Transformative Public Programming. How a bold approach has transformed the calendar at Chelsea Physic Garden

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, I speak with Frances Sampayo, Deputy Director (Visitor Experience) at the Chelsea Physic Garden.

“We had retailers on the King’s Road, like Anthropologie, running wreath making sessions, floristry sessions. And it really alerted me to the fact that, actually, if we didn’t diversify our programme, if we didn’t start thinking a bit differently, not only were our competitors going to catch up, but actually other sites that we would never have thought of as competitors because of the new kind of economic model.”

Frances Sampayo is the Deputy Director of Chelsea Physic Garden. In her day to day role she leads visitor experience, learning & public engagement, volunteering and interpretation. Ensuring that these areas are central to the organisations strategic vision.

Frances has worked for galleries, museums, heritage attractions, palaces, and now a botanic garden. She brings to life completely unique events at each site, ensuring they are rooted in people. This includes visitors, staff and collaborators. For Frances, the places she works often have many barriers for visitors, and programming offers the chance to break these down. You may not feel a botanic garden is for you, but why not start with a music night instead? The more complicated and creative the event, the better.


What will you learn from this podcast?

  • The transformative journey the garden has been on
  • The public programming calendar
  • Being a bolder organisation



To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.


The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Frances Sampayo




Kelly Molson: Frances, it’s so lovely to have you on the podcast. Thank you for coming to join me. 

Frances Sampayo: Oh, thank you so much. A longtime listener. So thrilled to be here. 

Kelly Molson: Always lovely to hear. Well, will you be thrilled after the icebreaker questions? Who knows? Let’s go. Right, I want to know, when you go out for dinner, are you a starter and a main kind of gal or main and a pudding, or all three? I mean, you can have all three. 

Frances Sampayo: I think it’s pudding, especially if it’s Tiramisu. That’s it. Decision made. 

Kelly Molson: Okay, so Tiramisu is on the menu. That’s the one you’re going for. That’s it. That’s the focus.

Frances Sampayo: Yeah, I’d probably just have that over the main, to be honest. 

Kelly Molson: Do you know what? There is a pudding. Yeah. So there are pudding restaurants, though, aren’t there, where you can go and yeah, there’s one in Cambridge. I walked past it last week while were in town and it’s basically just puddings. 

Frances Sampayo: Oh, great. 

Kelly Molson: You can have a main pudding, a starter pudding and a pudding. 

Frances Sampayo: I will never go there. That’s too dangerous for me. But, yeah. 

Kelly Molson: Open invite to come and join me. I would go crumble all the way. 

Frances Sampayo: Oh, nice. 

Kelly Molson: Okay, good. If you had to pick one item to win a lifetime supply of, what would you pick? 

Frances Sampayo: Probably something really boring like sunblock, because I am so pale to that. That would be really handy for me. 

Kelly Molson: Well, we should all wear sunscreen. Very important. Doesn’t matter about being pale. More important to not have skin cancer. 

Frances Sampayo: Very true. Very true. 

Kelly Molson: Okay, good. Final one. If you could be any fictional character, who would you like to be and why? 

Frances Sampayo: That is a great question. I would love to probably go into, like, a Regency novel, but I wouldn’t want to be a main character. I’d probably just want to be someone on the sidelines who gets to see everything and just kind of fly on the wall and kind of see everything that’s happening in these amazing worlds.  Yeah, that would be great. I like it. Yeah. 

Kelly Molson: What’s the draw to that kind of era? Is it the architecture? Is it the clothing? 

Frances Sampayo: Can I give a real kind of sector answer? 

Kelly Molson: Absolutely.

Frances Sampayo: Part one would be we so often use as filming locations, so there’s a lot of Regency dramas. That would be great to see something like this happening in one of these spaces. And the second is, I once duty managed a kind of 18th century themed party at a site I worked where everyone was in fancy dress from the era. And it was amazing sharing people were just dishevelling as the evening went on, stockings were falling down, men had rouge on, all of those amazing things. And just seeing that come to life was amazing. So I’d love to kind of get to see it kind of happening in actual Regency time period, as opposed to just kind of as an event in the 21st century. 

Kelly Molson: I love that. Really kind of sets the tone for what we’re going to talk about today as well, the events. All right, that was an excellent answer. Thank you. Right, Frances, what is your unpopular opinion? 

