next question, would you rather give up social media, or eat the same dinner for the rest of your life?

James Rodliff: That is mean. I love social media. A lot of my friends live all around the world, and it’s part of the way how we all work nowadays, and stay in touch with each other. I don’t know if you can tell from my physique, I love my food. I could not eat the same … There are some things I could eat a lot, but I couldn’t eat the same meal over and over again. I would ditch the social media, and probably be a healthier person, probably, for it, in the long run. But yes, I would have to go for that.

Kelly Molson: What’s your favourite meal? If you had to eat the same meal every night, what would it be?

James Rodliff: That’s so hard, maybe a glorious green Thai curry would probably be the absolute top for me. Yeah, absolutely adore Thai food. I was lucky enough to go out there a few years ago, and the place was amazing, the people were amazing, but the food, oh my god, the food.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, lovely. That is a really good choice. It would get a bit boring if it was the same every day though, wouldn’t it?

James Rodliff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Molson: You just, repetitive.

James Rodliff: Lose the magic.

Kelly Molson: Okay, I might have had a little bit of help with the next question.

James Rodliff: Uh-oh.

Kelly Molson: You’ll probably know who when I ask you. What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you at an airport?

James Rodliff: Oh no. Yeah, I might know who would be behind this one. So calamity seems to follow me, Kelly, around my life. On one particular time … So this was the young Paul Griffiths, no doubt, that’s helped you here. Where were we going? We were coming back from Norway, I think. We got some funding to go out, we were putting together some work when we worked at the Mary Rose together. We were flying up to Norway, and for some reason when I went through the scanny machine thingy that scans … They do like the heat temperature and the metal detector, for some reason, can’t tell you why, but my lower regions glowed a glorious, radiant orange.

They pulled me in to get proper strip-searched by these big Norwegian chaps. Yeah, it was quite the experience. Then, after it was all done and I put my clothes back on and was walking away, realised I’d left my iPad. I had to go back and speak to them again, and say, “I’m so sorry.”

Kelly Molson: Oh, the horror.

James Rodliff: I know, I think they thought I was coming back to get their number, or something. Yeah, that was a moment.

Kelly Molson: Wow, that is unexpected, isn’t it? You’re really not expecting that to happen.

James Rodliff: Yeah, thanks Paul for that. Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Thank you, Paul. I’m so glad that I asked you. Okay, thank you for answering all those. What’s your unpopular opinion?

James Rodliff: So this is going to lose me a lot of fans straight off the bat. I think people are going to turn off straight away, but I don’t really like Abba. Like I really don’t like Abba. I know. I know, right? So everyone’s got a band or an artist that they just don’t get on with, that’s kind of just … Yeah. For me, it’s Abba, and this has landed me in all sorts of bother throughout my life. One time when we were, again, in Scandinavia, in Sweden, and we worked with the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. Beautiful museum with a ship. A little bit newer, but more intact than the Mary Rose, an absolutely gorgeous museum. We were being hosted out there whilst we worked, again, on some projects.

They said, “Ah, the Abba Museum’s just opened down the road, we should take you.” I had to explain that I didn’t really like Abba. Honestly, explain to Swedish people you don’t like Abba. Their faces. They just couldn’t comprehend it. They just could not understand it. But we went anyway. It must have been … Yes, it was the trip that we took some of our volunteers from the Mary Rose with us. We all went into the Abba Museum, and it’s a fabulous museum, they’ve done an amazing job, but the subject matter was … I just really, really don’t like it. So that was interesting. But fabulous attraction if you’re ever in Stockholm you should go and see it, whether you’re an Abba fan or not.

Kelly Molson: I feel like you’re trying to dig yourself out of a big hole there, James. I would just like to state that the views of our guests do not reflect the views of our podcast. [inaudible 00:06:35] tune in. Thank you. I feel like we’re going to get some tweets about that.

James Rodliff: I’m going to get some hate mail about that.

Kelly Molson: Maybe.

James Rodliff: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Right, let’s get into having a chat about you and Stonehenge because this is exciting. I just want to say that we are recording this, so it’s the 5th of March today, which is a day that parents all around the country will be rejoicing, because it is the end of homeschooling, hopefully, for now. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

James Rodliff: Hopefully.

Kelly Molson: But it is also St Piran’s Day.

James Rodliff: It is St Piran’s Day, yeah.

Kelly Molson: It’s the national day of Cornwall. We just had a lovely chat about this off air, but I think this is really special for you, isn’t it, because this is where you’re from?

James Rodliff: Absolutely. Yeah, so I was born and raised in Cornwall, and kind of strong Cornish identity. Well, everyone, I think, who was born and grows up there, has it? It’s a very special place, and it has very much its own character and history and legends and stories. Actually growing up there had a massive impact on me because it’s a very, very touristy economic environment down there anyway. So that was always a big part of living down there, but also surrounded by these amazing standing stones, and ruins and hill forts on windswept moors. There’s just this kind of sense of magic and mystery down there.

There’s lots of these kinds of special high days and holidays, usually involving food, a fair few drinks, and a bit of dancing, and all sorts of good times. But yeah, that had a really big impact on me growing up. This huge sense of storytelling in Cornwall as well. My friend’s laughing because I don’t seem to be able to answer a question in a short way, there’s always a story, a rambling story to my answers. But I think that’s partly growing up in Cornwall, and just the way we explain things and weave things. I think that’s had a really big impact on my later career as well.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, well this segue ways really nicely into what your background is, and how you got to where you are now. Because you mentioned growing up in Cornwall you were really kind of part of that tourist economy, and experiences that were happening there. Was that the start of it? You always knew that you would kind of work within that industry?

James Rodliff: I think so. I mean it’s just what I did. It was a few jobs a few decades back now working in busy pub kitchens, or working in summer retail environments. That’s what all of us, all my friends did the same. Working on the beaches in shops, or whatever. Or I was working in the caravan park during one summer. That’s just what the economy was. Alongside this, like I said, being surrounded by kind of the history and the legends and the stories as well. They kind of fueled a bit of a dual passion in me, I suppose. Which was the facilitation of these stories, and the history and the heritage to people, to explain what these things are, and what they mean.

So that, yeah, I think did have a really big impact on me. Yeah, Cornwall is absolutely chocka with attractions. Lots of people go down there because the place is beautiful, and they want to get a sense of the food, the culture, the history. And lots and lots of different attractions have popped up, as well, to facilitate them, and help them part with their cash as well. Some of these attractions, amazing. A couple, slightly more questionable, but all, in their own ways, amazing, well worth a visit.

Kelly Molson: You’re now at Stonehenge, but I know that you worked at the Mary Rose previously, with Paul, who was very kind to help me out with some of those questions. Paul has been a previous guest on the podcast as well. But I think you started, was it banking that you actually started your career in?

James Rodliff: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: That’s quite a big change.

James Rodliff: It is a bit, yeah. So I decided to study archaeology through to the postgraduate level. I loved finding out more and more and more of these stories beneath our feet, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. Graduated with my masters, I worked actually as an archaeologist in the field for a while on a few different digs, as well as balancing various other jobs, whatever came up. Then graduated with my masters, and kind of hoped to swan into a brilliant job in heritage or archaeology, and obviously, that’s not necessarily the way the world worked. But an amazing opportunity came up and I went to work for Lloyds Bank. Which was right after the credit crunch, and right coming up to the PPI scandal. It was quite a time to work for banks.

I got involved with kind of customer complaint handling and how you should treat your customers, and how to retain business, and how to help put things right when things do go wrong. That was really, really useful for me. So having that kind of history heritage side, and then being thrown into quite a corporate environment, but one that was in a bit of a crisis, really, and having to find a way out of that was actually really useful. So I did that for a few years. Worked hard, got all the experience I possibly could, but I really … My heart had to get back into heritage. I knew I had to make a step back.

So started looking around, and a job popped up down in Portsmouth on the south coast, at the Mary Rose, where they were just getting ready to set up the new museum, and it was to join the conservation team to help install the objects. So they were looking for people with experience who had handled objects, and could work on projects. So I applied, it was a pay cut. It was a short contract. It was a massive gamble. My dad was very unsure about it. I was like, “What do you think?” He was like, “I don’t know.” But we decided to go for it. Moved down to Portsmouth, and yeah, the project was amazing.

James Rodliff: I spent a year being able to help install this incredible collection. There’s 19,000 objects in the Mary Rose collection, and the museum itself, if anyone hasn’t yet gone, must go. It is absolutely phenomenal. They’ve done such a good job there. 30 years in the planning and it really shows, it is beautiful. So that was amazing.

Then joined the operations team once the installation had done. Worked in different roles. Front of house manager, visitor operations manager. Then I worked as part of the marketing team for a little while. Kind of did everything. Was there for seven years. Which I think in your late 20s early 30s is a long time to be anywhere. Yeah, so I started thinking there are people that do work at the Mary Rose for their entire career, and you can understand why. It is a stunning project. But I knew it was probably getting time for me to move onto a new challenge.

I did really want a challenge as well, something to really sink my teeth into. So I was kind of keeping an eye out, and this job popped up at Stonehenge, where they were looking for an operations manager. You know, you hear of my history there, that just kind of ticked a lot of boxes for me. So again, up sticks, moved up to Salisbury, and joined Stonehenge June 1st, 2019. So straight into the summer, straight into my first Summer Solstice. The Solstice is also my birthday, so that was a nice treat to have 10,000 people celebrating on my birthday.

Kelly Molson: How wonderful they all just turned up just for you.

James Rodliff: I know, it’s fabulous, but that was really lovely. The first summer was a whirlwind. You know, we had dealt with some really busy times at the Mary Rose, but Stonehenge and sites like that, they’re a different scale. Everything is just scaled up massively. The visitors come from all around the world, it’s just the most incredible place. It was a steep learning curve, but we had our busiest ever summer day during that first summer. The winter was fabulous and we had our busiest winter day as well that year. We were just starting to put in some quite ambitious plans around looking at the admissions process and kind of moving it from what it is, which is a stunning product into making sure that it’s a world-class visitor attraction as well. Then of course COVID hit, didn’t it?

Kelly Molson: Gosh, I mean you had a really big start to your career there, didn’t you?

James Rodliff: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Straight in into a Summer Solstice-

James Rodliff: Straight in.

Kelly Molson: … and then hey, smashed in the face with a pandemic.

James Rodliff: Absolutely. I’ve spent now more time at Stonehenge under the kind of pandemic situation than I did beforehand, which is really strange. So yeah, I feel like a bit of a kind of wartime operations manager, in a way, you know? But it is fabulous, and it means that I’ve been able to part of this quite dynamic time, which is really interesting.

Kelly Molson: In at the deep end with both feet.

James Rodliff: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Kelly Molson: Couldn’t have planned that more perfectly, right? If you can get through last year, you can get through anything, James.

James Rodliff: I hope so, yeah.

Kelly Molson: So what worked well last year for Stonehenge? Because a huge change, I guess you were closed for a certain amount of time, but then outdoor attractions were allowed to then start to reopen and stuff. What went well, what didn’t go well?

James Rodliff: Yeah, so I mean it was … What a year it was, right? I mean for everyone in the sector it was incredibly tough. What worked well? So we actually received some of the best feedback we have received in recent times during last year. Which is, I think, outstanding. That kind of came about because we really took, well not a step back, we took a lot of steps back to look at the entire visitor journey. It’s cliché, visitor journey, but really, really did kind of think about every single touchpoint with our visitors, with our members, with our supporting staff, volunteers, how we could make it work. When we’re coming to reopen the site and not just our site, but there’s … Well, English Heritage looks after 400 sites, 130 sites with staff. How are we going to reopen the portfolio and make it work?

So we looked at what people’s expectations would be around COVID, and what their priorities would be once we could reopen, and what they would actually want to get from the site. So we took that, we took, like I said, every single step of the journey, every touchpoint, and we just worked our way through it. Everyone kind of honed in on this single mission to make this the best that it could be in the circumstances. Also to kind of mitigate against any times, if we did have to step back and say there’s a bit of the experience there that you’re not going to be able to access in the same way, what could we do otherwise then?

So that worked really, really well, and that process all the way through, pre-booking, booking, admissions, arrival, the whole day. We looked at what we had. We’ve got, as you said, we’re an outdoor attraction, we’ve got outdoor space. What did people want after being locked in for so long? They wanted to get outdoors, and spread out, and breathe, and a bit of normality. So we started looking at what could we do a bit different. So let’s tell people to come and bring a picnic, have a picnic in the monument field. What a lovely thing to do and Stonehenge right there.

James Rodliff: Come and walk the landscape, instead of … We have our shuttle buses. Now if people are in a bit more of a hurry, or they don’t fancy the walk, or whatever, we have the buses, and we kept them going as well, especially for those who couldn’t or didn’t want to walk. But if you can walk, walk. Spread-out, enjoy yourselves. People came, they spent the day, and they really, really had a great time. Alongside that, we had lots of projects working on how we could better engage with people at home, different formats that we could use, tying in with education platforms, and all the other needs that people had as well.

It worked. It really worked. What was amazing is that all this planning, all this kind of forethought into the operations, people noticed. You look on TripAdvisor and people were noticing the operations and they’re commenting on the … People don’t normally do that, you know? “They really thought about where to put the barriers, and how people stand.” People just don’t normally say that. So that was outstanding, and it really felt good.

The other thing that worked really well was our staff. They have just been outstanding. Absolutely outstanding, and I just can’t thank them enough. All the way through this process they’ve been practical and intuitive and supportive, and they’ve just wanted to make it work. They love the place. They really, really love the place, and you can see that in how they approach everything. The feedback from visitors, alongside the operational stuff, has been about the staff. “I arrived, I was warmly greeted. I was made to feel safe and secure. Like they’ve really thought about everything.” That was really, really magic as well.

Another thing is our VIP experience. We have stone circle experiences where we can host a smaller number of people outside of the normal opening times, where you can actually go inside, up close to the stones. Normally this is often quite heavily in demand from international audiences, and larger tour companies. But we were able to offer this out to a domestic market. So if you can’t go on holiday, why not come inside the Stonehenge stone circle? That was amazing. The feedback from that from domestic audience was fantastic. Really, really impressive.

James Rodliff: I also am a big fan of our hand sanitiser. I think it smells delightful, but it smells a bit like tequila. Was it you or Carly when-

Kelly Molson: Oh.

James Rodliff: Is it you? Okay.

Kelly Molson: Carly loves tequila, but me, I can’t even think about it.

James Rodliff: Carly would have a lovely old time, but you’d have to bring your own. But no, slight tequila whiff at night, that I think is lovely as well. But not the entire … That coming together, we were just chuffed to bits to see, in the face of all this adversity, that actually we delivered something that we were really proud of.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, it’s so interesting, isn’t it? The more people that I speak to in the sector, the more this comes through, is that the things that were really important to visitors that were coming is that they were welcomed. It still felt like a really lovely, warm experience for them, aside from the fact that there were extra security processes in place, and barriers and things. It still felt like a great time for them to come. It’s the team that makes that. It’s the front-of-house team, it’s the people that care about the place, that care about the people’s experience that makes that happen.

Did you find that, because you mentioned about people kind of like walking to the stones and people bringing picnics and things. Did you find that people stayed longer, and had a kind of a longer experience there then they normally would?

James Rodliff: Definitely, yeah.

Kelly Molson: So in a way, less people actually better experience for the people that did come.

James Rodliff: Yeah, absolutely. We encouraged it really, because although we had our caps and we were trying to get that balance right of safety limits in terms of … Because obviously we have got space, but there are … Our facilities, they are big, but they still need to be very mindful in terms of the number of people coming through in the hour slots. So we were very, very cautious about that. But yeah, we encouraged it. Come, spend the day, bring a picnic. Really have a wonderful day. I think the domestic audiences if they’re going out they’re not necessarily doing like you do on holiday, you’re quite happy to do two or three things in a day, quick, go, take your photos, off you go again.

If you’re going somewhere domestically and you’re going to be parting with your hard-earned cash, then you want to get the most out of it. So that was fabulous. Actually, some of the things we tweaked helped facilitate that. So as we said, the picnics in the monument field. The landscape walks. We have these beautiful replica neolithic houses on the site, which have been made by our volunteers, absolutely gorgeous. They’re basically experimental archaeology, based on houses that were excavated nearby on the landscape. They’re phenomenally interesting, and some of them actually have all kind of neolithic replica artefacts in, and a volunteer will sit in there, and they can light a fire, and you can come in and hear about it, and it’s just incredible.

