When Chris Webster arrived at Woburn Safari Park in 1992 as the new chief executive, he found that, although staff were committed to the animals, the human visitors were regarded as 'public enemy number one'.
The attraction, opened in 1970 on the Duke of Bedford's estate, had been in continuous decline for seven years as an existing franchise drew to an end. Morale was low, numbers of visitors and employees had dwindled, keepers ruled over their individual domains, and a blame culture was in place.
With the estate back in charge, however, Webster set about transforming the culture of the safari park, putting customer satisfaction at the centre of its strategy. Staff were encouraged to engage the park's customers in conversation and introduce them to the animals, every employee was given training in customer care, mechanisms were introduced to collect customer feedback and respond to complaints, individual attractions were overhauled, and a marketing programme was put in place to boost visitor numbers.
The results have been dramatic. The number of visitors has shot up from 200,000 in 1992 to 330,000 last year and turnover has quadrupled over the same period. In addition, the employee headcount has more than doubled. The remarkable progress that Woburn has made in a relatively short time has enabled it to fend off competition from Iceland Foods and Granada Home Technology (recently renamed as BoxClever) to take the award in the Consumer Services category.
One of the challenges that any seasonal business faces is to instil temporary employees with the same values and incentives as the full-time staff. At Woburn, all employees receive a two-week induction programme and great emphasis is placed on mentoring. Seasonal workers can also earn a bonus, based on points awarded three times during the season. An 'employee of the month' scheme operates in the restaurant, but has yet to be extended to other areas.
With visitors constantly on the move, it is important that employees are empowered to deal with their needs. There is a 'can-do' culture in evidence at Woburn, in which each employee is treated as a 'walking information post' for visitors and is expected to deal with any service failure on the spot. If a particular animal is not available to be seen, they may suggest an alternative and offer some one-to-one interaction. One result is that written complaints have halved in the past 12 months.
Unusually for a leisure attraction, Woburn not only gathers feedback from customers - every visitor receives a questionnaire at the main gate - but has also been making great efforts to build relationships with customers and encourage repeat visits. By joining the Safari Club, customers receive regular newsletters and invitations to special events, while the park's web site provides a second point of contact. Segmentation of the customer base has led to special pricing for mothers with children after school and half-price tickets for locals.
Woburn has already upgraded its objective from becoming the best regional attraction to becoming the best family attraction in the UK. Benchmarking results show it is making good progress in that direction, but Webster clearly has a more profound vision for Woburn.
'In the future,' he says, 'the public will simply not accept animals being exploited to make money and that is why we must develop our environmental contribution. The challenge is to become a leader within the conservation sector.'