A trip to the unknown: Should Britain’s heritage railways embrace digital age?

Britain’s heritage railways may set out to recreate the experience of a bygone age but they still have to interact with the digital age. Peter Brown reports on how the use of social media now has potentially far-reaching implications for the steam movement.

LMS Ivatt 2MT 2-6-2T No. 41312 departs from Ropley on the Mid Hants Railway. EDWARD DYER

So many changes have happened in recent years affecting the lives of all of us but perhaps the one that stands out most is social media and all the implications that have come with it.

TripAdvisor is one of the spin-offs where it appears that unqualified people can go to an event or purchase an item and publicly condemn the supplier whether a product, entertainment or a day out.

Heritage railways and museums have won top accreditation from TripAdvisor and if not, they have received very positive reviews. But there are also those that have been very negative. So how are the people who run such venues coping with it?

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Here at Heritage Railway we decided to run an exclusive survey and despite the often salacious comment from a reviewer, most of the people we surveyed take the reviews very seriously indeed and if they consider the remarks to be truthful they act upon them. Such actions can only be good for the whole heritage movement.

For our survey to be accurate we have picked out heritage railways at random, from the major players, to the some of the smallest concerns whether standard or narrow gauge. Likewise we have contacted museums and steam centres. There were a few that declined to take part, although they have been in the minority. And at the end of it all we got a statement from TripAdvisor itself as to the legality of what it offers and what its reviewer should be adhering to.

 

Most favourable

Starting off at the Great Central Railway, its marketing manager Kate Tilley tells us that most of the reviews they have received have been most favourable but she also advises others to be prepared to answer points made.

“GCR has received 782 reviews on TripAdvisor, 717 of these do fall into the ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ categories and we have received a Certificate of Excellence, which is a great marketing tool,” she says. “Having said that, some of the reviews obviously don’t shed such a good light on the business and we have found that a lot of these reviews can be somewhat unbalanced, with visitors having misconstrued website information, for example.

“We seem to perform better than other major local attractions in the area. Sadly, we weren’t resourced enough to answer any reviews.”

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Trevor Eady, general manager of the North Norfolk Railway, reckons it’s difficult to gauge just what impact the reviews have, but admits to being happy with most of them. “The North Norfolk Railway receives regular certificates from TripAdvisor,” he reveals. “We do display these but it is difficult to establish what effect this has on potential visitors.

“We receive a number of references on the site, the majority of which are good but again there are no obvious indications to us whether this attracts more visitors or not. Having said this, any publicity is good publicity and hopefully our inclusion and certificate level does result in more visitors to our attraction.”

Another line that sees TripAdvisor as an advantage is the Mid Hants Railway. Marketing manager Woodies Mountford observes: “TripAdvisor is free and influential. With a Result of Excellence it works to our advantage. Any bad reviews obviously have to be replied to. In addition this is good feedback for where we can improve if needed.”

Visitors to the 2016 Certificate of Excellence holder, the Didcot Railway Centre, admire GWR 4-6-0 No. 6023 King Edward II taking a lunch break from pulling passenger trains on Wednesday, August 24.

 

Digital age

For the Dartmouth, Steam & River Boat Company, the advice to others is not to ignore the digital age of social media. Such things seem so contrastingly different while travelling behind a steam engine between Paignton and Kingswear.

“In this digital age every part of our daily life is monitored by social media, ignore the power of it at your peril, especially TripAdvisor, as it is one of the most powerful, reflecting every angle of a personal experience of a day out,” declares general manager Peter Roach. “It is very rewarding for both the company and staff, to see that in the outdoor activities section for Paignton, the railway is rated as top with almost 2300 comments posted, but it must be remembered that for every good comment there are so many people that have had a great day out without feeling the need to comment.

“However, get things wrong and you will receive the bad reviews. With this in mind, as well as what the company has to offer, and value for money, we stress to all our staff as well as those working on the boat and bus part of the company, how important it is to be of smart professional appearance, be courteous to everyone, give accurate information and, most importantly, smile.”