Frances Sampayo: So I’m not a fan of false jeopardy, which is a big component of reality TV, particularly cooking shows, where someone will take a bite of food and then just the camera pauses for what feels like five minutes and they do all the close up shots of everyone looking really tense, and I just, “Oh, I hate it”. So I know it’s something very popular, it’s in all the reality TV shows, but I always skip that bit, look at my phone or do something else. 

Kelly Molson: Just get on with it. Just get on with it. 

Frances Sampayo: Get on with it. 

Kelly Molson: Oh we don’t need the drama or the tense. 

Frances Sampayo: Just put this poor person out of their misery. And you think it’s better than anything, like, I could have ever even imagined I cooked. And you just dragging this poor person’s emotional journey out. So, yeah, just think just get over it. Just do it. Tell them whether it’s good or not. 

Kelly Molson: I like it. Yeah, I would like that. I’d just like to know yes or no. Don’t keep me hanging around. It’s like it causes more anxiety than you need it to be. I’m definitely one of those people. If someone says, can we have a chat on Monday? I’m like, can we just do it now? Do we need to wait over the weekend? Is it good or is it bad? Because I will just think about this continuously now for the week. So let’s just get it out of the way. 

Frances Sampayo: Let’s do it now. Yeah. My team liked me to do if I book in a catch up. We had to catch up, good thing. Catch up, constructive thing, just to help.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, that’s really useful.

Frances Sampayo: Because, again, it is that forced Jeopardy thing of, “Yeah, oh, no, I’ve got to wait the whole weekend and I don’t know what this meeting is about”. “It’s a good thing. Ten minutes. It’s fine, don’t worry.”

Kelly Molson: That’s a really good positive tip, isn’t it? Yes, but what if it’s not a good day?

Frances Sampayo: Then I’ll call it something else. 

Kelly Molson: Okay. Catch up. Not okay.

Frances Sampayo: Yes, catch up. It’s all gone wrong. 

Kelly Molson: Okay, that is an excellent tip, I can say that. Share that with the team after our call. Thank you. We’ve got so much to talk about today. I’m really excited about this chat. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what they can expect at the Chelsea Physic Garden and then just a little bit about what your role is as well? 

Frances Sampayo: So Chelsea Physic Garden is a four acre garden. We’re in Chelsea, as the name suggests, and we’ve got over four and a half thousand plants that you can come and see. So we’ve got a living collection. Most collections in museums are behind glass, but us is living, we have to take care of it and we’ve got an amazing team of gardeners that do that.

So we call ourselves London’s oldest outdoor classroom because we’ve always been a place for people to come and learn about plants. So we’ve got a really fantastic learning team, but we’ve also got a really dynamic engagement programme, which helps people connect in different ways to plants, because it can be quite intimidating, I think, particularly if you grew up in a city you don’t know much about nature, you might not have had a garden. 

So we’ve got a really dynamic programme, giving people lots of different entry points. This year, we turned 350. So in September, we’re opening glass houses that have all been restored with support of the National Heritage Fund. So if you’re going to come and visit and you’ve got a restoration project coming up, September is a great time to come to the garden.

But we always say, whatever day you come, that’s the best day to come, because you’re going to see something no one else gets to see, because flowers can change one day to the next 1 hour to the next. So it’s a really special place to come and just connect with nature, really. So that’s a bit about the garden now, a bit about my role. I’ve got quite a broad role. So we’re a small site, we’re a small team. 

And I think when you have a small site and a small team, you get jobs that actually have quite a lot within their remit. So I, as Deputy Director of the organisation, was brought in to bring a cohesive visitor experience across the site. And that meant I lead different teams that look after all of our people touch points. So visitors learning, public engagement volunteers and then everything that sits behind that holistically to give people a great visit or to support them in a different way.

So safety, security facilities interpretation, that comes under my remit as well, because it’s supporting that visitor experience ultimately. So it’s quite a kind of unique role. It’s really dynamic. Every single day is different. Can go from planning our ten year strategy to what’s going to happen in the next ten minutes because the toilets have all overflown. So it’s really dynamic role and just like the garden. So it’s great fun here. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah, it sounds it as well. So I think that when we spoke a few weeks ago, I came away from the call just thinking, wow, the remit of what you have there is quite phenomenal, the different things that you can be doing all the time. But I also thought, what a privilege it must be to be there, because, like you say, it is a living museum and it just must be incredible to see it change, literally on a daily basis. 

