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Ep.4 We The Curious with Donna Speed-Grenfell

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16 Mar, 2022

Episode 4

We The Curious – Inspirational management at this Bristol Science centre with Donna Speed-Grenfell

Donna started her career at Alton Towers and moved to Bristol when ‘We The Curious’ (previously named At-Bristol) opened in 2000.

Donna’s positive approach has driven her through many challenges from losing 20,000 Twitter followers, to having to drastically reduce capacity due to COVID restrictions, and not to mention having to cut a third of her team, it’s been tough.

This interview took place before the fire that closed ‘We The Curious’ in 2023, it opens again in 2024 when I hope to talk to Donna again.

“…it is just about enabling people to be brilliant. That is it. The people who work here, Kelly, oh my goodness, they’re so wonderful. They really want to deliver the mission, they are invested, they care, and they work so hard..”

Donna is one of the kindest and most empathic people I’ve met. She’s a born leader.

For anyone who runs a business managing staff, you need to listen to this episode.

We chat about:

> Donna Speed-Grenfell’s career that started in Alton Towers, to becoming Chief Executive of We The Curious.

> What Donna Speed-Grenfell and her team at We The Curious had to go through during the pandemic

> Why it is so important that your team are motivated and invested in our organisations mission.

> The importance of partnership working throughout the city of Bristol

> How they make science fun through engagement and asking questions

Full Transcription

Kelly Ballard
Hi, Donna, it’s so nice to see you. Welcome to the Elves and the Visitor Economy. And thanks for being here.

Donna Speed Grenfell 02:44
Oh, it’s an absolute pleasure. Thank you for inviting me to be an elf! I’m delighted, it’s such a brilliant idea as well. So thank you, Kelly.

Kelly Ballard 02:53
Oh, you’re very welcome. I’ve known you for so many years but I haven’t seen you for so long, and in that time, you’ve had lots of changes. And now you’ve got an amazing job as a Chief Exec of We the Curious, which is amazing! So congratulations.

Donna Speed Grenfell 03:09
Thanks very much. Yes, it was an interesting time to take on the lead of an organisation. It was literally just before the pandemic hit so just over two years ago. But yeah, I’ve worked at We the Curious for a long time. People might know us by a different name because five years ago we changed the name from @ Bristol to We the Curious which fits us much better, so people might remember that, and even further behind that we were The Bristol Exploratory, so yeah we’ve been around for a while. And it’s just a real pleasure to work here. Actually, it’s kind of one of those places that I feel really proud to be a part of and it’s really hard to leave it. So shall I tell you a bit about We the Curious?

Kelly Ballard 04:04
Please do. I’d really like you to do that. Thanks.

Donna Speed Grenfell 04:07
So we are an educational charity. And we are based on the harbour side of Bristol which is a really gorgeous location. And yeah, we’re a venue, and an experience connecting people with science. And science is really creative and messy and constantly evolving, so it needs people and it needs input so we’re a place to get involved, have a play, connect with ideas and you can ask loads of questions. We’ve actually got a new exhibition built on the curiosity of Bristol which I know I probably shouldn’t be saying but it is fantastic.

Kelly Ballard
Of course!

Donna Speed Grenfell
We were a Millennium commission venue, so we opened 22 years ago and yeah, I was going to say we have been going strong but it has been a bumpy ride over the last couple of years.

Kelly Ballard 05:07
Sure. Oh, wow. So tell us a bit about how many staff you have working there. How big is it as an organisation?

Donna Speed Grenfell 05:13
So we have 120 staff members. In a normal year, we’d have about 300,000 visitors, and 70,000 of those are school visitors. We’ve got two floors full of experiences, interactive exhibits, and there’s a 3D planetarium, there’s studios, labs, it’s a really interesting place. There’s a box where they’ve got incredible art installations, at the moment it’s around ‘a better world is possible’. And within this new exhibition, the boxes can change so it’s really putting people right in the core of key issues in our lives, which is something that I didn’t really connect with when I was younger. So that makes me so proud of the fact that I’m part of something that makes a difference.

