Select Committee on Administration First Report


Report by the Visitor Manager



On December 7th 1999 the Administration Committee's recommendations for a trial opening of the Houses of Parliament during the summer recess of 2000 were accepted by the House of Lords / Commons.

1  Extend for 7 weeks during August and September 2000, opening between the hours of 09.30 and 17.30 daily, six days each week excluding Sundays and the Summer Bank Holiday - a total of 41 days. The operating period was subsequently reduced to 35 days following the decision to delay the start by one week to avoid any clash with the late rise of the House of Lords.

2  Be co-ordinated through a new Visitors Office located within the Palace of Westminster.

3  Require all visitors to be in-groups and escorted by a professional guide, of at least Blue Badge standard with a Palace of Westminster endorsement.

4  Adopt an advance booking system with timed tickets to control visitor numbers and flows and to help facilitate the pre-booking and allocation of guides.

5  Restrict the effective cost of admission to a flat rate administration fee to cover the direct cost of the guides and the external booking / ticketing contractor. Allow for non-English speakers, disabled visitors and special interest groups to be guided through the provision of suitably qualified guides and the allocation of specific times for such visits.

6  Generate a contribution towards the overall operating costs through merchandising and the sale of guidebooks.

7  The summer 2000 opening should be seen as a trial and to be the subject of a critical review once completed.

8  The rights of access of Members and Officers of both Houses and of the parliamentary Education Unit to the Line of Route should not be undermined by the Summer Opening.

9  The Report noted that the Committee Reports estimated financial outcomes of the proposals were based on two scenarios, each with a different set of assumptions. On May 2nd 2000 Michael McDonald and Charles Day joined the Serjeant at Arms Department as Visitors Manager and Assistant Visitor Manager respectively. What follows is a summary of what happened during the Trial and their findings.


1  The Summer Opening ran from Monday 7th August to Saturday 16th September - 35 operational days. Over that period a total of 40,577 ticketed visitors visited to Line of Route. Ticket revenues amounted to £ 119,991.00 and merchandising revenues of £ 138,551.00 were generated.

2  Market Research reported that over 95% of the visitors thought the tours very good. There was no criticism of the policy of charging an administration fee of £3.50.

3  The co-ordination worked well -; there were no serious security or safety incidents during the 6 weeks of opening. Blue Badge guides proved to be very popular with the public who endorsed the concept of guided tours of the Palace of Westminster.

4  The ticketing arrangements, that required pre-booking, were criticised by at least 1 visitor in 5. There was a marked demand for the opportunity to buy tickets on the day of a visit and at the Palace of Westminster.

5  Visitor flows worked well and were set at just under 2,000 on a full day. This was less than originally forecast, but was a function of amended hours of operation and a desire to adopt a gradual build up, during this experimental period.

6  There were no interruptions to Members and Peers sponsored visits. All ad hoc requests during the recess were dealt with without problem.

7  Merchandising in Westminster Hall: operationally the layout worked well although better signage was needed. Operations showed a net loss of £15,000. The most significant reason for this was the over optimistic average spend projections. However this reported " loss" does include over £20,000 of staff costs that would otherwise have been borne by the House of Commons Refreshment Department. These are not an additional cost to the House. Set up costs also includes £22,450 for the purchase of a sales counter and display cabinets. These would normally be capitalised and depreciated over three years. Without these costs the venture would have returned a net profit of approximately £20,000.

8  There was an impact on the Parliamentary Works Directorate summer works programme, in that extra costs were incurred for Sunday working.

9  Whilst the Education Departments autumn visits for schools was integrated with the tours, this proved difficult to manage and greater separation is needed in future.


The Tour and the Guides

1  The framework of the tour operation was based on pre booked tour numbers being frozen five days before the date of the tour on a rolling basis. Based on this demand, tours were created and guides were booked by the Visitor Managers Office with Tour Guides Limited, who managed a pool of qualified Blue Badge guides in return for a booking fee.

