State Parks officials hope to host as many or more Hearst Castle visitors this summer while cutting the number of tour guides.
The guided portion of tours will be shorter, but visitors will then have the chance for a do-it-yourself walkabout of the hilltop terraces, gardens and pool area, starting June 27.
According to Nick Franco, superintendent of the State Parks district stretching from Oceano to Limekiln in Big Sur, the 11 parks in that area have had to cut their budget by $2.2 million over the past two years. With additional cuts of an unknown amount expected for the fiscal year starting July 1, Franco and his management team have been trying to figure out how to reduce costs without affecting revenue or the number of tours at the late publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst’s former estate.
Franco said there are now only about 55 guides on staff. In the past, there have been as many as 120, and at least 70 to 80 guides were needed to run a “normal” summer schedule.
“Rather than simply reducing the tour inventory in order to save money,” Franco said, “we asked our staff to develop a way to accommodate the summer visitor demand by using about half the staff we normally have.”
Last summer, it took about 42 guides per day to provide tours; this year, the Castle is expected to average 28 guides per day.
Guide supervisors came up with the revised tour plan, which Franco, Museum Director Hoyt Fields and others then refined.
Last July 4, 3,200 tour tickets were sold, Fields said.
“This Independence Day, we’ll be able to accommodate 3,744,” he said.
While potentially taking in more money for admission, the Castle stands to save about $150,000 in its payroll for guides — but it will have to spend about $50,000 in additional security costs, for a net savings of around $100,000, Franco said.
Despite the grim economy, high cost of gasoline and closure of Highway 1 between Cambria and Big Sur, attendance at Hearst Castle is up.
With less than two months to go before the current fiscal year ends June 30, year-to-date attendance has increased more than 2 percent. It’s been two years since the Castle ended up with a net increase; 2007-08 attendance was up 1 percent from the prior year, but it declined 4 percent in 2008-09 and 3 percent in 2009-10.
Since 2001, attendance has been down six years and up two. In 2001-02, there were 839,858 tickets sold; in 2009-10, 625,635.
Fiscal crunches aside, it may have been time for a change anyway. According to Franco, the present Tour 1 takes essentially the same route offered in 1958, when the Castle opened to the public. Franco estimated itineraries for tours 2 and 3 are at least 20 years old.
Current guided tours are about 75 minutes long with no unstructured time outside.
The new tours are hybrids of tours offered for decades and the self-guided Gardens and Vistas tours offered during early evening hours last summer, which proved quite popular, Franco said.
On each of the three new tours, a guide leads a group through indoor areas for about 45 minutes. Then visitors will be allowed to wander through the garden, walkways and pool areas. Some guides will be outside to answer questions, provide history, statistics and anecdotes, and offer help to anyone who needs it. Everybody must leave the hilltop by 7 p.m.
Visitors wishing to buy tickets for additional tours will be able to do so right there on the hilltop, without having to get back on the bus, go down the hill, buy the tickets and ride the bus back up, as is now the case. Guests conceivably could take all three tours in one day.
For now, the new tour program is set to end Sept. 6, but fiscal realists at State Parks acknowledge that, with the potential savings from having fewer guides to pay, the changes may be permanent.