Phil Winfield, Chief Executive, At-Bristol

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Director Vanessa Moon meets with Phil Winfield, Chief Executive of At-Bristol Science Centre. Phil tells us about inspiring the scientists of tomorrow, his future development plans and the challenge of balancing margin and mission.

The At-Bristol science centre is one of the most popular attractions in Bristol, a local landmark in the city centre that entertains and educates over 250,000 visitors per year. In a small office close to the attraction, I meet the centre’s enthusiastic CEO Phil Winfield. Phil took the top job in 2012 after ten years successfully running Winchester’s INTECH Science Centre and seven years on the board of the Association for Science and Discovery Centres

The mission of At-Bristol is to make science accessible to all by presenting it in a format that everyone can understand and to inspire the scientists of tomorrow. “Our business is to create a fun learning environment by using interactive exhibits: this has been at the core of the science centre movement for around 40 years”, says Phil. “We want children to touch and interact with the environment, to create an experience that is both fun and educational, that’s one of the best ways to get children to learn.”    

At-Bristol does a great deal of work with local schools, welcoming 60,000 school children every year from a catchment area of around 80 miles. I ask how the centre can keep children engaged: “We only have around three hours in a school visit, so our challenge is to make that time memorable enough to inspire pupils,” says Phil. “We have a workshop menu available, so we can tailor our content specifically to match the educational needs of students. We can put on specific shows for schools, and during major events such as British Science Week we will run major events in our conference centre for up to 400 visitors at a time.”

In order to inspire a lifetime interest in STEM subjects in such a short amount of time, Phil and his team have embraced advances in digital growth and developed the ‘Explore More’ project. This allows visitors to upload their interactions during a visit and retrieve that content by accessing it online when they get home, greatly increasing the impact of their visit. At-Bristol is also the largest UK science centre on YouTube, where they provide entertaining and educational content such as measuring the speed of light using a bar of chocolate.

At-Bristol’s target audience may be children and young people, but the bulk of centre visitors are families, so Phil is eager to point out that the centre caters for older visitors too. “The challenge is to create engaging content for all ages: we don’t want parents sitting in the corner bored while their kids enjoy themselves! We have even started holding adult only themed evenings, called ‘After Hours’,on Fridays once every 2 months which have been modelled on the success of the ‘Lates’ programme at the Science Museum. As an example, we recently held our ‘love & luck’ theme, with Neanderthal dating, chilli tasting and heart dissection.” 

An educational attraction such as At-Bristol constantly requires new material as new discoveries are made in science fields. I ask Phil how he keeps up to date: “We do a lot of horizon scanning”, he explains. “All of our staff have a deep interest in science so have their ‘fingers on the pulse’. We are very close to the two Bristol universities and are planning to work with the robotics lab in future.” 

It is the conflict between margin and mission that Phil identifies as his biggest challenge. “We need to provide a place for science education while keeping on top of our running costs”, he says. “If we didn’t charge people for entry, the centre would not be sustainable. We also carry out work for the community such as free entry for the most deprived areas of the city but this all costs money. We do some events that revolve more around margin (such as the ice rink over Christmas) that allow us to pay for our community work.” Phil’s team also work at science festivals and exhibitions across the globe, providing development opportunities for his staff and valuable revenue. 

So what are Phil’s future plans from At-Bristol? “We have a 5 year vision. We expect a 4% growth in visitor numbers year on year, which we are currently on track for delivering. We want to reach 100% of schools in the Bristol area and get 8,000 community visitors per year. We also want 100% of visitors to get staff contact in future: it is one of the most important factors in increasing visitor satisfaction and perception of value. Actual interaction between a visitor and one of our team has an enormous impact.” 

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One of At-Bristol’s major projects is the well-publicised renovation of the planetarium, which will turn it into the first digital 3D planetarium in the UK by the end of April. “The new planetarium has a number of functions not only as an engaging and inspirational centre for astronomy and cosmology but also a facility for excellent data visualisation. For example, in time, we will generate a 3D representation of the city on which you can put data relating to traffic, pollution or energy usage”, says Phil. “The Planetarium can also be used as a public venue for political or policy decisions where the data visualisation can be used to make more informed decisions. Private companies can also rent time for research product design or customer presentations. It also has many applications for the creative industries.”

Phil is a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic leader with a clear vision and realistic objectives for his business. He has set up an inclusive organisation with open lines of communication that encourages teamwork and the generation of new ideas at every level. I am sure that with Phil in charge, At-Bristol will prove invaluable for inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Moon Consulting are supporting At-Bristol in their mission to make science accessible to all by incorporating them into our 15th Anniversary CSR programme. We will be holding our fantastic anniversary party at the Planetarium, featuring a VIP guest speaker and 3D star show.

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