Interview with Louise Stewart

Chief Executive of Alexandra Park and Palace Charitable Trust

Louise Stewart took up her role as Chief Executive of Alexandra Park and Palace Charitable Trust in October 2015 and has overall responsibility for the work of the Trust and its trading company. She has worked in both the public and private sector in areas of culture, tourism, hospitality and growth, including leading roles in major regional arts and regeneration programmes such as Sage Gateshead, Hadrian’s Wall and Alnwick Garden. In her most recent position as director of strategy and deputy CEO at VisitEngland, Louise was responsible for a wide range of work, including securing funding from the Regional Growth Fund for a £40 million, three-year programme of tourism investment across England. Prior to that Louise spent 10 years in regional roles, leading regeneration and business development delivery programmes for the tourism and culture sectors. In her early career Louise worked in overseas adventure travel, catering and events.

Friends of Alexandra Park (FoAP ): What were some of the key reasons you decided to accept what is a position with such obvious challenges?

Yes, there are big challenges. But wouldn’t it be boring to come to work every day and not have real challenges that need real solutions and really fire you up? After all, this is an asset that has been and will be here for a long time. It’s always going to be a challenge to manage a historic property like this.

I think that part of the problem is that there has been understandable confusion about what its role is now and what it should be. And, of course, everyone has an opinion on that. What I have realised since I arrived is how passionate everyone is about the place. Far more people are connected to it in ways I hadn’t realised, whether they used to live locally, or did their exams here, or went to a gig or festival –there are so many different ways people have engaged with the place.

However, the one thing we can all agree on is that we need a sustainable financial future for this amazing asset.

FoAP: What is your brief?

The brief is to build on the success of the last few years and develop a plan for its future that will be self-sustaining. There’s no timescale for that because we’re at the very early stages but we definitely want to put it on a clear path.

FoAP: What skills and experience do you feel you bring to your role?

I have worked in the field of tourism and hospitality for a long time, in restaurants and hotels when younger and even working on a construction site as a PA which, bizarrely enough, is quite relevant here. Professionally I’ve worked in organisations that were responsible for funding projects like this one or been in situations where I have been applying for funding. I’ve also managed large teams of people. Just about every job I have ever done is relevant to what I’m doing here.

FoAP: What is the reporting structure here?

I have two reporting lines as such. Ultimately I report to the board of trustees but I also report to Haringey Council as the corporate trustee and my employer. And that’s quite a neat solution. Haringey Council has got a difficult job when it comes to these charitable assets and it’s a good way of making sure it can have confidence in how the assets are being managed without having to control them directly.

I had a job in the Northeast where I was both the equivalent of the CEO of the regional tourist board but I was also head of tourism and culture within the regional development agency. So I reported to a board of tourism industry professionals but then I was ‘line-managed’ by the regional development agency. So it’s not unusual.

Basically, you need to say what it is you’re going to do, make sure you’ve got buy-in for it, do it and tell people you’ve done it. It is simple but it isn’t easy.

FoAP: The Park is so many different things to different people. Does this make seeing it as a whole a challenge?

My background over the last 10- 15 years of working with larger spaces and destinations has shown me that it’s true of many assets like this. Take a famous town like Stratford-upon-Avon. You would think it had all the answers to questions like that. But it is a town of 20,000 people which attracts hundreds of thousands more every year. And that has to be managed, from dealing with narrow pavements to car parking. It’s never easy.

FoAP: How do you balance between immediate and longer- term objectives?

The long term is the strategic vision. The medium term aim is to strengthen an organisation which has had great success already, despite limited resources and a heavy workload but which needs developing in terms of people and systems. We just need to be a bit more robust so that we’re as efficient and effective as we can be.

The short term can be things like just making sure that what is supposed to be happening is happening. For example, I am looking at how we manage risk and other areas where we could do better. I am also trying to find the balance between how visible I am externally while dealing internally with organisational issues.

FoAP: What are your thoughts on managing the Palace and the Park as a whole ― or do you think they need separate strategies?

I appreciate that they do different things but I think part of the problem here is that they’ve been treated as if they are separate. This is a single charitable asset. Most visitors see it as one experience, although I realise that might not be the same for local people.

FoAP: How do you manage the tension between the Park as a place of relaxation for people, with its wealth of biodiversity, and its use for major commercial events?

The Park has been a place of recreation throughout its history. It was created for wonder and spectacle. Over the last few decades our awareness of the biodiversity of the natural world and its importance has also increased which is an added but still significant bonus.

So you have to take it all into account. The surplus we generate from events goes to support the management and maintenance, repair and restoration of the assets, both the Park and the Palace. If we didn’t have those the Park wouldn’t look like it does. And I believe that we have improved the way we turn the Park around after those events because we know how important it is for people who use the Park every day. Having said that, the weather over the last few years has been wetter and that’s a challenge.

We are looking at ways to make the Park more resilient. That is definitely not about concreting it over! But we can look at aspects such as better drainage, how events are planned and the access and egress for vehicles to lessen the impact.

We also have to make sure we create a balance between the events that are going to generate funds as well as ones that are also going to engage the local community, such as the fireworks and summer festival.

FoAP: Any other thoughts on what you would like to see happen in the Park?

One thing I would really like to see is better zoning so it’s more obvious what areas are used for what purposes. And using technology to make the weird and wonderful stories about what’s gone on here in the past come alive. Yes the view is great but it needs bringing to life. Imagine if you could look at this view of the London skyline and see a historic interpretation of how London has grown as a global city over the years.

FoAP: How important is community involvement in keeping the Park special?

It’s really important. The assets still exist because of the passion and involvement of the local community. But like most things it can be a double-edged sword. It’s a bit like the difference between conservation and preservation. Some people might not want anything to change because this is the Ally Pally they know and love and that’s how they always want it to be. And the most difficult thing for people who think that is, actually, it won’t be here forever if we don’t continue to develop and change with the times.

Conservation is about maintaining what’s important and what’s valued but then making sure it has relevance and will exist in the future. The interesting thing about the vision work is considering what local people want while attracting new visitors.

FoAP: Are there any areas of the Park you particularly like?

What I love about parks like this is that you can get away from the sense that you’re in a heavily built-up area. I try to get out every day and go for a little wander as a break from the screen or from talking ― because I have to talk a lot in this role! I really like the conservation area and The Grove as personal preferences.

FoAP: Let’s turn briefly to the regeneration projects. How is it going?

We’re probably a week or so behind where we wanted to be, but you expect that if you start a construction project in winter. The enabling works are progressing. The contractor is onsite and hasn’t found anything unexpected, which is good. We are moving well through the final stage of design so that when the major construction works starts towards the end of the summer we will be ready, barring anything unforeseen.

But while this work is going on it’s important to make progress on the vision so that we know what the next development needs to be. The vision needs to be encapsulated in a really clear way so that that people can understand it and so that it acts as a framework for every decision that we make. So we can ask: are we delivering against that vision?

FoAP: When you look back at your time here, are there one or two things you would be proud to have as a legacy?

By the time I leave here I would love for the place to be considered a key visitor attraction. And what I mean by that is that when somebody comes here they have a really good experience, they know what it is and they engage with it. They know its story. They haven’t just walked in, wondered what it is and walked away again.

The team here has done a wonderful job establishing the Palace and Park as a successful events venue that is generating income to repair and restore the assets. Because of that success we can now start to exploit the history and the heritage in a more focused way. There are some great stories to tell.