He adds: “However, TripAdvisor can be a very useful tool to an attraction also. There are times when those that work somewhere and the management can be too close to the action, and it is only by reading reviews that you then see your business from the visitor’s angle. So, at all times, read your reviews, good, bad or indifferent, be very grateful that people have given their time to write a review and then act if required.”

Revealing detailed figures of reviews about the South Devon Railway, general manager Dick Wood is adamant that TripAdvisor has to be taken seriously. “We take TripAdvisor very seriously, whether it is praise which is usually shared with paid and volunteer staff, and criticism which is taken up with all relevant managers. We also aim to respond to all posts,” he admits. “We have had consistently good accreditations from them and been granted Certificates of Excellence for the last few years, which we not only use in our publicity, but also our visitors find very helpful.

BR Standard 5MT 4-6-0 No. 73050 City of Peterborough arrives at Wansford from Yarwell with the 2.05pm Nene Valley Railway service to Peterborough on Thursday, August 16, 2012. The railway has the 2016 TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence.

“We have had 748 reviews so far, of which 521 have been ‘excellent’ and 181 rated as ‘very good’, so 702 in total and a positive 94 per cent, which is impressive. The ‘average’ posts have numbered 28 in total (3.74 per cent) and ratings of ‘poor’, just seven and ‘terrible’ only five, so 1.6 per cent. ”

He continues: “By taking on board TripAdvisor comments, where appropriate, they enable us to fine-tune our product. It is very beneficial to have objective views on what we offer and the way they perceive our interaction with our customers. It’s easy to be too close to what we do, while not every bit of criticism is always justified, sometimes it is and we can only learn from it.

“It’s always good to get praise and it’s vital that all those people in customer facing positions are told that the public does appreciate their efforts and the high level of service they provide.”

Amanda Kilburn, business development director of the Scottish Railway Preservation Society, operators of the Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway, tells us that they are proud of their TripAdvisor accreditation, the Certificate of Excellence for 2014 and 2015.

“It is still one of the most popular ratings website for travellers worldwide,” she explains. “It enables us, along with other feedback, to react to comments about our strong and weaker points where necessary.”

 

Readily available

“It is readily available to all our volunteers and staff too if they want to see how we are doing and we regularly use it to praise them. It also allows us to benchmark where we stand in relation to other visitor attractions in our area. Negative feedback may be seen as a disadvantage but TripAdvisor gives us the chance to reply to all comments, which we do.”

A slightly different view on TripAdvisor comes from Peter Vail, general manager of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway. He claims it
causes much frustration among managers but he also admits the accreditation is vital in upholding standards.

“TripAdvisor has a tendency to frustrate the life out of the business owner managers being reviewed, but we cannot ignore it,” he states. “I work on the basis that the best 10 per cent of reviews and worst 10 per cent of reviews can be extreme. It is the middle 80 per cent that give a true reflection of the attraction.

“As a general manager I accept that the view of the middle 80 per cent is a genuine view of how visitors see the attraction. It is therefore a useful guide to demonstrate how we are doing. I do actually use quotes from TripAdvisor comments for staff training. It is important to get a good ranking in relation to other local attractions and we’d have a genuine desire to better ourselves and climb that ranking. At present we are ninth out of 178 attractions on the island. We also accept that TripAdvisor does not always compare like with like, two attractions ahead of us are free and the public like something for nothing.”

He continues to point out: “The TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence must be held by any quality attraction. To not have it indicates a serious need for improvement. Our Certificate of Excellence was recently renewed with a
2016 certificate.”

Peter comments further: “It is particularly disappointing to receive a poor review when the reviewer makes statements that are clearly incorrect. In such cases without delay it is good practice for the business owner to respond robustly, with clear facts. In situations where there is a failing or the visitor experience has not been up to standard, then an apology with action being taken for the future is required.

“It is interesting we now receive very few direct complaints compared to just a few years ago. Such complaints now appear on TripAdvisor. Fortunately, 88 per cent of our reviews rank us four or five out of five. When we get the occasional review of one, two or three stars, then it stands out. We know that a small minority of our visitors just do not connect with the heritage experience and that can lead to a poor review.”

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John Jolly, who runs Mangapps Railway Museum in Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex, has been on both sides of the TripAdvisor fence. He is a Level Six contributor but admits to having misgivings about its application to attractions, particularly heritage railways.

“I have no doubt about the relevance of hotel reviews, after all the standards relevant to hotels and to a lesser extent, restaurants, are obvious – is it clean, comfortable, quiet, is the service good etc?,” With attractions it’s more problematic,” he argues. “What one person finds incredibly interesting and enjoyable is a boring turn-off to another.

“A couple of years ago we took our grandson to a Second World War-related visitor attraction. It is well known and popular and has excellent TripAdvisor reviews. However, in spite of my grandson’s strong interest in the subject and our memory of the immediate postwar period, all three of us found it very poor for a variety of reasons and I reviewed it accordingly.”

He adds: “On the other hand, last month the three of us visited a village museum, based in a preserved railway station in Saskatchewan, Canada. It only had two reviews, both of them ‘terrible’. One reason was the alleged unpleasantness of the staff/volunteers. Yet we found the museum very interesting and the staff particularly pleasant and helpful. Needless to say I gave them a five star review.

 

Competing site

“Our own experience at Mangapps has reflected this to some extent. When TripAdvisor started listing us in 2013, the second review was quite damning. We were at a loss to understand why, but we later discovered that the reviewer had connections with another competing heritage railway site. We’ve had another similar since – so much for objective reviewing.”

Mangapps has recently adopted a policy, when a visitor is particularly fulsome in their praise, of suggesting they leave a review on TripAdvisor, Google or elsewhere. “I find it interesting to note how few are TripAdvisor members and how many have never heard of it,” muses John.

For the Middleton Railway research has been undertaken that has led its management to believe that positive reviews entice prospective visitors to a venue. “We had some market research done earlier this year and one of the findings from this was that positive reviews from others are one of the factors that potential visitors who have not been before take into account in deciding where to visit,” explains company secretary Dr Tony Cowling. “Since our reviews are generally very positive we were happy to take this into account. Conversely, any negative reviews would probably give an indication of things that we ought to be doing to improve the experiences of our visitors.”

The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, a popular narrow gauge tourist attraction, believes in TripAdvisor as a source of information for potential visitors that also acts as a boost for those involved with its operation. “Increasingly we use TripAdvisor as our main source of feedback from customers,” insists general manager Danny Martin. “We receive many high scores, which we are very proud of and we use that to further enthuse and recognise our frontline teams.

“Similarly, an occasional low score initiates a detailed investigation to understand how we have failed or disappointed that particular customer and how as a management team we can put in place a resolution. If possible we get the writer to link to us directly by email or phone so we can engage on a personal basis to rectify the relationship. We consider it a great facility and a major support for our drive for continuous improvement to
customer satisfaction.”

Sarah Howsen, marketing manager at the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, stresses the importance of being a part of TripAdvisor. “I believe it is essential to be an active part of TripAdvisor as an increasing number of people rely on online research before visiting an attraction,” she tells us. “To be rated so highly in our area and to have received a Certificate of Excellence proves how visitors actively review visits to attractions.

A busy platform one at Loughborough with GNR N2 0-6-2T No. 1744 waiting to haul the 12.30pm Great Central Railway service to Leicester North on Thursday, July 18, 2013. The GCR has a 2016 Certificate of Excellence.

“In a world where people plan their trips primarily online, having a site which is honest and open is an important marketing tool for the railway. Visitors who wouldn’t necessarily plan to visit heritage railways may see the review while looking at other places to visit and may choose to visit but before they would not have known what is on offer.”

She adds: “A key point is you need to monitor your reviews and if there are any negative comments to respond and show that you listen to visitors and take all feedback, both positive and negative, on board.”

But there are mixed feelings towards TripAdvisor operations on the Avon Valley Railway, where reviews are generally accepted but there is also a belief that reviewers should be more accountable, a point we made in the introduction to this survey.

“TripAdvisor has a range of benefits as well as some obvious downsides, says AVR commercial and business manager Mark Simmons. “It provides a useful snapshot of how our visitors feel we are doing and it’s lovely to be recognised for the efforts that we go to.