Frances Sampayo: Yeah, it’s amazing. So we’re recording this just after our Easter weekend, and I had a great time on Sunday, were out in the garden helping people do their Planet Hero trail to learn about how to be more sustainable. And the tulips just got a little bit of sun and suddenly they all opened up and they were just really expressive, dancing kind of around, and then a cloud came over and they all closed up again and you just think, I don’t have a garden, I didn’t grow up with a garden, grew up in a flat.

And so you just get to see things that you never get to see before. And it’s been a real privilege to get to learn how the garden operates over the year and to see there are plants now that I think I can’t wait until May, because I’ll get to see that in flower and it’s really amazing. 

Kelly Molson: Wow. Well, that’s kind of what we’re going to talk about today, because as an organisation, you’ve been on a bit of a transformative journey with your public programming, and a lot of that is about kind of education and getting people to kind of understand what you have there and how things grow and how that all works together. But I kind of want to just go back and talk about, what the starting point for this journey? How did that come about, where did that start? 

Frances Sampayo: Yeah, and it really has been a journey. So I joined the garden back in 2018 and we had a really established programme of walks, talks and workshops. So quite a formal learning programme. And it was really great, really established, always sold well. And I went on a conference with LEAF, which is the London Environmental Education Forum, and as I was talking to people, they heard I was from Chelsea Physic Garden, and they go, “Oh, I love that workshop you do. We do one similar.” And I started to understand that actually, our programme had been an inspiration point for a lot of people, which is great, we love a bit of professional learning, but of course, that’s our competitors. 

So that was a starting point for me to think, we need to think about something new and then we have the kind of emergence of the experience economy. And we had retailers on the King’s road, like Anthropologie, running wreath making sessions, floristry sessions. And it really alerted me to the fact that, actually, if we didn’t diversify our programme, if we didn’t start thinking a bit differently, not only were our competitors going to catch up, but actually other sites that we would never have thought of as competitors because of the new kind of economic model. So, yeah, it was a really important moment for us to start thinking differently. 

Kelly Molson: That’s crazy, isn’t it? Because that’s the comparison that was made quite a lot, I think, during and after the pandemic, is that attractions, you’re now competing with things like Netflix, and you would never have considered that before. So that’s really interesting to hear you make that kind of comparison to retail. And that’s not something that I would have considered before either. 

Frances Sampayo: No, it was amazing. I wanted to sign up for a lot of these in person classes. I’m the kind of heritage person and I’m being taken by the retail model, so I’ve got to try and bring it back. So, yeah, that was a big starting point. And, yeah, as you say, kind of Netflix. You can sit and watch, you could sit on YouTube and just watch a plant grow and on a time lapse for 20 minutes and you say, “Oh, no, actually, you want to get out into nature. So how are we going to get those people here?”

Kelly Molson: Yeah. So what kind of objectives did you set for the programme? 

Frances Sampayo: So I’ve got to be honest, I’m not the best at kind of setting formal objectives, particularly, I think, because this programme was really around culture change and I think whenever you bring people into doing a cultural shift within an organisation, they’re going to bring new ideas. So I didn’t set kind of formal objectives and say, we’re going to achieve 20% increase in this or that.

I’ve done that in other areas, but it didn’t feel right to do that with our public programme. So what we did instead was talk about giving people more kind of creativity to create new programmes. So kind of, what can we do that’s new that we haven’t done before? What have you always really wanted to try but haven’t been able to? Because this is the time for us to try and fail and learn and adapt. 

And actually, what sits behind that the kind of team don’t always pick up on, is you’re introducing a feedback cycle and you’re saying, actually, we’re going to evaluate everything. And we haven’t necessarily had that culture where we listen to what people responded to within our sessions that they liked, that they didn’t like. So we wanted to start that feedback loop and then ultimately, we wanted to future proof our programme.

So we need new audiences, we’ve got to diversify our model, become financially sustainable. So those are the kind of key areas I really wanted to push, but I didn’t kind of set them as specific objectives. They all kind of developed naturally as more people get involved, we’re able to expand the ambition. 

And now, five years on, we’ve got our own public programme manager, so it’s really become embedded and they’re going to again challenge us and push us up a whole other level. So it’s been really brilliant to let it grow, but set a kind, of course, I guess, for how we want to deliver it and how we want to change. 