Kelly Ballard 06:15
Oh, wow, that’s interesting, because I’ve been there lots and lots of times for lots of different reasons. And I’ve now got two children who I started bringing there when they were four and five, and it was like a giant playground to them where they are pressing buttons and things like that. And, at that time, I remember thinking that I really wanted them to look at everything and learn about it all but they were just not interested in it. They would have a moment of wow, but then it was back to wanting to jump on things. But that’s how you introduce children to that. Now that they’re 10 and 11, we haven’t been in a while, but I’d really like to bring them back because I know that they’re at the age now where they can take it in as they are more curious now.

Donna Speed Grenfell 07:00
And it’s exactly that that it’s not that kind of thing where you need to come and learn. It’s just about what interests you, what questions you have got and I think that’s what’s so special about it. It’s not that they are necessarily going to walk out thinking of one specific thing that they have learnt about today, it’s much more about enriching that curiosity and getting people thinking about what matters to them, and what they’re passionate about or would like to explore more which all builds up over time. Someone can just come and have a right laugh and just play on a load of things go into space, press the buttons, look at some rainbows think about the soul, but then you might come back next time and think, I’ve actually got some questions that stayed with me and like to understand these things to next level and figure out how it all connects. So each time you come it gives you something very different.

Kelly Ballard 08:03
Yeah, you’re right. I’m thinking about your collaborations, because you’ve got an Aardman exhibition there, which is obviously a Bristol institution. And no doubt you have collaborations with other organisations. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Donna Speed Grenfell 08:18
Yeah, I mean we work really well with our partners across the city and beyond. I’ll pull out two key partners; we work with Creative Youth Network. Everything that we do now is a collaboration. It’s not just someone sitting in a workshop coming up with an exhibit and landing it on the floor, it’s come from a real need and from something that our visitors say that they would like to see more of and then getting them getting involved with how they can help create it and to test it. So it’s really collaborating with everyone across the city. But Creative Youth Network has been really, really good in helping us to develop that. And also Wessel, who helps to make sure that we’re inclusive and that everything we’re designing and developing works for everybody. So that’s been a real key development as well. We still work with Aardman, and we are excited to hear about their new films coming out. So yeah, we are collaborative across the city. I think we work with so many people, and we have got to do that in order to keep being relevant and to keep being an integral part of the city. It means you’ve got to be in contact and constant communication with your visitors and the people around you, your community of which are our key partners.

Kelly Ballard 09:52
That’s interesting to hear. So just thinking about you and how you got to where you are today with your amazing job that you’ve got within the visitor economy. But could you tell me a little bit about your journey to where you are today?

Donna Speed Grenfell 10:13
Great question! I started at Alton Towers, where I joined for a summer job when I was 16. And I absolutely fell in love with a place, I stayed there for six years actually. When you’re part of an organisation that is where people have their best days, and to be somewhere where everyone is having a great time is really special. So, I stayed at Alton Towers, had great fun in that entertainment department and worked with the entertainment team with the shows and children’s venues, and at the hotel and the kids club and all those types of things, and I just loved it was great fun. And then came here for that same reason as a venue, my first role here was Visitor Services Assistant Manager, back in 2000. As I said earlier, I really did join because I wanted to be part of the public’s great experiences as well as the school trip element of it, but didn’t quite expect the mission to hit me in the face and change my life. So then I couldn’t really leave because it’s hard to leave somewhere that you fall in love with and I fell in love with the real purpose of We the Curious.

Kelly Ballard 11:43
What were you doing then Donna, when you first joined?

Donna Speed Grenfell 11:46
So I was the Assistant Visitor service manager. So really looking after the Visitor Services teams, the front-of-house teams is what we called it at the time. We were there to help facilitate the experiences get people inspired by science and present the shows. And then over time, I’ve worked with different departments and got interested in exciting things like health and safety, because someone’s got to do it. I also got involved in other areas like marketing and the whole business strategy, finding out why we’re here, what we’re doing and what’s our purpose within We the Curious? What’s the best we can do to get to where we want to be? So over time, my brief has changed and developed until taking on the chief exec role, which is just absolutely brilliant, Even despite the challenges, it’s just an incredible role. And I feel very grateful to do it.

Kelly Ballard 12:52
And you’re very deserving of it with all of your experience, and knowing you as I do, I think that you’re the perfect person to lead an organisation like that, and those collaborations that you talk about you’re just great to be in that role. Because you need to do a lot of that work and it’s all about about working with people and also leading people.

