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Nutickets interviews the HRA's Chief Executive Steve Oates

Nutickets recently joined The Heritage Railway Association, the UK-wide trade association of heritage and tourist railways. As part of this partnership, Nutickets will provide expertise, support and guidance to the 150 operational Heritage Railways within the association.

In this seven-question interview, Nutickets sits down with the HRA Chief Executive, Steve Oates, to talk about technology, visitor experience and the future of Heritage Railways.

Q: In recent years, how have Heritage Railways needed to adapt to keep up with visitor expectations and experience?

A: Heritage railways have been adapting since the day the first volunteers started at the Talyllyn in 1951. It didn’t take long before heritage railways realised that visitors expected more than just a train ride and started offering refreshments, then souvenirs and so on. From that small acorn heritage rail has grown into a £600m sector. What has changed is the speed at which they need to adapt now.

Railways have diversified enormously to attract different customers in recent times. Most have a string of special events aimed at everyone from young families enjoying ‘Thomas’ or ‘Peppa Pig’ events through music, food and drink festivals to mature couples looking for fine dining. I think if anything, the current tough economic climate will increase the range of products heritage railways offer.

Q: In what ways will the patron experience change, permanently - but for the better, due to new technologies and processes implemented in the era of COVID-19?

A: The big shift we’ve seen has been in pre-booking. Most railways have offered some level of pre-booking for a while, but predominantly this was only for products like dining trains and Santa Specials. Now the majority of our members offer a much wider range of pre-booking options.

For railways, that means they can better forecast demand. For visitors that means they’re far more likely to get the seat they want, on the train they want. I think the process of pre-booking at home, probably on a mobile device, is what a good proportion of potential heritage railway visitors expect these days. It’s what they’re used to from other attractions. Heritage railways are competing with attractions like cinemas and theme parks for their visitors a lot more than they are with other heritage railways.

Q: What have railway’s been able to do to grow visitor numbers since then, particularly anything that has continued to be true since the pandemic hit?

A: Heritage railways were quick to adapt to the changes posed by the coronavirus pandemic. For example, a lot of lines were able to make relatively small changes to offer passengers bookable compartments rather than just a seat.

That meant safe visits to heritage railways could be offered far more quickly than many other parts of the wider visitor economy. I think we’ve still been benefiting from the confidence that gave visitors, even over the last few months.

Many railways also slightly varied their offer, to make more of the outdoor space they had, or to link in better with some of the nearby walking opportunities for example. That’s encouraged visitors to stay longer on site and see more of the whole railway rather than just taking a straightforward train ride.

Q: Nutickets recently partnered with the HRA. What role do you think technology partners, like Nutickets, play in supporting heritage railways through change?

A: I don’t think anyone believes change is easy. So having people who can provide expert advice on hand can only make the process better. Each railway is different, so they’ll be adapting to what their customers, and volunteers, want at a different pace, Every one will have their own challenges too, so having nurturing relationships with organisations which have experience of more than one sector can be really beneficial.

Having people who can provide expert advice on hand can only make the process better. Having nurturing relationships with organisations which have experience of more than one sector can be really beneficial.

Q: Though we can see the digitization of Heritage Railway’s through their activities, we tend to ignore that it also changed the way railway staff work. What are the most noticeable changes?

A: I don’t think heritage railways were necessarily quick to embrace the opportunities presented by digital – we are after all here to preserve something that dates back to a very, very different era. But I know most railways have now adopted subtle ways, behind the scenes normally, to let digital reduce the burden. I can’t think of too many railways that don’t now use digital tools for their staff rostering, and I know lots that provide many elements of their training – even for steam locomotive crews - digitally.

So the changes have been relatively subtle, and many people will barely have noticed them, but I guess that’s exactly what they needed to be.

Q: Nutickets will be attending the HRA’s autumn conference next month. Why do you think it is so important for staff of Heritage Railway’s to meet with suppliers, and other HRA members.

A: To me it’s about broadening horizons. It took a combination of engineering disciplines to combine steam power with rails … and a lot of different people to get it right! So it’s important to remember that ideas from other sources can be invaluable and ensure that heritage rail doesn’t become too insular.

Meeting with people who have approached challenges in different ways, or who bring experience from different backgrounds, is what makes events like the HRA conference essential to attend. There are some big things we’ve all got to tackle - we won’t do that by working in isolation.

Q: Lastly, what are your predictions for Heritage Railway’s over the next couple of years?

A: I don’t see many analysts predicting an easy few years ahead. I can see more challenges on the horizon. But, heritage rail has some of the most innovative and resilient people you could find anywhere – so I’m pretty confident we’ll rise to those challenges. I think we’ll see railways continue to diversify their offer so that they can offer more than just a train ride. I think we’ll see the continuing trends towards pre-booking so that we reduce the potential for wasted resources, or disappointed passengers. And I think we’ll see a renewed focus on telling everyone why heritage railways are special, why they should be supported and enjoyed. From politicians to school children, we need more people to understand what heritage rail is all about. We’re really close to some big anniversaries, like 'Railway 200' in 2025, that give us the opportunity to do that well, and I’m really excited by what can be achieved.

The Heritage Railway Association Conference

Netxtmonth Nutickets will be attending The Heritage Railway Associations’ principal annual management conference event.

Running over two consecutive days, we'll be talking about our recent partnership with The Great Central Railway, the visitor economy and the future of heritage railways. The conference, running from 1-2 November 2022, will be an interactive discussion between Nutickets and managers, trustees and directors of heritage railways.

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