Kelly Molson: I’m really interested to know what’s changed. So what was a kind of typical programme previously and what does your programme look like now? Like, how brave have people been? 

Frances Sampayo: Yeah, we’ve been pretty brave. It’s been a big change. So I think the first area where there’s really been a shift is moving away from an academic forum. So being a learning space for 350 years, that really carried into our learning programme and all of our public programmes. So even sessions where were getting people to do botanical soap making, that started with a formal lecture, really, about what the botanicals were you were going to use, why they were so brilliant.

So we’ve really shifted away from that and we put that same information into our sessions, but not in a formal way. It’s much more informal, much more exciting, and people learn through connecting with the plant itself, as opposed to being told with a presentation and some slides, this is how brilliant lemon is, or things like that. 

So that shift away from the academic has been really fundamental, but you might not necessarily notice that kind of straight away with the session that’s more in terms of the content. We’ve also looked at our accessibility, so we’ve got a broader range of price points now, a broader range of length of sessions.

So we used to have sessions that were a full day or a half day and that was it. Now people are a lot more time poor, so we’ve got some sessions that are an hour, some that are 2 hours, a full day or even multiple days, but people can select now what they want and there’s a much better variety. So we’re seeing we get a lot more visitors come onto a kind of two hour session instead of a four hour half day. 

And our youth panel also talked to us about the different price points and making the journey a lot easier to buying a ticket. So we’ve got lower price points now. And also you don’t have to buy a ticket to the garden on top of buying a ticket to an event, which has been a big shift.

Frances Sampayo: So those are kind of some behind the scenes things, which are pretty bold, but not the kind of glamorous thing. But in terms of that kind of more dynamic programming, we did a lot during the pandemic because of being an outdoor attraction, so we had some ideas that were kind of on the back burner that were able to bring forward. So were able to launch Plant Fair when outdoor retail returned, which was brilliant. 

We were able to introduce a series of concerts on the lawn called The Lawn Session, so those music nights have stayed, and also Family Theatre, which we hadn’t done before in the garden, so we now do that every year. So were able to bring in some really new programming, which was really bold for us as a site, because we hadn’t really connected with those audiences or felt like audiences that would go to a music night would come to the garden. So that was really great fun.

But the most bold programme we launched was our Dash of Lavender programme, so that’s LGBTQ plus History Month celebration, and that happens in February. So we’ve got an exhibition in the garden and then lots of different events, from poetry nights to drawing workshops. 

And this year, our volunteer guides also got involved and they launched tours around the garden to tell people more about LGBTQ history and horticulture, which was really fantastic, because that, again, is an example of growing support for the programme bit by bit, and people saying, “Okay, now I understand what this is. I want to get more involved.” And we’ve been supported through that by an amazing partner called Sixto, who runs Queer botany, who’s just a great presence within the sector and doing amazing things. I’m sure everyone wants to work with them now, which is really frustrating for us. 

We love Six, though, but, yeah, that’s been the kind of most dynamic programme that we’ve introduced and has had the biggest impact, but because we’d done all of those smaller steps, that it felt like a really natural progression for the site to do this and it’s been really accepted and understood. Whereas previously, if we’d said we’re going to do a History Month celebrating LGBTQ plus individuals, people really wouldn’t have understood it. So it’s made a huge impact. 

Kelly Molson: That is phenomenal to hear. It’s really interesting. As you were talking, we just go back to the start of this section where you were talking about the soap making, and I thought, “Oh, that sounds really interesting. I’d probably like to do that.” But I probably wouldn’t have booked onto the previous incarnation of it because I would have thought, “Maybe this is just a bit not for me”. I’m kind of doing it because I’m interested in the fragrances and how you make them and that kind of side of it. I’m not sure I want to be lectured about the botanicals themselves, so it might put me off, so I guess it might put a lot of other people off. So have your audiences changed since you introduced the new programme? 

And it would be interesting to know if you set out and defined what you wanted those new audiences to be and how if you’ve achieved that. 

Frances Sampayo: Oh, great question. So we did do some kind of planning of new audiences and who we wanted to engage, but we also wanted to make sure we brought our existing audience and our members kind of along with us and make sure that they felt really taken care of. So, in terms of our existing audience, particularly our members, they’re 50% of our visitor profile post pandemic, and they’re predominantly white, female, cisgendered, able bodied, or potentially have kind of corrected sight through using glasses. They’re retired.

