Amy Pitts is Head of Visitor and Retail Services at the Houses of Parliament, where she is responsible for the strategic development and operational management of Visitor Services and Retail, as well as maximising income from commercial activities. Prior to her role at the Houses of Parliament, Amy was Visitor Experience Manager at Kensington Palace with Historic Royal Palaces. Amy studied for a B.A. in History and an M.A. in Renaissance and Early Modern Studies at the University of York.
“…The more that we can be open and transparent and start to change perceptions of what Parliament is, the greater our impact and reach can be – to women, young people and those who may not ordinarily engage with us…”
From Sheffield to Westminster via York and Kensington Palace
I have always loved working in customer facing roles – from my first jobs in retail and hospitality through to my time with English Heritage before Historic Royal Palaces – and I knew I wanted to engage people in history and heritage, which I have always been passionate about.
Being at university in the beautiful medieval city of York, I had incredible access to arts, culture and heritage and was lucky to do a range of work experience when I was there. I spent a great four years at Kensington Palace – through the innovative Enchanted Palace and the subsequent re-opening of the newly presented palace in 2015 – and was delighted to be offered my current job at the Houses of Parliament in 2014.
I have to admit that I was one of the many people who did not realise that Parliament is open to visit and was blown away by the tour on my first visit. You can stand on the spot where Guy Fawkes was tried for treason in Westminster Hall, or at the Despatch Box where Theresa May tussles with Jeremy Corbyn at PMQs, or in St Stephens Hall where Carey Mulligan portrayed Maud Watts in Suffragette. It is a fascinating building for both its rich history and its relevance today.
I could not resist applying for the job to head up the Visitor Services and Retail teams – combining two areas of my experience at one of the most iconic buildings in the world and where there was so much exciting potential.
I am still a Yorkshire lass at heart (originally from Sheffield) and sometimes it does feel surreal to cycle over Westminster Bridge to my ‘office’ every morning – and where the time of the working day is kept by the bongs of Big Ben!
Involving and inspiring visitors to the Palace of Westminster
My teams are responsible for welcoming all visitors to the Palace of Westminster, involving and inspiring them in the work of the UK Parliament and the history and heritage of the Palace. Our vision is to raise awareness that Parliament is open to visit – for everyone – which includes visitor welcome, orientation, tours and retail.
My role is very varied, heading up a large operational team of about 130 team members working across two busy business areas, so my day can include anything from attending a Member Committee to update on commercial performance, to signing off a new event, to leading a Visit Parliament team briefing to discussing new retail product ideas. My office overlooks Whitehall so I am centrally based but I do keep fit walking between the various team locations across the Parliamentary estate!
Parliament is a fascinating place to work – every day is completely different and things can change quickly so we have to be flexible and adaptable. I really enjoy the variety. We are in effect running two types of visitor operation depending on whether the Houses are sitting or not – our team of visitor assistants are experts on everything from customer service to disabled access, from Cromwell to Brexit!
Welcoming over one million visitors each year
The Palace of Westminster is one of the most iconic buildings in the world, being a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as the home of the UK Parliament. Over one million people visit the parliamentary estate each year – whether coming on a tour, to attend a debate, giving evidence to a Committee, going to an event or to meet their MP.
Visitors come from across the world for both business purposes and to visit as a tourist – visitors on commercial tour days are global, but our core audience is UK domestic visitors and this is a market we proactively cultivate to engage as many UK residents in the work of Parliament as we can.
This means we have a diverse customer base for our retail product. Our buying team, of just two people, source inspiration from across parliament – whether it is design from a piece of wallpaper to something interesting in the archives – to ensure we have bespoke, interesting and unique products for both internal and external customers which make great gifts or souvenirs.
Proactively challenging traditional stereotypes
We are proactively challenging traditional stereotypes with what we do and how we do it. We aim to open up Parliament for as many people as possible – and not just the physical building – we offer a range of on site, offsite, online and outreach activities as part of the wider participation team, so there are lots of ways to get involved and to keep involved.
The more that we can be open and transparent and start to change perceptions of what Parliament is, the greater our impact and reach can be – to women, young people and those who may not ordinarily engage with us. It is a marathon rather than a sprint but there is definitely a significant and positive change happening.
Celebrating women’s history
Women’s history is being celebrated at Parliament more strongly than ever. In 2016 on the 150th anniversary of the first mass petition submitted to Parliament calling for votes for women, New Dawn was unveiled, a contemporary light installation by Mary Branson in Westminster Hall, which celebrates all those involved in the fight for women’s suffrage. (There are also excellent New Dawn and Suffragette ranges in the shop!).
