A life on the ocean waves celebrated

Features Posted 25/06/13
With a total of £8.5 million being pumped into what is hoped will become a World Heritage Site, the Historic Dockyard’s team in Chatham has plenty of ambition. Neill Barston meets its chief executive Bill Ferris to find out more.

Being one of the most strategically important naval sites in British History, it seems fitting that major investment is being made on improving the seafaring heritage exhibitions at the Historic Dockyard.

The Chatham site, which famously greeted Nelson as a young 12 year old into the navy in the 18th century, has been transformed over the past three decades into one of the region’s most respected tourism attractions.

It has clearly offered chief executive Bill Ferris a host of rewarding experiences in turning around the former naval-base’s fortunes.

While much of its multi-million funding has come from government grants, it has also been a case of an exceptional amount of hard work being put in by its team to ensure the site is coming ever-closer to its target of running as an entirely self-sustaining business.

As Mr Ferris explained, its evolving masterplan, which includes its ambitious Command of the Oceans exhibition showcasing the site’s huge contribution to maintaining the nation’s grasp of its empire through naval dominance, has seen it apply innovative thinking in reviving its large array of listed buildings.

Critical to the charitable trust’s running of the dockyard, he says, has been fostering the most appropriate conditions to host a total of 100 businesses (largely in the creative sector) including University of Kent – which has successfully installed its art department on the site and is now a key tenant.

With the huge cost of revamping its decaying buildings, the trust eventually called in finance firm KPMG to offer an audit of its options and it is now running as planned.

“The trust was very brave when it originally took on the site with a government endowment of £11 million funding, which was half of what had been promised to do the job of creating a suitable heritage environment. “It has been a huge challenge to reach our objective of being completely self-sustaining, which we nearly are.”

Speaking at the launch of the dockyard’s new Hearts of Oak exhibition, which has seen a total of £600,000 investment, Tourism Minister Hugh Robertson, shared the chief executive’s optimism for the dockyard and believed it continued to play a strong role in the region’s tourism offer.

He said: “The new gallery is designed to improve the site’s tourism offer in appealing to all generations of visitors and I think it’s very good.

“It takes a manageable time to take in and explains really well about the process of building ships and how they were put together in the 18th century.

“The dockyard itself is incredibly important in terms of its value to tourism, which generates considerable income for the economy, along with the Royal Engineers museum.

On the wider economic picture, he believed there were optimistic signs that tourism across the South East region was beginning to flourish again.

The new gallery is designed to improve the site’s tourism offer in appealing to all generations of visitors...
Bill Ferris

In his opinion, last years Olympics had left a genuine legacy in terms of generating interest in visiting Britain, though he conceded it remained a challenge to encourage visitors away from the capital.

Mr Robertson, MP for Faversham, added: “During the Olympics we received around four billion visitors, and many of those people may have had a certain perception of Britain, which I hope the event helped change and showed that we were a nation capable of staging games.

“What the event did was remind some of the core tourist market of the US, Australians and Canadians that there were a number of reasons to come and visit Britain.

The greatest challenge we face now is getting people to come out of London, as around 80% of visitors are going to the city.

Does he believe anything more can be done to boost the South East’s tourism sector?

“Kent has a fantastic tourism board and I think the region has one of the best tourism offers in the country, so I think it’s difficult for them to do much more than they already are.

If other tourism venues are able to invest in the manner that the dockyard has done, then that will make a difference.

But there is optimism at the moment, with the figures from the last quarter of 2012 showing that tourism rates improved by around eight per cent.”

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