So that’s our kind of core audience, if you will. So we wanted to make sure that we really supported them as well, so they have had some new benefits introduced, like a quiet hour at the garden in the morning, so kind of private access before everyone else comes in. 

We also started running coffee mornings for them, social isolation is a really big challenge within the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. So we’ve got some older members of our membership community, so that helps them get involved. And they also get early access to a lot of our member events or a lot of our public programme events.

So they feel like they’re getting a lot of special treatment, but it’s a lot of stuff that we would have been doing anyway. And I think that’s helped them kind of come with us on the journey as we’ve brought in a lot of new audiences. So people under 40, families, people living within walking distance of the garden within a 30 minutes catchment, that’s actually really quite a disruptive audience to bring in against that traditional model. 

So we’ve got people who live in Wandsworth, Lambeth, Vauxhall, all really local to us, who wouldn’t see the garden as a place for them. We’ve got people living in Battersea who are part of the new, amazing community in Battersea with all these developments, but they’ve got the park right next to them and we’re on the other side of the Thames, so why do they want to come here?

So it’s really helped us establish we are here for local people. We’ve got things that interest under 40s, we’ve got things that interest families, but throughout all of that, we’ve really considered how we’re going to bring our core audience on that journey with us. So, yeah, we’ve tried to balance it, but it has really changed. 

Kelly Molson: Were you worried about how, when you talked about what your existing kind of demographic was for your members and your audience, were you quite worried about how they might react to some of the new ideas that you were bringing in? 

Frances Sampayo: I wasn’t really worried, if I’m completely honest. I think I knew that we were going to take care of them and I knew that some people would appreciate that and some people would really enjoy coming into the garden for a quiet hour in the morning or coming to a coffee morning. So I knew that some of the visitors that are part of that membership community would really enjoy that.

And I thought, if they don’t, that is kind of up to them to self select and not come to the garden. But ultimately we have to change because you can’t exist for 350 years by standing still. And I think that is quite brave, I think, to say that. And it’s not dismissive of our kind of core audience or our existing audience, it’s just saying there’s space for everyone, there’s space for more people here. 

And if you’re not okay with that, you’ve got your quiet hour, you can come then. We’re trying to accommodate you. But actually, if you want to come to Chelsea History Festival weekend, where we’ve got circus performers and a military band in the garden, come along to that. That’s great. You’re going to really have a good time if you want.

So we kind of accepted that we might lose some visitors and I, unfortunately, sometimes get complaints from people about, “I’ve ruined the garden or I’ve ruined the atmosphere”, but for every complaint I get like that, I get 20, “I would never have come here if you weren’t doing this. And I discovered the garden because you had a poetry evening and I thought that was amazing, or I came on the lawn sessions for a date and now I’m coming back to see the collection in the day.” 

So it really is worth it and you just have to be kind of resilient and true to what you’re doing and why and stick to it, because we’re kind of here for people and we want as many people to enjoy the garden as possible. So there has to be a bit of disruption and a bit of change.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. I mean, we all like to say that we don’t like change, though, don’t we? You’re always going to get somebody who really don’t like change and it’s really uncomfortable for them, but you can’t stay the same for those people. How do you think? Because this has all happened over quite a short period of time, really, hasn’t it? I mean, we can throw COVID into the mix and I think it goes without saying, really, that everybody became a bit braver during that time, because it was a time of, “Well, let’s just try it. What else could go wrong?” Right? But what do you think that you’ve been able to kind of change and adapt so quickly? 

Frances Sampayo: Yeah, so I think it’s all about people. We’ve got a really amazing team here and they’re really committed to what we’re doing. I kind of label it as persistent, professional radicalism, which people enjoy, but that’s kind of what we’re doing. We want to make change, so we have to be persistent.

We’ll consider the fact that some visitors might not like it, but others will, and we’ve got data to support us and then we’re kind of radical because that’s just what we’re doing, being really bold as we approach things. And this team of people that I get to work with, really kind of support that and want to work in that way. At the start, weren’t all saying we’re being radical at work and we’re being really bold. People weren’t necessarily comfortable with that. 

So there were a lot of conversations that needed to have with people around, giving them permission to explore new things and say, “What are you excited about that we’ve never done in the garden before, that you think would be really cool that you’d want to come to, or what do you want to do?” And gradually people started understanding that actually there was permission for them to try new things and to work in new ways.

So one of the learning team really wanted to learn more about podcasting. So brilliant. There’s a training course on podcast. You go on that, you tell me why it would be good for the garden and if you can convince me, I’ll back you up and we’ll make sure that we kind of get this going and get you the equipment you need and the space you need. 

So were able to do that and now we’ve got a really great podcast that’s available in all good podcast places that you can listen to about the garden and it helps people that aren’t here connect with it. And that just came from a mad idea from one of the teams saying, “Actually, I’d really like to learn a bit more about this, and were able to just kind of go with it.”

So empowering the team has been really key to that. And then also for me, I’m really lucky that our director, Sue Medway is really supportive of kind of what we’re doing. And our trustee board as well have kind of become used to me coming in and saying, “Oh, we’re now teaching children how to make broomsticks for Halloween.”

Kelly Molson: It’s such a great idea.

Frances Sampayo: So it’s so great and it’s a sustainable way of using twigs, things like that. So we use all kind of organic well, all materials from the garden. They learn how to make them and yeah, cool, they get to pretend that they’ve got magic powers and can fly around the garden, but also they can take that home, they can help with the housework, they know a bit more about sustainable cleaning, don’t have to buy a new broom.

So there’s all kinds of things that we’re doing and people have just kind of accepted now that we’re going to do things a bit differently. And when they open their kind of board papers, there might be something a bit mad in there, but they really enjoy it. So it’s great. 

Kelly Molson: That is a brilliant idea and it kind of sums up the ethos of the whole place, right? You’re teaching children to do something really fun with the things that you have there and they’re learning about sustainability. It’s absolutely perfect. Yeah, I really love that. I should probably book onto that podcasting workshop that you talked about as well. Add that to my list of things to do.

When we talked a few weeks ago as well, I think you mentioned, I think you kind of mentioned, like, the 80 20 rule that we talk about quite frequently. About 80% of what you do is kind of in fixed once the programme is decided, but you have that kind of 20% of flexibility where if something is relevant, you can go, “Hey, we’ve got a little bit of space here, let’s put something on.” So it’s nice to be able to have that level of flexibility and kind of agileness about what you do. 

Frances Sampayo: Yeah, definitely. So, again, when I first joined, actually, that was something that were kind of not confident in. So by November, the whole following year would be planned and then the walks, talks and workshops, leaflets that were produced would talk you through the whole year. So we’d printed the whole year in advance. That was it.

This is the programme, we’re sticking to it. So now we kind of print only kind of two or three months in advance. And we also use QR codes a lot to say just check our website for what’s happening. And that really gives us the space to be agile. So we now programme 80% and then it gives us that space that if you pick up a really amazing phone call from someone, can do an event. 

We get a lot of really interesting artistic projects, we also get some really amazing kind of sell out events and it’s actually we’ve got to have capacity to run that event again because it was so popular. So, yeah, that’s been a really big shift, is just having that kind of 80 20 and it also helps the team with capacity management, I think, because sometimes when we get approached for things like we had this really amazing approach for kind of a shadow puppet theatre to come into the garden and it was a really interesting opportunity for us. It would have been a bit of a kind of learning curve, but we just didn’t have capacity. 

And it was really good to be able to say to the team, “Actually, we’ve already factored in five new events in the next four months, so do we think that we can build this one in as well? Because those are five new events that we haven’t run before.” So it just made us a bit more kind of structured in our decision making process of what we could take on and couldn’t.

And so that went on the back burner and we said we potentially be available in the future. But yeah, it just makes us have decisions that are kind of really grounded, I guess, from what I’m saying. It seems like we just say yes to everything, but sometimes we do say no and think about whether something’s right for us or whether we’ve got capacity for it. And 80 20 has really helped. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah, that felt like a considered no, not a reflex no, but actually with other things that we have on, we don’t need to do this right now. We’d love to, but we don’t need to. And that’s a good position to be in, to be able to make that kind of decision. I would love to know what you’ve learned about it all and what’s the one thing that surprised you the most about the process that you’ve been through? 

Frances Sampayo: Well, I’ve learned a lot. It’s been a really amazing journey and obviously I’ve learned a lot just about our collection and from our horticultural team. But aside from that, it’s really been about listening to people that your team are going to make you better, they’re going to make your programme better, and sometimes you have to listen to challenge and critique just as much as you have to listen to positivity. I think that gives you a lot to learn from.

And again, that’s that feedback cycle and loop from earlier, I think it’s really important to be excited and that makes your team excited about things and want to go the extra mile and put in the energy that it takes to get these things off the ground. Really about empowerment, that’s been the key to the success, is just having an empowered team. 

And I think particularly recently, I’ve been reflecting on just how important it is to be grateful. And I think I’ve learned a lot about being grateful not only to the team, but also to our visitors and our audiences that come here and the fact that they’ve chosen to come to us and making sure that we’re grateful for that. So those have kind of been some recent learnings that I’ve been reflecting on. And then in terms of surprise, well, I think something that I wish I could have used as my answer to your earlier question about objectives and kind of what you set out to achieve actually came as a surprise to me. 

So we’ve had at least three staff members and more volunteers cite the public programme as the way that they discovered the garden and also as part of their motivation for joining and wanting to apply. Yeah, so it’s been really interesting, and I wish that I’d kind of gone into it at the beginning and kind of said, “Well, yeah, well, this is going to lead to an increase in applicants for jobs and diversity of applicants for jobs”, but I just didn’t really consider it as an outcome. And it’s been great. And actually, one of our Cafe team who cited the Dash of Lavender programme as a motivation for joining went so above and beyond. During Dash of Lavender this year, they had the inclusive pride flag all over. 

We had a whole range of lavender themed, like macaroons and desserts, and they really took it to another level, because they felt like we, as an organisation, were accepting of this programme and therefore would just really support them to deliver what they felt was their interpretation of the programme. And we did, even if that did mean having to have lavender themed macaroons every day, which is a really hard life. 

Kelly Molson: That sounds really tough. 

Frances Sampayo: Oh, no, what a shame. But, yeah, it was just brilliant because they really took it and ran with it and that just makes us better and hopefully our visitors will enjoy that as well. But, yeah, that was completely unexpected. 

Kelly Molson: That’s such an amazing outcome, isn’t it? And like you said, completely unexpected that they’ve really taken ownership of it. They’ve taken ownership of the programme and put more into it than you ever could have imagined. 

Frances Sampayo: Yeah, because I could never have done that. And I think I’m really lucky every single day here, because I work with such amazing people. I get to say, “Oh, brilliant. I get to represent everything that people have done and achieved and come up with”. And that’s just one of those completely unexpected outcomes, which is delicious and great fun. I think they even created a cocktail for out of hours events that transformed. So the cocktail started pink and then they poured in a blue gin and then it turned into a lavender colour. 

Kelly Molson: They really thought about it. 

Frances Sampayo: It was amazing. And then the visitors that came here, it’s just such an added benefit. So, yeah, creativity comes from everywhere and it’s brilliant to see.

Kelly Molson: That is brilliant. Yeah, that’s another question, actually, is unexpected outcomes. So that was one of the unexpected outcomes, which you had no idea that it could have been an objective that was achieved. But there’s been some other things that have come out of this as well, hasn’t there? Can you tell us a little bit about them? 

Frances Sampayo: Yeah, and it comes back to that idea that 80 20 and just having space to pick up the phone and have those conversations. So we do a lot more working in collaboration than we’ve ever done before. And I think it’s maybe because we’ve caught people’s attention as a partner and people are interested in what we’re doing now, not just from that kind of LEAF forum, but a lot more dynamic organisations, not just kind of botanically rooted organisations. So many plant puns. I have to apologise, it’s just what. Happens when you want to kit. 

Kelly Molson: We’re pun agnostic on this brilliant show.

Frances Sampayo: Yeah, one of my favourite activities that we’ve launched is the Chelsea History Festival, which we run in collaboration with the National Army Museum and the Royal Hospital, which are our neighbours along the Royal Hospital road. And the three of our sites are really different. We have really different audience bases, but we’ve come together for this week long festival each year and because of that, we’ve had a military band in the garden that would never have happened if we didn’t collaborate and weren’t open to collaborating.

We’ve seen a real kind of increase in visitors because of that. And what’s been interesting is a lot of visitors go to the National Army Museum because they have a soft play, so there’s a lot of families that go there who now come here afterwards, and so they’re actually going to both sites. Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Oh, that’s great.

