Spotlight: Rye Heritage Centre
Updated: Apr 3
Each month we interview 2 members for our blog to showcase the variety of businesses that support our Chamber Of Commerce. In this interview, we speak to Simon Parsons from the Rye Heritage Centre.
1. Thanks for talking to us Simon. How would you describe your business?
We’re a place where visitors and locals can come and learn about and interpret the town’s heritage.
2. When was it founded?
The model was built by two private individuals - they started work in 1973 and finished it in 1976/77. To begin with, it was put on display privately in several different places in town – the Boys’ Club, the Granary Club, in a room above the market café. They then sold it to someone best described as a showman, who planned to tour it - he took it to the NEC in Birmingham where it was on show as part of a model exhibition for two years. He then brought to back to Rye and offered it to the Town Council and they agreed to purchase it for £3k.
The Council subsequently acquired the building on the Strand Quay. It was converted and a purpose-built extension was added on the side of the building where the model auditorium. That was in 1991 and the town model has been here for the past 32 years. We consider the model to be a heritage asset in its own right – it’s 50 years old this year and as far as we know it’s unique in this country. While there are other sorts of town models around – none are quite like this with a full sound and light show.
3. So what is your background – how did it lead you to this business?
Simon Parsons, Rye Heritage Centre
Towards the end of 2019, the council announced that they were going to close the Heritage centre at the end of their financial year and let the building. At that point, the building was also the town’s tourist information centre as well as the home of the town model. I already had some contact with the centre as I was working with them to offer some guided walks in the town, so I knew about the proposed closure plans early on. I went to the initial council meeting that discussed the closure, and I immediately started a Facebook group which attracted around 350 members in the first three weeks alone. I managed to enlist the support of several others and we put to the Council that perhaps they could pause for breath before making a final decision and allow a local community group the chance to consider if they could run it instead. It became about saving the town model.
So that’s where it began. I got lucky in that I had the support of a group of people with the right brains, contacts and clout to come on board. Anthony Kimber stepped up and did most of the ongoing negotiations with the council and set up the charitable incorporated organisation. Chris Hoggart is now chair of our trustees, we also have Martin Blincow from the Mermaid and Susie de Sherburne who is the niece of the people who built the model in the 1970s - so there is still a familial link. Our board of trustees has changed in recent times but we’ve some good names who are proactive and keep us going.
We took over from the council on 1st April 2020 just when the pandemic hit - our timing was disastrous. Given the timing, we got no Government support throughout COVID – no furlough, no grants. Eventually, at the end of 2020, we secured a small grant from the Heritage Lottery Recovery Fund which was enough to allow us to get set up – it gave us £10K for equipment (we needed everything!) and £10K for running expenses which was a help but of course didn’t go very far. The centre costs around £60K a year to run. The grant did however allow us to employ a manager and plan for opening. And we finally did that in July 2021 by which time our manager had decided that the role wasn’t for him. I was at the stage of reconsidering my own career/job options – arthritis was making my job as a builder difficult, I was working in pain, and my productivity was inevitably falling. So, a change of direction seemed to be calling and I approached the trustees to ask if they’d consider me applying to be the centre manager. As we’re a charity we obviously needed to go through the proper processes, so the job was advertised and there was considerable interest, but I’m very pleased to say I got the job.
In the summer of 2021, I became the manager. It was a complete change of scene for me, I had zero retail experience, zero tourism experience, but a little experience in heritage interpretation as I’d done 10 years’ work as a volunteer for Hythe and Dymchurch and New Romney.
I loved the transition. My stress levels dropped right down! I’m contracted for 30 hours a week and I do more like 40 but it’s not the same kind of stress as before. I had no idea how stressful my life had been until I started here – you don’t notice it until it’s gone. Yes, the work can be frustrating because I can’t get the things done that I want to because of lack of funds, but I enjoy the ideas, the thought processes, and the heritage interpretation part is the stuff that really interests me.
4. What makes your business unique?
Well, the Town Model itself is unique. But aside from that it’s that, other than me, we’re entirely volunteer run and our volunteers are all dedicated and really passionate about the centre.
5. What are your business values?
It’s important to us to deliver a positive experience to visitors and also to make our volunteers feel valued.
6. What are your plans for your business in 2023 – what are you focusing on?
Well right now we’re working hard to get things ready for reopening at Easter and the town model refurb complete. We also will get the Smuggler’s Experience open.
We’ve got lots of plans and enthusiasm but what we lack are time and money. We’re a difficult proposition for grant funding – it’s a bit of a minefield. We’re not a charity in the most obvious sense so we often struggle to find grant funds that we are eligible to apply to. We have a trustee dedicated to sourcing grant funds and making those applications for us – but it’s time-consuming. It’s often only for very small grants which are disproportionate to the time it takes to apply and secure them and then report back on the spending.
We are looking at business sponsorship too – but the climate isn’t right for that at the moment.
7. What are the challenges your business faces this year?
One of our big challenges is to reidentify ourselves – that’s going to take some time. We’re starting to rebrand ourselves as – The Story of Rye at the Heritage Centre. It’s a subtle difference but it changes the emphasis and that’s important.
We need to work harder at getting people to know where we are. Our location on the Strand Quay means we’re out on a limb. We are also challenged by the many visitors who still think we are a tourist information centre, so better signage is needed. I know that it’s on the council’s tourism strategy now that the Rye Information Point is closing - this definitely needs to not slip off the list.
So, our challenges are – position, identity, awareness – and trying to tackle all of that on a zero budget!
And of course, running a volunteer-based business is a challenge and requires a different approach than managing staff.
We also see far too few children coming to the centre. It’s less than 10%. We’re just not on the radar for families – something we could address with a proper marketing budget.
We know that we need to diversify our product – we need more than one show, and more talks and special events, and things for kids – but of course all of that needs funding. The ideas and enthusiasm are there – we just need the budget.
8. What are you most proud of in your business?
Keeping it going. Keeping the model alive and I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve done to renovate it and all without the help of external professionals. Just a fabulous group of volunteers with a passion for it.
9. If there was one piece of advice you wish you’d had been given when you opened your business what would it be?
Not sure there is one, I’ve been lucky – I’ve had a very good team above and below. They’ve given me a lot of free rein.
10. What's the biggest change you’ve seen in your business or your business sector since you started?
Given we began during covid – you could say that any changes we’ve seen have only been an improvement!
The volume of business has proved to be utterly unpredictable.
On the plus side we’re beginning to see the return of more European School visits but not to pre covid numbers. Back then in the summer, the heritage centre would have 8-10 weeks of 2 to 3 class visits a day. Last summer we had maybe 30 in total.
One change we did see towards the end of at end of last year was in the patterns of spending, reflecting a lack of disposable income. We’ve seen a switch to cash – at the end of 2020 our sales were probably 65% card and 35% cash, last year it was more like 50/50 – we could see that families were giving themselves a cash budget for the day and making their choices about what to do on their holidays very carefully.
Thanks again to Simon for talking to us, you can see more about the Heritage Centre here: