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Forty horses, twenty riders, and two sunny days in Queen Victoria's backyard

29th July 2018

Anyone working in a heritage attraction will know the challenge of delivering exciting and captivating events within a carefully managed historic environment. The requirement to generate additional commercial income and deliver a quality visitor experience needs to be balanced against the historic context of the site and the need to preserve the historic fabric and collection.

This was the same challenge we faced when making the decision to hold a Horse Trials event at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Osborne is well known as the family home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and receives nearly 300,000 visitors annually. The splendid Victorian house is surrounded by 350 acres of parkland and has its very own beach as well. It is the leading visitor attraction on the Isle of Wight with a traditional visitor audience consisting of holiday makers, day trippers and local residents. English Heritage manage the property and deliver a small number of in-house events throughout the year, all focused around the Victorian context of the house and designed to enhance the visitor experience at key points of the year.

The idea of hosting a Horse Trials event here was first suggested by a keen local resident four years ago and she then engaged a company with experience in this field to work up the event offer. The English Heritage Chairman, Sir Tim Laurence, is well known for his support of the sport and was keen to see the event come to Osborne. The subsequent delay in bringing the event to fruition was more down to finding a slot in the busy European equestrian calendar than the prolonged negotiations that were needed for the event.

From our point of view it was a total unknown. We had never delivered an event of this size at Osborne, much less one that involved forty horses galloping around the estate. How could we manage such an event whilst maintaining our core operating hours? Was there an audience for such an event on the island and how could we best protect the historic environment? But the opportunity seemed a good one for us: bringing new audiences to our properties is important, as is showcasing them as venues for other events. Equally important was the opportunity to tap into a range of sponsors from the financial sector who might also prove fruitful as future donors or corporate partners.

By the 25th July we had answered those questions, well most of them anyway, and the first Osborne Horse Trials was underway. For those of you who don’t follow the sport it consists of three events, Dressage, Show Jumping and Cross Country, with riders competing across all three disciplines. The first two events took place in a purpose built arena on the Durbar Lawn whilst the latter wound its way over a number of purpose built jumps throughout the historic landscape.  We were lucky to attract some international competitors including the British number one Oliver Townend and local girl Sarah Holmes with her faithful Isle of Wight support. The event also included the supporting cast of retail marquees, children’s rides and a range of corporate hospitality offerings to satisfy the thirsty sponsors.

Managing the event build was tricky to say the least. Most contractors in this sport are not used to working in an historic environment, so making sure they followed the build plan was crucial to protecting the historic fabric in our care. This covered everything from where their equipment could be placed, what vehicles they could use on site through to how deep their ground anchors could go. Think of it as looking after a large group of small children; primary school teachers you have my sympathy.  And then at the end of the event you have to do it all again, in reverse.

Whilst protecting the historic environment, as well as ensuring the health and safety of staff and visitors, is crucial to any such event, you still need to have an open mind to managing issues as they come up. The request to base their control room in a room adjacent to the Royal Collection is not an easy ask but setting up an escort system for their staff was a workable solution.

So what was the outcome and what did we learn? 3000 visitors a day for our first try was a good outcome, the fact that it occurred in the middle of heat spell may have helped. Nothing was broken and the landscape, and house itself, are already back to looking their splendid best. Although a little rain might help the parched grass. The site team are already prepping for their next event, a wedding on the Saturday, and the normal Osborne visitors are already flooding back in.

We learnt that despite the best planning there will always be a contractor who hasn’t read the script, we learnt that despite flooding our marketing channels with information there will always be visitors that have no idea the event is taking place, and we learnt that an event like this rides on the commitment and dedication of the team putting it on and managing the venue. Above all we learnt that you can deliver an international standard equestrian event within an historic landscape and create one of the most picturesque backdrops that for any event. See for yourself!

Forty horses, twenty riders, and two sunny days in Queen Victoria's backyard