Frances Sampayo: Whereas before, they might have just gone to the Army Museum and not known that were here. So it’s really brilliant for us to be doing that work in partnership. And the Royal Hospital are doing more and more to open up. Obviously, their primary function is to be a care home for the Chelsea Pensioners, that’s their priority.

But they are doing more to connect with the local community and so we’re able to facilitate that, maybe host some things for them and just continue to work as a trio of sites as opposed to three independent institutions, which is really exciting moving forward. I think it’s really going to change how we all operate. And so that’s kind of one collaboration that we just wouldn’t have happened if weren’t open to working in that way. 

And we’ve also launched Crossing the Floors with David Hingley, who’s been on the podcast. I’m sure many people know that initiative to kind of link up front of house teams to get experience of working in different sites.

Kelly Molson: Such a great idea. 

Frances Sampayo: It’s such an amazing idea. And we’re kind of completely different as a site, as an outdoor site. So a lot of people working in places might never have got to come to an outdoor site before. And they get to kind of see how we programme things, how we deliver activities in a very different way, very seasonal way, as opposed to kind of exhibition, programme driven. So that’s been really interesting.

And, yeah, other collaborations have just come from picking up the phone. We do a lot of work with the University of Westminster now to help blind and partially sighted people have a multisensory experience in a botanical garden, which doesn’t sound you think? Well, yeah, of course it’s multisensory being in a garden, but actually, you can’t touch a lot of our collection. A lot of it’s poisonous. 

It’s going to do you a lot of harm if you touch it. So, yeah, how do we kind of layer that in a safe way? So there’s so much that can come from collaborating with different sites and, again, that just is going to improve everything we do here and we learn a lot. 

Kelly Molson: That’s so good, isn’t it? And I guess all of those things, by changing the programme, you’ve changed the profile of the garden and you’ve raised your kind of perception, or changed the perception of it to so many different audiences. And now those audiences will go to the attractions and the places that are next door to them, and yet you don’t suffer any visitor loss from that. And likewise, because they’re now coming to two of the different ones on the same day, it’s just perfect. 

Frances Sampayo: Yeah, it’s great. And hopefully in the future we’ll be able to keep building on that as three sites and continue to work together. We’re an independent charity, so every kind of penny we earn, we have to earn ourselves. NAM have got a different funding model, as have the Royal Hospital, so we’ve got a lot to learn as well from each other as organisations of how we approach things and what we need to consider, so it’s even better for organisational learning as well. It’s just going to help elevate everyone. And as you said earlier, I think people became a lot bolder following the pandemic in terms of sharing and wanting to help each other, whereas before were all very isolated, so that’s really helped things. 

Kelly Molson: t’s brilliant. Thank you for coming on to share this with us today. It’s been so lovely to talk to you about it. We always ask our guests to share a book that they love, so have you prepared something for us today? 

Frances Sampayo: Yes, so that was a really hard question and I thought about the book that I’ve gifted the most. So last year I read Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufman. I don’t know if anyone’s recommended it previously. 

Kelly Molson: No, I don’t think so. 

Frances Sampayo: So it’s a really fantastic history book. And as someone who’s worked at sites with kind of Tudor history in the past, it completely blew my mind to hear about how dynamic the range of black people were in Britain and beyond in the Tudor times, because we really don’t get to hear about that. I think, kind of in traditional academic circles. So it’s a great read and I think I gifted about five copies of it last year, so I think people would it’s just brilliant and I hope someone gets to enjoy it. 

Kelly Molson: Well, listeners, as ever, if you want to listen, if you want to win a copy of Frances’s book, you know what to do. Head over to our Twitter account. And if you retweet this episode announcement with the words, I want Frances’s book, then you might get the chance for us to gift you us to gift it to you, not Frances. She can save her pennies. Thank you so much for coming on. It’s been such a pleasure. I don’t know, you’ve sold it to me. I mean, I want to come and make a broomstick and some soap. 

Frances Sampayo: Yeah, soap and a broomstick. 

Kelly Molson: That’s like my perfect day out. 

Frances Sampayo: That’s our tagline for 2024, actually. Just visit garden. Soap and a broomstick. 

Kelly Molson: Sold. I’ll order my ticket in advance. Thanks, Frances. 

Frances Sampayo: Thanks, Kelly. 



Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.


Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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