Couldn’t do that in COVID. So what we did we brought that outside into the middle of the village. Actually made it kind of more approachable and accessible in some ways. That was a huge success, and people were sitting there, and really engaging. So that really helped. Actually some of these things we put in, we thought this is, in some ways, arguably better. So I think there’s some real lessons there for us to take away as well.

Kelly Molson: So that’s interesting because this brings me to what this year looks like. So obviously you’ve got … You mentioned you’d have quite a predominantly international audience, and 2021, let’s face it, we have no idea when people are going to be flying in from anywhere. So your audience goes back to predominantly domestic. What challenges does that throw up for you? Do you carry on doing the things that you did last year? Or are there more things that you’ve got to adapt and change for this year?

James Rodliff: Well you know, it’s undeniably going to be a massive challenge. The last year has been a huge challenge for our sector, us as a charity we rely on ticket income, as so many other organisations do. Not having that international audience is undeniably going to have a big impact on that. We’ve had to delay things like some of our conservation projects and maintenance projects because we just don’t have the ticket income coming in. That will be a further symptom of not having necessarily as many international guests coming in.

Yeah, the majority of our visitors each year are international. So what are we going to do about that? So we know what worked last year, and we took a lot of lessons from that. I think we are well prepared to do a comparable, if not better offer, from the things that we learnt last year for our domestic audiences, which is exciting. We have got infrastructure onsite that is dedicated to coach groups and international audiences that isn’t going to be used by them, so how can we better use that to help spread people out, and make it a more comfortable and better experience for them as well.

But you’re right, we have to think about car parks, and what happens if the car park starts to fill up because people aren’t coming on coaches. The changes in dwell time, and what that will do. The other parts of our offer, our catering and retail, is that as relevant when you’re looking after this big domestic audience, as it was in this international one?

But it does give us some real positives as well. The stay-cation market should be strong. In fact, some of the English Heritage sites had one of their best-ever years last year, because especially in the west, people were looking around, thinking okay, we can’t go to Magaluf, we can’t go to the jungles of Papua New Guinea, we’ve got this amazing castle three miles away, we’ve never been there. Let’s go and have a day. What a lovely thing.

You know, some of our sites had an amazing year last year, and I think they will again, have a strong year as well. But other sites will have more challenges. Ones that are more indoors will struggle. Those who rely heavily on international tourism, like us, will have those issues. But it’s going to push us to be more inventive in problem-solving. Come up with new ways of making sure the offer really is good. It’s things like our special, our stone circle experience tours, things like that, again, I think we’ve got a great season with that lined up, and a whole new audience to really speak to there as well.

Kelly Molson: It’s amazing, isn’t it? You’re talking through about how there’s so many things to think about when you’re in an operation. You mentioned about the car park in there, if lots of people aren’t coming on one coach, and then loads of people are coming in all individual cars, then that changes that completely. It blows my mind to think about how you even start to plan all of this out. You mentioned the catering, so does your catering offer then have to change to if people are going to come for the day, and they’re going to stay for longer, is your catering offering hampers, so they can have the picnic?

Then that shifts in that sense. Whereas, if they’re coming on a tour bus, that might have been they’re just going to grab a quick sandwich or a scone or something to eat while they’re looking at stuff, and then they’re off again. There’s so much to think about. How do you even start to plan this? It’s such an epic task.

James Rodliff: It is, and you know, talking about catering, are people coming for two meals now? And what does that look like? Think about all those different things. Certain retail products, are they going to be right for the different audiences? Yeah, I mean luckily we’ve got just an amazing team. I’ve got some amazing, amazing colleagues, and so we’ve been putting a lot of thought into this. You know, finally, it’s what a week it’s been. We got our dates last week, which obviously kind of paves forward a bit of a roadmap for the coming weeks, months and hoping to get open asap in a safe way.

But it also means that right now there are some deadlines, we really need to get planning. But also we didn’t necessarily know what we were opening into. So when we do open, I won’t be able to open our exhibition at first, you know, indoor interpretation spaces. So that’s going to be a challenge. So how do we offset that and make sure that is as good as it can be? What is quite exciting is that it has actually fast forwarded some other measures. So our new audio offer is going to be ready for when we reopen, which is brilliant. We’ve been able to crack on, our new café is going to be open for when we reopen. So there are lots of new and exciting things already in the bag, which is really good.

Kelly Molson: That’s great as well because I guess that kind of engages with people that have already been before, that live locally too. So there’s something new for them to come and see. There’s something new for them to experience. Which means you’re kind of engaging with them and drawing them back. So it’s not just kind of a one-time visit. I want to ask about the venue, and if you need to adapt it in any way for different audiences? Not just kind of international to domestic, but potentially less attentive audiences.

So this was a question that Mark Ellis sent in from the National Memorial Arboretum. He’s kind of asking around if your audience changes to maybe kind of like gen Zed, I don’t really like these acronyms, they drive me mad. But a younger generation have maybe a slightly … They’re slightly less attentive. Are there new things that you’re thinking about that you’re going to need to implement to engage with them?

James Rodliff: That’s a very interesting question. Do you know what’s funny? Thinking back 10 years or so, and this same question was to replace gen Zed with the word millennial and it was the same question then. As an older millennial, I was there thinking I love museums, I don’t know why they’re worried that I’m going to go, and I know lots of people like me that really like going to these places. You’re right, segmentation is super useful, and super un-useful at the same time. So I think doing it by age groups is a slightly dangerous route to go down because lots of different age groups act in different ways.