Donna Speed Grenfell 13:12
And I think actually, maybe a Chief exec hack, but it is just about enabling people to be brilliant. That is it. The people who work here, Kelly, oh my goodness, they’re so wonderful. They really want to deliver the mission, they are invested, they care, and they work so hard. Actually, one of the big issues I have is making sure that they don’t do too much work or burnout because that is a risk and we’ve had to cut people’s hours. We’ve reduced days to survive over these past few years, but that doesn’t stop people from putting everything in.

Kelly Ballard 14:02
Where do you think that comes from Donna? What do you think the key ingredient is that it has always been like that with people’s passion and that kind of dedication?

Donna Speed Grenfell 14:14
I think the more that you get clarity on why you’re there and the real purpose of the organisation, the more that people are able to connect with it, the closer you get to that. And the more passion you’re going to see. But I have to say it really has been the case for the past 20 years that this type of organisation does attract really great people. And that makes the organisation great. So it’s just a really lovely economy of working through to where you’re trying to get to and supporting the people getting you there.

Kelly Ballard 14:52
I love that. That’s great. So, just considering the visitor economy, you mentioned it before. And I thought that was lovely. You said that you’re part of people’s best days. What do you love about working in the visitor economy?

Donna Speed Grenfell 15:07
Oh, I really do love it. I think it can be really tough as well. But it is really joyous. And it’s around those fresh interactions, meeting people for the first time and people coming to have a good time. No one comes to We the Curious saying “oh god I’m here”. So you are surrounded by people who want to have a great experience. So you know that anytime we’re having a tough day, you just need to walk on the floor, where you can see what’s happening, and see visitors having a great time chatting to me. I just feel quite honoured actually to be part of that. Yeah, it’s great. I think it’s a really brilliant sector, obviously. But, as you just repeated, the people here visiting are having the best days. That’s what the whole thing is about, it’s facilitating people, connecting and having experiences that matter. And so that just feels like a brilliant thing to be part of.

Kelly Ballard 16:25
That’s great. And, conversely, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges that you have working in the visitor economy?

Donna Speed Grenfell 16:33
I think that’s been really tested in these past two years. And, of course, everyone has been but talking about our venue, and we fell between support practice and the government, So we were not quite recognised. Sight centres like us aren’t quite recognised as part of the bigger groupings of things like museums or attractions, we fell in the middle. So that has been a challenge, recognising that we’re still a very new sector within the larger sector. I think that conversely, that also gave us a bit of teeth around the situation and allowed us to think “No, we matter”, because we’re part of the community. And we’re essential. And more than anything, we’re all scientists, we’re all doing our natural flows. nodding at Chris witty. So for me personally, and for our organisation, I think that the need for us has been exacerbated over these past two years, people really do need to connect with what’s going on and we have sites that can help with that. And the challenge has been that because we are an in-person venue, when we closed we stopped all income, and we’re an educational charity, we lost 3.4 million pounds, and we didn’t really have anywhere to go to ask for help. That was quite a moment.

Kelly Ballard 18:21
Especially for somebody new in their job! Thank God, you’ve been there for a long time, wow.

Donna Speed Grenfell 18:27
Yeah and actually, thank God for a great board and for a great network of other venues who were really supportive in sharing what was going on with them as well, and a great team and great visitors too. There was another thing as well, where we got kicked off of our Twitter account, the week that we went into lockdown which was a mistake with Twitter. So we lost 20,000 followers at the point that we needed to be communicating how we were going to be there for our visitors whilst we were not able to open a venue. So that was really tough.

Kelly Ballard 19:12
Can I ask what happened?

Donna Speed Grenfell 19:14
You can ask what happened. So because we changed our name, some mechanism on Twitter thought we were four years old, and so it just kicked us off. And we were trying to get it back again or at least get the details around our previous followers, so we could reconnect. But of course, everyone was in a furlough. Everyone’s on furlough, including Twitter employees. So we were just at the mercy of this mechanism and were like, oh, there’s nothing we can do now. So sadly, we did lose 20,000 followers and we haven’t regained them because of our priority, rebuilding. But it all takes time. So that at the time when we want to be reaching out and being really clear on what our priorities are and what we’re going to be doing. That made it a bit more tough. But yeah, it was really a bumpy ride. But we have, we have been supported with fundraising, and we did have an incredible exhibition to open. It was later than we would have liked it to be open, but we opened in May, and it is really brilliant. And because it’s been built with the community, it’s really relevant. And we have got some incredible questions in there. So it’s based on the questions of Bristol, of which one is “Why do rainbows make people happy?” So, if you think about how rainbows were a part of the lockdown, the same with one of the questions is, “Will we ever have a time when we can prevent being ill?” The way that the visitors have asked questions is beautiful. And again, it gives us an opportunity to really deep dive into virology and the whole experience we’ve had over the past two years. It’s been explored in this one constellation of exhibits.