“Visitors often post their comment and rating within a few days, which brings an immediacy to their response. I also think people like TripAdvisor reviews as they’re seen to be more informal and not part of the organisation’s corporate marketing, giving what some people see as a more truthful view on the attraction.”

He argues: The biggest downside is that it’s so easy for people to make a comment or provide a low star rating, even if it seems unjustified, with little recourse. However, so long as you’re offering a consistently good day out, the vast majority of reviews should reflect this.”

 

Can be removed

Contrastingly, Jeremy Johnson, business advisor on the Gwili Railway, believes that a review can be removed. “With TripAdvisor it is a wonderful advertising vehicle, providing they are good reviews,” he declares. “I personally use TripAdvisor, particularly when I am looking for small guest houses to stay overnight.

“I understand there are some restrictions and if something is on there that is wrong that it can be taken off. It is interesting to see people’s comments. I often wonder who these people are that bother to do such reviews.”

Bluebell Railway communications director Roger Garman insists that whatever one’s view, TripAdvisor has become a universally recognised medium for the tourist to not only research an intended venue but, of course, to provide their own feedback once they have visited.

“At the Bluebell Railway we have over 160,000 visitors a year and for the four quarters to June 2016, 250 had used TripAdvisor to record their sentiments about their visit,” he reveals. “In the majority of cases these were casual family visits but the Golden Arrow Dining Train, Santa Specials, Supper Trains, coach parties and weddings are included in the feedback. We are delighted with the high level of positive feedback we receive which, in 2014, earned us a Certificate of Excellence from Trip Advisor.

“It is, of course, nice to be able to pass on to our staff and volunteers the positive reports from our customers. This feedback also helps the railway in tracking that we are delivering to the standards expected by our visitors. The flip side is that we do occasionally receive negative feedback.”

He continues: “Each case is specifically reviewed to see what lessons can be learned to avoid future disappointments and responses given to the customer concerned.

“Sometimes it can be a gap between what is expected and what is actually delivered and here again we can look at better information flow for the customer to close or minimise
this gap.

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“We do need to learn from mistakes and customer’s poor experiences, however what we would always hope is that any visitor who is not enjoying their visit will speak to a member of our staff so that we can try and put it right on the day.”

Some people in the heritage railway movement are big fans of TripAdvisor. One of these is Tracey Parkinson, general manager of the Talyllyn Railway. “I like TripAdvisor,” she says enthusiastically. “It provides a platform for our customers to give us feedback, like it or not. Do more of what people like and give us the opportunity to change what our customers don’t like. It is not really for me to say how we are treated. It is all down to the customer and what we offer on the day.”

However, if you think that only the major players in the heritage railway movement get the best accreditation, a look at the Mid Suffolk Light Railway – where volunteers have worked hard to recreate what was known as The Middy line – have been well rewarded, according to marketing manager John Reeve.

“We have a TripAdvisor rating of four-and-a-half. I can’t quantify how this affects our visitor numbers but most people would have done some research on our attraction/attractions and see that in the heritage railway league we are very small,” he beams. “So for us to have such a high rating has to be a good thing in helping to persuade the public to turn up.

“Once we’ve got them we do turn on the charm. Plus, of course, making the point of our uniqueness in terms of being a museum/railway and trying to ensure all the inventory is keeping with the old Middy – no BR Mk.1s or rusting ‘Black Fives’ for us – only things that might or could have pertained to the old MSLR.”

 

Great reviews

Mid-Wales narrow gauge Corris Railway welcomes TripAdvisor reviews, press officer Amanda Jolley confirms. “TripAdvisor is a go-to website for many people before visiting attractions,” she points out. “Being listed and having great reviews is a real plus. We are really grateful for visitor’s reviews and it is so rewarding when people have really enjoyed their visit.”

It was a similar reaction we received from Colin Howard, head of commercial services, West Somerset Railway. “TripAdvisor accreditation legitimises our status as a major visitor attraction,” he comments. “It gives us an insight into what our customers think of their experience. To see what we do well and, more importantly, to see where we can improve.”