I see it on site. We see people from one to 100, and some of them will be really attentive and interested, and some won’t be. That doesn’t necessarily depend on the age group. I think perhaps looking at are these people experience seekers? If that’s what they want, if they want to come and make memories, then how do we best facilitate that? We have the benefit of having … We’ve got Stonehenge. It’s one of a kind, it’s very authentic, it’s very amazing. When you’re there, you’ve stood in that field looking at it, you cannot help be mesmerised. That is brilliant. No amount of AR, VR, crazy different ways of technologically adding to that will be able to match the magnificence of the actual monument itself.

That being said, I think there are lots of different ways that we can tell stories, and that we should always be pushing ourselves to … Just because we’ve done something a certain way for a long time, doesn’t mean we should keep doing it that way. I think we should always be keeping an eye on whatever tools we can use in our arsenal to make that best possible experience it can be for our guests. Some of that I think is giving space to people to explore it in their own way, and not being overly prescriptive, and this is the way you should experience it. This is the only way you’ll get the story is by listening to this guide, or standing at that point, or following that exact route.

Give people the space to do it. Now some people want to be led. They want to know, “I’m scared of missing something if I don’t follow the exact route.” Other people they want to just go and do it in their own way. They might want to stand in the field and catch Pokemon or something. I don’t know. There are different ways that people want to enjoy that environment. I think the other thing is talking about younger generations is certainly that the young generation now, they are more into the outdoors and nature and fitness-

Kelly Molson: Absolutely.

James Rodliff: … and healthy and wellbeing. I was sat on the couch in the Chelsea eating pork pies and cans of Coke as a young person. These young people they’re out there, they run for fun. This is something I’ve discovered much later, but different things are important to them. So again, us, we have a lot of outdoor space, this is brilliant for us. But I think other places should think about that, what is important to these audiences. Not just kind of changing the offer to match them, but looking at what you already have, and matching that to the need. There are some stuff, talking about making memories, we are looking at is there some cool places we can suggest that are the ultimate selfie spots, you know?

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

James Rodliff: Silly things like the shot that everyone wants, that great bit that people want to share on social media with their friends. Yeah, so bits like that.

Kelly Molson: But that’s great. So that engages with them in something that they love to do, but also it’s beneficial for the experience. They share that content, it’s user-generated content, it gets shared across their social media channels, it all helps to promote. I am a big fan of museums introducing kind of Instagram-able areas because I think it’s just an incredible way to be able to promote and engage with that different audience. That’s what they want to do. They want to capture that perfect moment as well.

I want to talk about kind of virtual stuff as well. So I know that obviously Summer Solstice you did some virtual elements around that last year. What have you got planned for this year? So what events have you got planned that might be virtual? And what might always stay virtual, or go back to physical? Is there plans to kind of keep some of those things hand-in-hand with the real-life experience?

James Rodliff: It’s a good point. We’ve been dabbling with how do we share the Solstice with not just the people that can make it to the site, but how can we do that. Like you said, the Solstice last year where we weren’t able to … Sadly weren’t able to host our managed open access to the stones, we had an empty field, which is a very unusual thing on a Solstice, it’s probably been a very long time since that happened. But we were able then to share that experience with the world. People from all around the world tuned in to see it. Huge audience of people. Both the Summer and the Winter Solstice.

People found it really quite something. Actually, the winter one I was working in the evening, so we still have a few people onsite just checking and making sure everything’s okay. I worked the evening slot, but not the morning. So I woke up quite early at home thinking I hope everything’s okay, and I kind of tuned into the livestream, and I was actually just lying in bed, watching the sunrise over the stones. It was so beautiful, so lovely. That has been a real success. Definitely we’d love to do some more of that to share that for people that can’t get here. Especially this year, even if domestic audiences might be able to travel, international audiences might not, and so you know, we know it’s a really important thing to people. So more of that, yes. More of that, absolutely.

We’ve got our skyscape camera as well. I don’t know if you’ve seen that. Which is there’s a camera up at the stones basically. Which, whenever you want to, at any time of day, you can go onto the site, and you can see what the sky is doing at Stonehenge. You can click on different filters, so you can see where the stars are moving, where the sun’s moving, everything. Which is really lovely. That’s here to stay, that’s really lovely.

James Rodliff: We’ve got some new projects that are kind of launching this year, which may well fuel future adventures as well. But we’ve got Songs of England, which is just coming out, which is an English Heritage wide project, working with amazing folk singers to bring English folk songs to the sites. The amazing sites that we have that tell England’s history, which is just fabulous. That’s really, really lovely. We do have other stuff, but I’m not allowed to talk about them, to come. So keep an eye on the website and our social media channels. But there are other things that we blended, right?

So when we talked earlier, Kelly, about if there’s things on site that you are unable to experience firsthand, is there any other way of getting some of that experience? So we had our agile interpretation. I love this phrase, agile interpretation, which is kind of the brainchild of some of our very brilliant visceral experience and learning and interpretation colleagues who start producing things. Okay, so for us, our houses, I said you couldn’t go inside the houses and have that experience. Okay, the volunteers are outside, and they’re showing you things and engaging in that way, but how can you just close that gap between what we did have, pre-COVID, and what we’ve got now?