Kelly Ballard 21:18
So who answers that question Donna because there’s a scientific answer to all of this. So how many scientists do you have working for you that are relevant to these questions? Because obviously, there are nuances of study.

Donna Speed Grenfell 21:33
What’s really great about all these questions is that they’re multidisciplinary. So they approach from very different perspectives. And of course, we have people who have been drawn to work with us, because they’re scientists, and so we have people who are very well-placed to answer those questions. But actually, we try to open it so that visitors bring their own perspective to add to that body of knowledge. We also work with the universities, we have an open city lab. So we have a part of the exhibition in which we work with researchers, not only to get feedback on research but to help shape it. So our visitors are shaping research, which then impacts policy.

Kelly Ballard 22:22
That is interesting, I was wondering how all of that worked.

Donna Speed Grenfell 22:25
Yes, so the shift is putting people in science rather than at science. So I’ll give you an example of one of the questions that came up that I don’t think any science centre would have chosen to ask this question. And the question is, can science see your soul? Which brings in belief systems. And it is a really, really fascinating, quick question. It’s what people want to know. So how we approach that is, again, from very different perspectives, but it really gets people to think about “Do I have a soul”, and “If so, where am I?” So there are lots of ways to unpack it, which has been incredible to see people engage with it and connect it with other questions as well. It’s really fascinating. But it’s definitely from a multi-disciplinary approach, rather than just, here’s a question. Here’s the answer. So yeah, It was really great. And it means that it just leads to further questions. So again, really around curiosity rather than, Here’s a question, I need to know the answer to this. I remember being in school, I don’t know i was sitting with you Kelly. But I found science really hard and not for me at all, I didn’t know any of the answers. And you only put your hand up when you know the answer, so I just felt like I needed to keep my head down, and not engage with it because I was worried about getting it wrong. And that is what our approach to our exhibition and to our whole ethos is about, there are no stupid questions, you can if science can see your soul. The visitor who asked that was five. A PhD student could also ask that question. So it’s quite a leveller.

Kelly Ballard 24:44
I’d like to come in and say that that’s amazing. Can I ask? I just want to take us back to the last two years and what has happened with We the Curious because, at the time of the pandemic, I was working in a rural, rural destination, so it was a very different picture in a rural place in comparison to a city like Bristol. I mean, how has it been for you, because The rural community is just an absolutely flooded organisation where you saw record visitor numbers when they could open up and it caused a real challenge in some places in terms of visitor management. I guess you had the opposite.

Donna Speed Grenfell 25:24
Exactly that. Well, to be honest, people aren’t really interested in visiting. So yes, it was the opposite, because we couldn’t open in the way that visitor attractions could. Then we had to really reduce the capacity and put in quite a lot of new systems to make sure that people felt safe. And, as an interactive venue it was a challenging thing to relaunch, but making sure that it was done really, really safely and that we were really holding our visitors as a priority and our staff as a priority. So we still kept limiting our capacity in everything. And we had extra cleaning, we had to restructure, so we had to lose nearly a third of our salary bill, which was heartbreaking, because actually, those people were working so hard, stopped working for us, because we couldn’t afford them and the work is there, you know. And so that was really tough. I mean, how they navigated it was with absolute grace, professionalism and kindness, and I will forever be grateful for all the staff that went through that really challenging time and did it so beautifully. It was incredible. When we could open, we had to be really cautious. We are still being cautious. We’re still asking people to wear masks, we’ve still got all the extra cleaning in place. There are a couple of exhibits that aren’t on the floor because we are making sure that we’ve got space available. But we’re still in recovery even now that we’re starting to rebuild. But it will take a while because we are having to reduce capacity to make sure that everybody is safe.

Kelly Ballard 27:37
Sure. Just thinking about the future and the pandemic. I know, there were some exciting plans to put things on the roof. What was happening with that, and what was it called?

