Audience Diversity Academy Fellow, Emma Oaks shares with us how she is converting perceptions of her organisation, Buxton Opera House, one ambassador at a time.
As well as our beautiful but inaccessible Edwardian theatre, we also have a cinema that offers accessible screenings. Customer diversity is important to us as a company, but we have to demonstrate that we can provide an accessible experience before customers even step through the door. So, the experiment was to create a team of Access Ambassadors made up of staff, volunteers and community contacts who could spread the word about what we’re trying to achieve and share our passion for inclusivity with the wider community.
I must admit, with the faint whiff of disinterest coming from some quarters, combined with an un-successful first attempt at recruitment, that I wasn’t expecting anyone to be beating down the door to help with Access in either of our venues. However, there is a genuine interest in the Opera House itself as a beautiful iconic building, and in its long term survival following a closure 40+ years ago.
Having made contact with a few external groups to establish what access provision was available locally, I then contacted our own volunteer database to gauge interest in an Access Ambassadors group. I was pleasantly surprised by the almost immediate response from some volunteers and the recognition from them that improving access was essential to growth.
An initial group of 11 volunteers expressed an interest and we arranged to meet to discuss the potential of the group, what the aims would be, potential training that might be useful and how everyone’s personal experience could contribute to the project. Most of the volunteers had a backstory that reflected their interest in access as a subject, from grandchildren with autism; working with isolated adults; and personal hearing loss. Our usual pool of volunteers is typically retirement age, so it was refreshing to have a wide age range represented in the access group – from mid-20s to mid-80s – although the majority were still 60+.
This led to very different contributions around promoting our accessible productions, with a high proportion being against social media, but several offers of support in attending community events.
As a group we developed a vision board that showed where our imagination might take us in the future. Interestingly the group focussed very much on our famous welcome and how fabulous our venues are along with an emphasis on the importance of the team working together. We finished the meeting knowing that we’re not perfect as an accessible venue, but as a team we’ll do what we can to make sure everyone has a good time – what a great starting point!
In all we recruited 15 volunteers, one of which is a full-time member of staff, two are from external community support groups and I’ve just turned customer services complaint about access into a new volunteer. Facilitating the group raised its own communication challenges – not everyone is on email; not everyone can use a phone due to hearing loss; and we don’t have an accessible meeting space in the Opera House, but we’re working round these as best we can. Since the meeting we’ve put a basic training plan for the group in place that includes autism awareness and a talk by Age UK. Our first event is planned for Disabled Access Day in March.
I’m faintly terrified by the size of the access project overall, but creating this Access Ambassadors potential group will certainly go a long way to helping spread the work load and reach more customers.