So we’ve got QR codes. It’s pretty much a simple post that says, “Want to see what it’s like? Scan this QR code.” Then it pops up on your phone and you’re in the house, and you can see the fire’s going, and you’re inside. Just closing that gap. That agile interpretation, it’s quick, it’s relatively cheap, and it just works. It doesn’t have to be perfect. I think there are lots of places that could look at that and say, “It’s such a shame we can’t do this part of our experience.” What can you do then to close that gap in? That blend of kind of digital and physical I think is going to be really important as we go forward.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, I love that. I love the way that you’ve described it as a blend, because I think that’s exactly what it should be. It’s exactly what people are expecting things to be now. It’s really weird that even me that works in a kind of digital world, it’s never been my first … You know, I’ll go and look at a website of an attraction that I want to go and visit. But I wouldn’t engage with the website as much, because I knew that I was going to go to the physical place. But now, I’ll go to the website and I’ll look at everything that I possibly can, just to try and get that kind of sense of experience of what it’s going to be like.

I can remember a month or so ago you’ve got like a … You can click on the stones, and it tells you what each of the stones are called, and where they came from, and information about them. I spent a good hour kind of clicking through and looking at it. You could kind of change things around. It felt quite immersive. It was quite a simple thing, but it kind of gave me a sense of yeah, I really need to be there now. It sort of built that excitement. I think that’s what’s important about having these virtual experiences is it builds the excitement about going. Actually that kind of anticipation, that’s what you want in people. You want them to be super excited when they come.

I think that the only way to really do that is to continue doing these things that are digital, that you can share with anyone and everyone around the world.

James Rodliff: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. We were talking earlier on about that kind of sense of welcome when you arrive. People should be excited about coming to our site still, even reopening into social distancing, or opening in social distancing, we still need to make sure that people are excited. These are magic days that we work in these environments where we’re bringing people to have amazing experiences, and they should be excited to have those.

Kelly Molson: I guess this question is probably something that you’ve probably done already, because you were able to open last year, to a certain extent. But what more can you put in place so that your front of line staff feel really safe and secure about what’s happening? Because they’re the first people that interact with the guests that are coming, so essentially they’re kind of frontline, there’s an element of risk there for them, right? How do you make them feel comfortable? Is there any more that you’re going to have to think about this year, potentially, with a new kind of COVID strands?

James Rodliff: Yeah, it’s a great point. Yeah, you said staff are that first point of contact, so if staff do feel nervous, they do feel unsafe, or they do feel worried, that’s going to come across. So that’s got to be the top priority. For us, that was always at the top of our priority list was making sure the staff are safe, that they feel safe, and that they understand everything that’s happening so that they are an active part of the whole process. That has been a thread that we’ve pulled all the way through. So what we did, for example, when we opened after the first lockdown, we’ve been opened and closed a few times now.

After the first lockdown what we did was we put all our plans into place. The few of us that weren’t furloughed we’d spent a long, long time coming up with these very clever plans, we thought. When we got all the team back about a week before we opened up, and we talked them through it. I led the team around, socially distanced, led the team around the site and said, “This is what I’m planning, or this is what we’re planning, and these are the elements of the site we want to tweak. This is what we’re thinking. You guys are the experts, you’re on the ground, you deal with this every day. You tell me, what have I forgotten? What could we do better?” There was brilliant feedback.

They came and they shared, and they were very happy to come up with solutions to other problems, or just highlight things that, “I don’t know what the solution is here, but this is something we’re going to have to watch.” Then what we did, when we did go round, we tweaked and we made things better for them. Made them an active part of that process. When we did open then the first thing, as soon as we closed on that first day we all gathered around, socially distanced, and said what went really well today? What worked? What parts of these very clever plans that have taken us ages to draw up actually worked? And what didn’t work? What could we do better? What could we tweak?

We did that every day for the first week or so. We tweaked and changed, and they really felt part of that process. They felt listened to, and they felt a lot better. It doesn’t take away all the nerves. All of us working in a pandemic, just living through a pandemic, it’s exhausting and it’s terrifying. So you can’t take away everything. But what we have done is work very hard to make sure it’s the absolute best it can be.

James Rodliff: We’re lucky we’ve got some amazing people that work for English Heritage. I have to shout out to Alex Page who’s our Head of Safety. The man deserves a knighthood after this year. He has been an absolute national treasure. We had to interpret a lot very quickly, and turn it into plans on the ground. Alex and his team have just been phenomenal in supporting all the site staff in being able to make that happen. Then being infinitely calm and patient with us while we asked lots and lots of questions as well. So we’ve been lucky there. But you know, everything from making sure that the staff rooms are safe. So we weren’t able to do in-classroom learning, so we had that resource. So we took that classroom, the classroom’s now a welfare room. Everyone’s spread out.

But the priority there was the staff need, above the education, if the staff aren’t safe, aren’t happy, aren’t okay then we can’t open. But it also throws up other challenges. Your face-to-face briefings that we would like to do a lot of and get that feedback, the more you have, the more you incrementally slowly creep up that risk factor. What about all the lovely appreciations and the hand clapping, and the hugging, and the well done? Leaving parties, Kelly. We’ve had people that have retired during this year that have been at Stonehenge for years, and we’d normally party, we’d at least gather around and celebrate, and share. Not having that has been really tough.

So there’s some things you can offset. So our briefings we’ve moved them onto the radios where we can, and try and get, again, that balance, that blend of the physical and the digital, or other means. But yeah, it has been difficult. A lot of communication, in terms of explaining why we’re doing stuff as we’re doing it, all the way through every week, more internal information comes out explaining, not just what’s happening, but why it’s happening. If you need anything, if you need any support, where to find it. If you have any questions, where to ask those as well.

