With a lot of businesses, cultural institutions and visitor attractions gearing up to reopen following COVID-19 closures, we spoke to Frances Sampayo, Deputy Director (Visitor Experience) at the Chelsea Physic Garden who tells us what it’s been like to reopen the oldest botanic garden in London whilst making sure they protect both their employees and visitors.
How have you found the opening? Was it as smooth as you initially envisaged?
Our main priority when re-opening Chelsea Physic Garden was the safety of our staff and our visitors. Through consulting with staff and volunteers we were able to anticipate a lot of the operational complications of re-opening the Garden with physical distancing measures in place and solve them before they become issues. This meant that our reopening process has been really smooth, particularly from a visitor experience perspective. We have reduced our daily visitor capacity, introduced timed ticketing to manage that capacity and increased signage around the Garden as a reminder of our new behaviours onsite e.g. respecting physical distancing, having only 4 people in the shop at one time, and so on. Our team have done an incredible job in reopening and I am very proud of what they have achieved.
How have the visitors and your members responded to the opening?
Chelsea Physic Garden is an important local amenity as a green space in the heart of London. Throughout lockdown, I would often have conversations with our visitors peering in our gates desperate to visit the Garden again. Everyone has been absolutely thrilled to visit since we reopened. People have been very understanding and don’t mind that there are a few more weeds in the pathways than normal. Gardens are important shared spaces within our communities. Some of our visitors haven’t been out of their homes during lockdown, and spending time with us is an important part of their reengagement with society.
Is there anything you wish you’d have known before opening that might be helpful for others to be aware of?
We are a small independent charity and have really well-established networks across the cultural sector. This meant that we had peers to bounce ideas off and sense check ideas with. We opened a few days after other open-air sites such as Kew Gardens who were very open in sharing their learnings. So, I would reinforce the importance of talking to people in your networks and getting fresh perspectives ahead of opening. It will also save you time writing a plan A, B, C & D!
Is there anything you thought would be more of an issue than it turned out to be?
Toilets. In almost every digital meeting I have attended throughout lockdown toilets have been a keenly discussed topic. I have now heard the CEOs, Directors and Curators from all over the world talk about toilets, which is something I never thought would happen. Some of our visitors would not have been able to visit us if we had decided to keep our facilities closed, so we decided to open them. We introduced floor markings to socially distance queues, additional cleaning throughout the day and it really has not proved as complicated an issue as we had thought!
Has social distancing been easy to adjust to?
There have been a small team of essential staff working at Chelsea Physic Garden throughout lockdown. Our living collection of over 5,000 plants has needed the constant attention of our Horticulture Team (particularly as May was so hot), H&S checks have been required, etc. We have become really used to social distancing. As more colleagues and visitors have returned to site we have had to adapt certain ways of working, and we listen to feedback from the wider team. For example, each day we now have different team members rostered to clean frequently used touchpoints, like the kettle, bannisters, etc. Although the onus is still on each of us as individuals to socially distance, wash hands regularly, etc. putting this roster in place has helped to remind people that the working environment is a different place and we have to adapt our behaviour, it can sometimes be hard to break old habits in familiar environments.
Do you have any advice for organisations as they plan to open early next month?
“We are still in the middle of a global pandemic”. Even though we are able to reopen, this doesn’t mean we are guaranteed to be on a trajectory that everything will be the same in a year. This is new territory for everyone, your team(s), visitors and your manager, included. So be kind and patient. Things will change, visitors will continue to do the unexpected and we need to listen, learn and respond to that. Express your gratitude to your team(s), and make sure that you have time allocated to check in with them, and your visitors too. When you speak to a visitor and they tell you how wonderful and important their time spent at your site has been it will make all the challenges worth it.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak to us Frances. If you want to find out more about the Chelsea Physic Garden you can visit their website here.