In Cambridgeshire on the Nene Valley Railway there is also a feeling that such reviews do some good and they also feel they spot the mischievous comments. “On the whole TripAdvisor reviews are fair and the vast majority are positive,” insists press officer Jerry Thurston. “The few poor or uncomplimentary ones we do receive are often the result of somebody turning up on a day when we are not running or following an occasion where we have had to substitute diesel power for steam, the unfortunately disappointed customer then turns to TripAdvisor to vent their frustrations.

Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway (RH&D Rly )end of season parade.15 inc gauge 4-6-2 No3 Southern Maid (built 1927 )leaving Dungeness with the 11.45 to Hythe .05/11/2016.

“It is noticeable too that if they are going to write a poor review they are really going to complain and in some one suspects more than a little lily gilding to really hammer their point home. All are taken very seriously, the issues are looked into and dealt with accordingly. Unreasonable or inaccurate reviews will receive a management response dealing with any spurious claims.” He adds: “Sometimes we do shake our heads with incredulity. One stinking review went into quite some detail about things like the lack of a café, opening and closing times, the list went on and on. This received an instant and strong response. Alas, the reviewer had got rather confused and wasn’t actually talking about us!”

 

Respond and learn

Ann Middleton, commercial manager at Didcot Railway Centre, has a policy of answering every TripAdvisor review, regardless of it being positive or negative. “We took the decision to respond to every TA review, good or bad,” she admits. “I find it very useful as it is a way of our visitors telling us what they think. Although I sometimes wish they had said something on the day, it is better to have the feedback so we can respond and learn.

“We use the negative comments to improve. Many are about things we can’t do anything about such as our access up steps to the centre, but some are very useful. We used comments about friendliness and unfriendliness in our customer care training for front of house staff and for our train operations volunteers. We have also picked up on comments about the Refreshment Room and the feedback helped with the business case for investment.”

She continues: “I circulate the positive comments in our regular e-newsletter to our volunteers and staff, which is one way of rewarding them for their efforts. If someone is named or if I can guess who it was I will congratulate the volunteer or member of staff involved. The Certificate of Excellence is an opportunity for marketing the centre with a press release and web announcements. We have the TA logo on our website and leaflet.”

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The National Railway Museum has had some prolific accolades from TripAdvisor, so much so that it encourages reviews. “The National Railway Museum was named the eighth-best museum in the UK in TripAdvisor’s 2015 Traveller’s Choice Awards and was awarded a 2015 Certificate of Excellence based on our aggregate review score of 4.5 stars,” a museum spokesperson says.

“TripAdvisor offers many benefits to the National Railway Museum. Aside from our regular visitor exit surveys, the site provides a valuable way to collect feedback from our visitors, which we continually take on board to offer the best possible museum experience. We’re delighted that the vast majority of visitors enjoy their time with us, and we are grateful to everyone who takes the time to review us online.”

Enthusiasm for TripAdvisor is also evident on the Plym Valley Railway. “TripAdvisor is important to the Plym Valley Railway as it allows customers to review the railway after a visit or event and it is valuable to gain their feedback,” insists publicity officer Daniel Phillips. “It is used a lot by the general public so having a good score on TripAdvisor is important, as it is often used as the basis for
the trip.

“We are able to promote our TripAdvisor as we are sent certificates and use plugins on our website to display our accreditation. It also allows responses from the railway to the public to perhaps attempt to solve a negative review or thank for a positive review. Overall it is a good website if used in the right way, but it has to be remembered that anyone can write a review and the review may not be representative of an entire visit or event.”

Mervyn Leah, chairman of the popular narrow gauge Leighton Buzzard Railway, is also generally satisfied with TripAdvisor but he is very concerned about the trolls that use the site. “We welcome all forms of customer feedback and TripAdvisor adds to our knowledge of what our customers are thinking – and perhaps more importantly – saying about us,” he explains. “Over 77 per cent of our ratings are ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’, so we must be doing something right.”

There’s more! Want to read on, then why not purchase our Issue 242 of Heritage Railway magazine by clicking here! 


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