There’s been a lot of other, because everyone in our sector’s been in this same position. So there’s been a lot of good sector collaboration around this. I have to give Rachel a shout-out. Rachel Mackay with the Recovery Room website. She’s been a good friend throughout this, and she’s produced a lot of resources if people haven’t found it yet, go onto the Recovery Room because there’s a lot of information about supporting front of house teams there as well.

Kelly Molson: Rachel has been absolutely fabulous. So Rachel was a previous guest on the podcast actually. What we will do is we’ll pop the link to her website in the show notes for this show as well, because it is something, if you are planning your reopening processes now, the resource that is on that blog is pretty phenomenal, isn’t it? I know she’s been doing some consulting with other organisations as well. So yeah, that’s really lovely to see.

I think, again, that’s a huge positive that’s come out of this, is that sector collaboration. But also how adaptable everybody’s been. The flexibility that people have had to have shown in the roles that they have. And how quickly things have changed, in terms of what you can and can’t do, but also being given a week’s notice that you can reopen again, and how that impacts people. It’s been phenomenal. What’s been really lovely to hear is how you’ve engaged with your team, and you’ve made them part of that process. It hasn’t been we’ve made the decision, and this is how we’re doing things. It’s how is this going to work? This is what we think, but like you said, you’re the experts, help us.

I guess that is part of your culture now already, but if it isn’t, how do you embed that for the rest of the year, and for future?

James Rodliff: Yeah, it’s really important that all of us make sure we don’t lose some of this. Some of the positive legacy of COVID, if I can phrase it like that. Some of the things that have changed maybe for the better. Or ways of working that have improved, that we don’t lose that, if and when they do start sliding back into the normality of some description, we don’t lose some of that really positive stuff. That we make sure we do keep collaborating with our colleagues, and use our teams who are the experts on the ground, in how to look after guests, and where pinch points are, and what’s the same question that they get asked 732 times a week. How we use that feedback and make things better, and quickly. Not just collate it and put it into a chart, and then sometime in a year’s time we might get around to it. But be agile, and like you said, get on with things and make it happen.

So there are some things, like Zoom, love it or hate it, what a way it’s transformed the way we work. You can now gather all your experts together at short notice onto a Zoom, be sharing slides. Everyone’s kind of tech-savvy, not that people necessarily weren’t tech, and to be comfortable and confident to be able to do it, and just make it happen. That’s become part of the way we work now. So that will speed things up, and hopefully lower travel costs, and have all sorts of positive environmental things as well.

I do get a bit Zoomed out sometimes, I don’t know about you, but especially if you’re using it for professional, and then for socialising as well, it can get a bit much. But yeah, it’s hugely facilitated this quick-acting, these quick discussions. You can go away, do work, come back, discuss it. That flexibility has been really useful. You said about the creativity from the teams in solving these problems, that’s a positive thing that we need to keep moving, and keep that discussion alive as we go forward. And the agility. You said that a week’s notice, well sometimes you think back, we’d have Boris on the telly on a Sunday night with things that need to be actioned Monday morning.

Kelly Molson: Yes, crazy.

James Rodliff: Yeah, I mean it is crazy.

Kelly Molson: It’s crazy.

James Rodliff: Absolutely crazy. So we at Stonehenge, Stonehenge being very outdoors and very open to everything, we have really good kind of cascades and emergency comms protocols anyway. Perhaps not everyone had that, and this has highlighted actually sometimes you do need that. You know, make sure that you can be as agile, and don’t lose that again. Just don’t get into a position where you think, “Oh, it’s okay, the pandemic’s over, nothing worse could happen now, could it?” There’s some lessons I’ve taken away as well, Kelly, around the planning elements for it, that even with our best business continuity plans, I don’t think we included things as … We didn’t appreciate things such as the emotional impact of a pandemic.

So we had a plan for a pandemic. We had one. What would happen if we had a … Well, we’d keep going, when people feel off sick then the managers would come … You know, it’s like picking up the rifles at the Battle of Stalingrad, someone else would pick up the mantle and you keep charging forward, and you make it the best it can be. But actually what’s the emotional impact there? How would people feel about coming to work? That wasn’t in our business continuity planning. So things like that are important.

Things around contracts that you sign based on the assumption or presumption that you’ll always have X many thousand visitors coming. Why would you close for six months, or a year, or whatever? So thinking about supply chains and contracts, and that flexibility as well, I think is really important.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been utterly phenomenal, hasn’t it? I think what you were saying about that emotional aspect, I don’t think any of us realized quite how significant this would be on our own mental health. I think that when the pandemic started I can remember sitting back and thinking, “Whoa, okay, so I need to work out … Okay, so what projects have I got on that I think might not be happening now?” You know, what have I got that was coming up next month that is now not going to happen? So how do I work out that? What projects are still going to continue? How do the team feel? How do I get them set up working from home? How does this all happen?

It was more of kind of the logistical operation side of the physical stuff that I thought about. Then you started to sit back and go, actually people are really scared, and I’m a bit scared. I don’t want to leave my house. I don’t want to do these things. All right, we weren’t allowed to leave our house, but you know, the emotional side was a secondary thought, and a secondary response. I guess that’s something that I want to take forward, and not be that. I want to think about the emotional side before the logistics next time. I think that’s really, really important. It’s definitely still happening now.

I really sympathise with the people that you said, you know, we had leaving parties for people, and then we never got to hug them, and we never got to say goodbye. We’ve had team members leave and their last kind of thing that they do is click the Zoom button to leave the meeting. It’s like-

James Rodliff: Yeah, it’s just not the same.

Kelly Molson: … that’s not how it’s supposed to end.

James Rodliff: No.

Kelly Molson: It’s sad.