And we are looking ahead to a significant anniversary next year with Vote 100, celebrating 100 years since the first women were given the vote and a milestone year in the journey to full emancipation – there will be a year of events and celebrations including a new exhibition in the 900 year old Westminster Hall; why not come and find the grilles that used to be located in the Ladies Gallery and can now be found in Central Lobby or the statue in St Stephen’s Hall that was damaged by a Suffragette chaining herself to its boot?
There are lots of inspiring women and leaders working here too and it is an increasingly diverse team. We are hosting a recruitment open day in February for anyone interested in finding out more about the varied roles at Parliament – from committee clerks to retail assistants!
Ensuring Parliament is as accessible as possible
We have a team of dedicated visitor assistants who enable greater access for all visitors. It is a challenge in a historic building of this nature but we aim to be as accessible as possible – there is full level access on the public tour route with the help of our visitor assistants. We have wheelchairs available to borrow, offer tactile tours on a monthly basis, have BSL [British Sign Language] tours available for visitors as well as hearing loops throughout the estate and we have a Changing Places toilet available for anyone to use.
We have recently launched our autism guide on the website, we are focusing on being more dementia friendly and are actively investing in improving accessibility. So, despite the physical challenges of the building we are surprisingly open and the Visit Parliament team are happy to advise and speak to visitors in advance of their visit if they have specific requirements or want more information.
Why I couldn’t be more proud of my team
I am really proud of what the team has achieved in the past two years – we have re-branded Visit Parliament, launched creative marketing campaigns (including our very own Commons green bench!), delivered new ticket and retail systems and developed a rich programme of tours and events.
In 2015 we delivered our first season of events with Suffragette Season, in 2016 we opened for Museums at Night for the first time with a Rights and Rebels theme, which was a sell-out event, and we also participated in Kids in Museums last year. We have been actively developing our family programme, which now includes special Family Guided Tours as well as the audio tour. We have seen growth year-on-year in terms of our commercial activities and the team continue to rise to new challenges with creative and innovative ideas to develop our offer.
We are also award-winning – currently holding ‘Highly Commended’ for Customer Service at the Museums + Heritage Awards 2016 and have won several accolades for our guided tours, including most recently being shortlisted for the ‘Individual Attraction of the Year’ at the UKinbound Awards for Excellence (winner announced on 9th February). And we are consistently in the top 10 on Trip Advisor for things to do in London!
How Womanthology readers can make use of the facilities in Parliament
I would welcome all Womanthology readers to come to visit the Houses of Parliament. If you are looking for something different to do this weekend, come on a tour this Saturday. If you are planning a wedding or an event, contact our banqueting team. If you are looking for something to entertain children this summer, check out our family programme of tours and events.
If you want to get involved, sign up to our free online learning course with Future Learn – running again in February – or check out the online petitions site to see if you want to sign a petition about something you are interested in. Not many people know that we also have great catering facilities – you can add on an afternoon tea to your tour – or come for lunch in one of the Members’ Dining Rooms in the Lords or the Commons from spring this year!
The key message is get involved – and there is no better time to do it – this is your Parliament!
Next for me and Parliament
March is an exciting month for me as I am attending the International Parliamentary Visitors Forum in Washington DC, which is very exciting and an opportunity to meet my counterparts from across the world – it will be the first time I have visited the US capital, so I am interested to see how they run their tours as well as how visitors have responded to the political shifts in the US.
I am also looking forward to attending Oxford Cultural Leaders, which is a leadership programme with Oxford University Museums in partnership with the Saïd Business School and I’m looking forward to meeting and working with leaders from across the cultural sector.
It’s an interesting time for us at Parliament as we await the upcoming decision on whether the works recommended under the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Programme are taken forward – the Palace is both a beautiful Victorian Gothic building and a modern workplace and some work is needed to realign the two. The Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) is currently undergoing three years of essential conservation work, and for periods during this time, the Tower will be obscured by scaffolding. This presents another challenge for us; as a beautiful Grade I listed building, parts of the palace are now in need of essential repair.
And of course, it is a really interesting time in the political landscape after Brexit so we continue to keep up to date with events as they develop and make sure our team have the most current information to share with visitors.
With everything happening this year – it really is a great time to visit the Houses of Parliament!