Tourism: Polishing the Crown jewels: Tower of London is aiming to use Disney techniques without being too Mickey Mouse

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD not have worried Sir Walter Raleigh or the little princes, but the Tower of London had a tough time in the 1980s. Numbers fell by 25 per cent, and while it is still the most popular fee-charging site in Britain, slicker tourist attractions have cut into its market share.

Next week, the Queen opens the new Jewel House - an important step in the Tower's fight back. The Crown Jewels used to be known as much for their queuing as for their beauty and according to David Beeton, chief executive of Historic Royal Palaces: 'They were displayed as if they were in a jeweller's shop window.' Furthermore, the Tower was closed on Sundays during winter: an embarrassingly public display of the British lack of commercial nous.

The new Jewel House, which has cost pounds 10m, will be able to handle four times as many people and will allow them to loiter if they like. There will be greater emphasis on explanation, while high-definition television will offer startling close-ups.

The queuing system may give some visitors a clue to HRP's new approach. Queues will not be long and thin but short and wide, based on a zig- zag system. It is the Disneysystem, which allows a large number of people to watch a wall display.

Dylan Hammond, HRP's marketing director, visited Disney while looking for better ways of presenting the jewels - his team also visited the Seville Expo and jewel houses throughout Europe. While none combined the need for dignity and security with the sheer number of visitors to the Tower, they did provide useful tips.

Five years ago, such an exercise would have been unlikely. The palaces were then administered by civil servants and were overseen by four government bodies as well as the Royal Household. 'Nobody was in charge, and there was no recognition they were in a competitive tourist market,' Mr Beeton says. In 1989, HRP was set up as a 'next steps' agency to look after the Tower, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments, the Banqueting House, Whitehall, and Kew Palace. The agency's staff are civil servants but are not supposed to behave like them. Mr Beeton is a former chief executive of Bath Council, which owns the Roman Baths, and secretary of the National Trust. He has surrounded himself with specialists in areas ranging from conservation to marketing.

In 1989, the palaces were generating pounds 11m in revenue, which was topped up with pounds 10m from the taxpayer. Mr Beeton told the Government that he needed pounds 25m, that he could raise it internally, and that after five years the tax burden would be halved.

This year, despite the recession, turnover is pounds 26m and only pounds 6m is coming from taxes. 'I'm now forecasting we will need no subsidy by the end of the century,' he says.

The trick has been to apply modern management methods to what is, after all, a substantial business. The first stage was market research. This revealed that tourists were not going to boycott the palaces for the sake of a couple of quid, so HRP has increased entrance fees by 50 per cent.

The research also showed there was not enough explanation for visitors. 'At Hampton Court they were walking through rooms they didn't understand, but staff were not supposed to talk to them in case an accomplice was stealing something,' Mr Beeton says.

Though impressive high-technology displays were now available, HRP decided they were not the way forward for ancient buildings. Rather, technology has been used to replace the security people and the security people have been turned into guides.

At Hampton Court the 'prison warder' uniform of the security men has been supplanted with Royal Household livery. Staff are also used to bring history alive. In the Tudor Kitchen at Hampton Court, real food is lying around, and costumed guides - all graduates - are on hand to help. Mr Hammond says the costumes make them more approachable, but he acknowledges that there are dangers: 'We are very aware of the risks of this kind of thing degenerating into the twee and the inaccurate. We strive to ensure that doesn't happen.'

Hampton Court has been the test-bed for HRP's new approach. Mr Beeton knows the changes will meet more resistance at the Tower, where the Yeoman Warders are already upset about likely alterations to their duties.

Mr Beeton has persuaded ministers that cost-cutting can be achieved with the existing staff, but only if they become more flexible. Not surprisingly the warders, tradition-steeped ex-NCOs, view this prospect much as they would an unpolished boot.

(Photograph omitted)