James Rodliff: We are planning, when we can, to have a gathering. So everyone who’s not had that benefit of a proper thank you and a send-off, to get everyone back together. Which it’ll be a glorious sunny day, and it’s going to be marvellous, and I will have a cider or two.

Kelly Molson: Definitely, and maybe a pasty as well.

James Rodliff: Maybe.

Kelly Molson: I need to talk to you, we’re coming to the end of the podcast, and I’ve got two more quick questions for you. I really need to ask you about the fact that your face was superimposed onto the stones at some point last year. Tell us about that.

James Rodliff: It was, yeah.

Kelly Molson: What an experience.

James Rodliff: It was an experience, yeah. So going back a couple of years, it’s not the first time my face has been projected large onto something, and it happened at the Mary Rose because I accidentally became the face of the advertising campaign for the reopening of the museum, dressed as Henry VIII. This time I wasn’t dressed in Tudor outfit, and I didn’t have to wear a codpiece, so that was a relief, first of all.

Kelly Molson: Can I just say that I can remember seeing those posters on the tubes before I even knew you. Then when I saw them on your Twitter I was like, “Oh yeah, those were everywhere.”

James Rodliff: Yeah, that was a strange time. Yeah, this was different, like I said, less costume. But this was really touching actually. It was all about saying thank you to some of the people who had managed to continue the amazing work of different charities supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. That actually people still playing the lottery, still having a massive effect because the support that they are giving to the Lottery Fund was able to keep these places going. Like our heritage sites, like our amazing charities, and like lots of cultural institutions that were looking after people who were quite marginalised, and during the pandemic, even more so.

It was lovely, I was in mighty company, projected onto those stones. They’ve never been dedicated like that before to individuals. Really I was kind of representing all the good work that the team had done, that everyone was doing on our side. Really, I feel probably I was the face of our operational teams around the whole country that were working to keep the sites going. Who have been turning up every day through the pandemic, and still traveling, still working, to look after our important places that needed looking after. So yeah, no it was unbelievable to see it. Really did bring a tear to the eye to see, it looked amazing. It was very special.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, incredible thing to be part of for last year. Really incredible. One quick question, and then the final question, so Mark Ellis wants to know have you visited the National Memorial Arboretum? It’s brilliant.

James Rodliff: You know, it’s on my list. It’s on my very long list that has grown throughout the pandemic, all these wonderful places I want to go to. You know, when you scroll through places, and you’re like, I must go there, I must go there. So the list is long now. So as soon as we’re out of this, I’m up there Mark, I promise.

Kelly Molson: Mark, it’s on my list as well. We’ll be there. Maybe we’ll do a group outing. We could organise a Skip the Queue outing.

James Rodliff: It’s been lovely. That would be nice.

Kelly Molson: Oh gosh, you’ve just given me so many ideas for … All right, Mark, thank you for your questions, they’ve sparked good ideas today. We’re at the end of the podcast, I always ask our guests to recommend a book. So either a book that you just really love, or a book that’s kind of helped shape your career in some way. What have you got to share with us?

James Rodliff: So I really had to think about this. So I don’t do a lot of reading of technical books that I probably should do. One of the few that I’ve read that really amazing history experience was, as Paul mentioned in his actually, was about the Disney Making Magic book, which is absolutely fantastic. Heartily recommend that. My favourite book is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which of course-

Kelly Molson: Great book, yes.

James Rodliff: Superb, and has the words “don’t panic” of course blazoned, which for this year is brilliant. But in thinking about what I’d go for this time, I’ve gone for something a little bit different. We did talk about how tricky this year has been, and we talked about mental health, and I myself have found periods of this year incredibly difficult. Very, very, very tough, and I have had to really slow down and think about how my … You’ve put so much effort into being the superhero and trying to do the best you can in whatever … You know, you throw your energy into something. You don’t have the ability to recharge your batteries in the same way. Pandemic’s taken away so much. Everything that makes us human. You’re scared to go near people in the street, how awful is that?

So thinking about other ways you can try and recharge those batteries. So for me, I’ve been reading, I’ve been walking the dog, I’ve been drinking too much beer. I’ve been running, I’ve been learning to play guitar. I’ve been doing all sorts, and some of that’s around mindfulness and meditation, and thinking about the things that I’m grateful for, and the things that do make me happy. So long answer told you, I can’t give a short answer, Kelly, ever.

Kelly Molson: I love this, it makes for a great guest.

James Rodliff: I told you. So I’m going for Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness, as my book. Which has been-

Kelly Molson: Fabulous.

James Rodliff: … an amazing read. So he wrote it in the early part of the pandemic, actually, when he was at home, locked in. He was kind of recounting stories, in his amazing way that he tells stories, about times and places and things that he … You know, reflecting on happiness, what makes him happy. A lot of it is actually amazing stuff that we should be thinking about in terms of our attractions as we reopen and run our attractions. What people love. Nature, art, laughing, a sense of belonging, the unexpected and surprises. These lovely things that should be part of our attractions because they are places that are meant to make people happy. All of our places.

So yeah, Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness is my pick.

Kelly Molson: That is such a perfect book. I haven’t read this book, but it sounds like one for me. So as ever, if you’d like to win a copy of this book, if you head over to our Twitter account, Skip the Queue, and if you retweet this episode announcement with the words, “I want James’s book.” Then you will be in with a chance of winning your own copy of it. James, it’s been such a pleasure to have you on today. Thank you so much.

James Rodliff: Thank you, Kelly, I’m off for a pasty. I’ll see you again.

Kelly Molson: Enjoy.

James Rodliff: Take care.


Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.



Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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