Donna Speed Grenfell 27:49
So that is called Arc Bristol. So we’re hoping that that can still happen. Obviously, the world’s shifted quite significantly, hasn’t it, but we’re literally just planning at the moment. We are going to an away day with our board next week, so we’re still ambitious. We believe very passionately in our mission and in our purpose. So we’ll always have exciting plans for the next thing. I mean, there’s loads that I want to do. And there’s loads that all the team wants to do here. And the opportunities are endless because of the type of space we hold in terms of curating what keeps you curious because that’s constantly evolving. But yeah, there’s exciting stuff coming and the ambition hasn’t changed. I think that’s really important. We’ve still got eyes on the future. What we’re here to do as an educational charity is for the community. So yeah, we haven’t taken our foot off that at all, we just need to make sure we’ve got the resources to do that effectively and still be resilient and make sure that we’re here for future generations. We’re in a recovery and rebuilding stage for this year.

Kelly Ballard 29:18
So just for those people who don’t know what arc is, can you just give a little explanation?

Donna Speed Grenfell 29:24
It is a viewing platform. But it’s designed in such a beautiful way. I’m not going to do this justice at all. But it’s on like a really solid arm, which would actually be from Millennium Square. So from our public space. It tucks over our building and there’s this black glass pod that is picked up with this kind of Chrome arm and then just glides across Millennium Square, and shows you Bristol and goes up sixty-nine metres. So it’s an incredible view, I think the experience is about 20 minutes. And the pod itself can hold 40 people. But it is quite a pricey thing to do. And so we’re still looking at what’s possible and when that’s where we are at the moment. But that’s the level of ambition.

Kelly Ballard 30:28
Oh, that’s good. Well, I wish you all the best with that and look forward to whatever comes out of your board. Donna, what would you say to your younger self about where you’ve got today? And what advice would you give yourself coming into the visitor economy?

Donna Speed Grenfell 30:49
That is a really good question. I think I would, it kind of goes back to being part of a sector where people are on their best days, I would go back and remind myself that people are good. And the people around you want you to do well. And so when imposter syndrome starts chipping away at you, other people don’t think that. And actually, you don’t know that until you’re a bit later on later in your career. And it gets demonstrated. But it’s never changed. People want you to do well like you want people to do well. So I would go back and say to my younger self, to really believe in yourself in the way that those people around you do. And, yeah, just do what you love. And that you can do it.

Kelly Ballard 31:52
Yeah. Oh, that’s fantastic. Well, thanks, Donna. So where can our listeners connect with you?

Donna Speed Grenfell 32:00
They can connect with me. Let me try and think now we’ve so in teams of We the Curious. And please follow us on Twitter, we are @wethecurious_ And on Insta, we are And then for me, personally, I’m on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, I’m at @speed_donna and on Instagram @donnapeedG.

Kelly Ballard 32:30
Brilliant. I will put all of these things in the show notes that you feel are relevant, because I appreciate that, you might not want the world to be contacting you all the time. But you absolutely want them to be following you on the channel. Yeah, well, thank you. I really appreciate your time today. And it’s been so nice to speak to you. And it’s so interesting to hear you say about impostor syndrome because you are the sunniest, happiest, most inspirational person, I’m so surprised that you suffer from that. But I think it’s a human trait.

Donna Speed Grenfell 33:02
I think that you know, we all do in some respects, but I think it’s you know, for me, personally, I got a double E in science and I went to a Science Centre. That’s maybe where it comes from, but no one’s ever made me feel that way. So it’s just myself. So yeah, I think that’s the thing. People around you are supportive and good.

Kelly Ballard 33:26
That is so amazing to know that you’ve come from there to there. You know, you that’s just so good. Well done, well done you.

Donna Speed Grenfell 33:33
Thanks, Donna. Pleasure.

Kelly Ballard 33:39
Thank you for joining us this week on Elves of the Visitor Economy. Brought to you today by myself, Kelly Ballard and Ally Hadley. We are one big community of people working hard behind the scenes to attract and delight visitors from local residents to travellers from around the world. It’s such a great industry to work in. Make sure you hit that subscribe button to hear future conversations. If you want to tell us your thoughts on today’s topic, or you’re looking for some help or advice around this subject, hop on over to LinkedIn or Instagram and type in elves and the visitor economy. Please come and join our community. Let’s help each other. Be sure to tune in in two weeks for our next episode.

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