2  The advance-booking requirement provided an accurate forecast of forward demand. The better the forecast the more efficient and cost effective the use of guides. Guides were contracted to do a maximum of 4 tours per day for a fixed fee covering a working day from 09.30 to 16.15. The 16.15 closure was dictated by the need for groups to be clear of Westminster Hall by the 18.00 closure time.

3  Guide utilisation was initially difficult to manage; lack of familiarity with the Ticketmaster system and estimating demand from an inventory not specifically designed for a historic site (as opposed to a theatre or seated event) proved difficult. However after 3 weeks this ability improved significantly. It is also clear that the Committees recommendations could not take into account the tour guides proposed rota that emerged later.

Fig 1: Capacity utilisation improvement over time.

4  The Steering Group was anxious that a "soft opening" approach should be adopted from the outset. This allowed the operation to settle down and establish a rhythm at Sovereigns Entrance.

5  It was clear from the first day of operation that the public, who had bought tickets for tours, would need help in meeting up with their tour guide at the right time and in the right place, when they arrived at Victoria Tower.

6  There was also a requirement to satisfy the Police Officers on duty at Sovereigns Entrance that visitors were in possession of valid tickets for the specific day and time of their arrival. Tickets were torn upon arrival to prevent misuse.

7  To minimise confusion and congestion at the Sovereigns Entrance 5 Tour Co-ordinators were recruited to act in a customer service role, they were also charged with dealing with special needs visitors.

8  It was also apparent that visitor punctuality would be vital so that bottlenecks were avoided and that groups could be pulsed at regular intervals along the Line of Route. Great attention was paid to the design of tickets and accompanying information to ensure that the need for punctuality came across to visitors.

9  In practice this went well; by and large visitors arrived on time and were ready for their tours at the specified time; guides carried out a short initial briefing before being despatched onto the Line of Route by a Co-ordinator. This arrangement worked very well.

10  There were very few difficult incidents. There were however a number of accidents, the most serious of which took place in Sovereigns Entrance, where people tripped and fell on the kerbs. About ten people were taken ill on the tours. They were given first aid and left the building early. Ambulances were called twice.


1  Sovereign's Entrance can hold 5 groups of 20 people at a maximum, in roped off assembly areas and 5 tours can be dispatched within a 15-minute slot.

2  However the forecast volume of 2900 visitors each full day [116 tours based on a rate of 20 groups each hour.] was based on a longer opening day than was achieved. This forecast did not allow for guides meal breaks or the closure of Westminster Hall at 18.00 hrs.

3  Based on experience during the first week of the soft opening it was felt that 20 groups each hour would make it difficult to achieve the 5 objectives that were set out by the Administration Committee. These were..

4  Following a meeting after the first week of operation with all Departments involved, visitor capacity was set at between 16 and 20 groups per hour yielding about 96 groups each full day after allowing for some buffer zones to absorb slower groups, wheelchairs and other delaying.

5  The optimum dispersal of groups along the Line of Route is as follows:

Peers Lobby
Central Lobby
Robing Room
Members Lobby
Royal Gallery
No Lobby
Princes Chamber
Commons Chamber
Lords Chamber
St Stephens Hall
Westminster Hall

6  The dispatch rate of 16 an hour enabled disruptions to be absorbed.

This enabled integration with the Education Unit's Autumn Visits Programme, although it is clear that punctuality is very difficult to maintain due to the open forum sessions in the Grand Committee Room that typically precede those school tours. Larger buffer zones will be needed in any future opening programmes.

7  There were very few security incidents where confiscation from personal luggage took place. There were no emergency evacuations or fire alarms. Baby buggies did prove difficult to handle and this particular problem will need to be addressed.

8  Improved guide utilisation and increased volumes can be achieved with a small alteration to opening times. However any significant increase in volumes would not be possible within current parameters. The quality of the tours would deteriorate, there would be damage to the fabric and security surveillance would become very difficult.

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Prepared 8 February 2001