2002 SERVICE EXCELLENCE AWARDS: Highly commended - Woburn Safari Park, retail and consumer services

2002 SERVICE EXCELLENCE AWARDS: Highly commended - Woburn Safari Park, retail and consumer services - By anybody's standards, Woburn Safari Park has faced a challenging start to the new millennium. First, it suffered - like other tourist attractions - fro

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

By anybody's standards, Woburn Safari Park has faced a challenging start to the new millennium. First, it suffered - like other tourist attractions - from the opening of the Dome, which, combined with poor weather, contributed to a slight dip in sales. Then, last year foot-and-mouth disease struck, closing the park for 13 weeks and causing a further decline in sales.

But these challenges have not diverted the organisation from its determination to be a world-class visitor attraction.

Having won the Consumer Services category two years ago, chief executive Chris Webster and his team could have congratulated themselves on the swift progress they had made in transforming a place that had been dying on its feet just eight years before.

But after taking a year out while the foot-and-mouth outbreak was being dealt with, Woburn Safari Park is back and still highly committed to the drive for service excellence. It is for this reason - and the significant initiatives it has introduced - that it has received a commendation this time round.

One of the strengths of Woburn is its determination to turn problems to its advantage. The concept of the 'wow moment' allows all staff the discretionary power to respond to customer disappointments by giving them other experiences that more than make up for any initial difficulty.

Taking such an approach turns customers into advocates for the place, it is believed. And there is evidence to support this. According to a survey last year, 64% of active customers of the attraction would visit Woburn Safari Park again and 76% would recommend it to others.

But the ability to turn adversity into gain can also be seen in decisions taken to counteract the effects of the foot-and-mouth crisis. First, when the closure of the park threatened to wipe out sales of merchandise, the head of retail opened a shop in nearby Milton Keynes. This kept the park's name in people's minds, as well as enabling it to sell items that would otherwise have remained on the shelf. Second, when the park re-opened, staff asked visitors for their postcodes. Ostensibly, this was part of the foot-and-mouth precautions, but it also enabled them to carry out a geo-demographic survey in order to provide more information about their customers.

Nor does the drive to improve knowledge of customers, and therefore the service to them, stop with surveys. One of the programmes that especially struck the judges was the junior board, which is composed of children around the age of 11 and has come up with a number of ideas for the future.

In addition, staff have their expenses paid if they visit another attraction and report on what they saw.

Much of the progress that the park has made since the Woburn estate took full control of it in 1992 can be put down to the vision and energy of Webster. But, although he is still providing much of the drive - particularly in terms of establishing Woburn Safari Park as a centre for conservation and education as well as a popular tourist resort - there is plenty of evidence that responsibility is being shared by other managers and to an extent by the staff as a whole.

Woburn staff have always been passionate about the animals. But, with the help of extensive training, they are showing they care just as much about the visitors and the future of the business. Says Webster: 'I really believe there's commitment right across the board now.'

Moreover, what was previously his strategic plan has been replaced by a staff vision - and that is an aspiration to be a world-class business.

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