Making the most of being online

Show notes (summary)

Love it or hate it, we all now very much depend on being online. But are our village, church and community halls making enough of their websites? Our guest for this episode, Mark Harris, Chair of Bowerhill Village Hall, explains how being online has attracted those in their community and beyond, and talks about a recent website makeover that’s taking them to the next level.

Transcript: Season 2 / Episode 3

Johnny Thomson 00:00
Hello everyone and welcome to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK’s largest specialist provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. Now, what would we all do without the Internet? Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that it’s taken over so many aspects of our lives. And all kinds of bodies, including village halls, now very much depend on being online. But are our community buildings making enough of this digital world, especially when it comes to their websites? I mean, let’s face it, a simple ‘about us’ web page just doesn’t really cut the mustard anymore, especially with the youngsters. Today, I’m joined by Mark Harris, who like me can’t really claim to be a youngster, and who is Chair of Bowerhill Village Hall, which is not too far from Bath. Like most, they’ve been on a bit of a journey with their website and have learned a few lessons along the way. Mark’s kindly agreed to come on the show and talk about it all with me. Hi, Mark. How’s things in sunny Wiltshire?

Mark Harris 01:05
Hi Johnny. Well, it’s not very sunny here at the moment. Very grey and overcast and not very warm.

Johnny Thomson 01:14
Yeah, which is right for this time of year, of course anyway. Now before we start chatting about your website, tell me a bit about Bowerhill Matk and why you became involved with the village hall there?

Mark Harris 01:26
Yeah, sure. Well, Bowerhill is a village on the outskirts of Melksham, which as you’ve said, is not that far from Bath. Melksham is a small market town in West Wiltshire, which developed from the site of RAF Melksham. Now, when you say RAF Melksham, lots of people think, oh, must be an airfield. No, it wasn’t. It was Number 12 School of Technical Training where lots of guys came from 1940. It was built during the war and remained open until 1965. And it was purely a technical training school for various trades to do with people who worked on aircraft. Radios, radar engines, all that sort of stuff. When the site closed, some of the larger buildings were converted to industrial use, and are still in use today. And then from about 1970 onwards, the rest of the site began to be developed for residential use. So the area has expanded considerably, especially in recent years, and is now much larger than it was 20 years ago, when I first moved here. A new primary school was built to cater for the expanding residential area and that opened in 1991. And then very soon after a village hall was built within the school grounds, although it is a separate entity. The local residents campaigned and raised funds and got the agreement of Wiltshire Council that they could build the hall in the school grounds. And it’s run very successfully since then. However, in 2015, I saw an article in our local paper saying that the hall would close if more volunteers didn’t come forward to run it. And I thought, that’s not good, I don’t want that to happen. I only live literally three minutes walk from the village hall. I’d never used it up to that point, but I thought I’d go along to the next meeting, see if I can do anything, you know, be useful to them. And I did that and was welcomed with open arms. So I joined the committee and almost immediately because of my background and technical expertise, was asked to investigate how we could get broadband WiFi into the hall. And also a multimedia audio visual system, because we had a customer who was interested in using the hall for presentations and seminars and stuff like that. So I did both of those things, took quite a length of time, about 18 months all together. So yeah, that’s it really, in a nutshell, how the hall came about and how I got to be involved with it.

Johnny Thomson 04:27
And things are going pretty well. I understand Mark, with a hall been pretty busy since since things opened up more, yeah?

Mark Harris 04:36
Yes. But yeah, from September onwards, most of our regular users have come back now. And then from 1st October, the decision was taken to open up again to private parties, which was something we hadn’t allowed up until that point. And my bookings inbox just went berserk.

Johnny Thomson 05:04
And as I mentioned in my introduction, having an effective website is an important part of any successful modern day village hall. Give me a bit of background Mark as to how your halls web presence has developed over the years.

Mark Harris 05:21
So around about the same time that I joined the committee, a friend of mine who ran his own IT consultancy, asked if the village hall had a website. And I said no. So he offered to build us one free of charge, in return for use of the hall was a pop up studio for his photography hobby. And that was fine. He built a website. Basically, it was more a booking system with a few pages of information about the hall attached. But the booking system side of it works a treat. Our bookings have increased exponentially, and I’m well aware of how that word should be used. Our bookings since 2016, was our first full year of using the online booking facility through the website. And from 2016 to 2020 our bookings went up 60%. So that made a huge difference, just having an online presence. At the same time that we went online, we did away with the telephone number, we no longer have a published telephone number for the hall because we felt having one person tied to a telephone number for dealing with bookings wasn’t fair on that person. The person that was doing it before was quite happy to do that, but the person that took it on afterwards wasn’t. So it’s all done by email and going forward, which we’ll talk about later, by other means, as well.

Johnny Thomson 07:03
And I mentioned earlier how just having that ‘about us’ page is not really enough these days. And you’re, of course, alluding to that with what you mentioned about bookings. People are looking to interact and take action online now, not just read bits of information, right?

Mark Harris 07:19
Yes, our first website was functional and it did the job and it had a booking system, which worked well and was easy to use. But we just felt that things have moved on since then. I mean, that was six years ago now, since that was designed and built and went live. And it’s worked well. But people expect more nowadays.

Johnny Thomson 07:46
So with that in mind, you’ve updated your your site recently, yeah?

Mark Harris 07:50
Yeah, I took it upon myself to investigate what was available now. Because obviously, things have moved on in the internet and website world. So yeah, so I did a lot of research, and found a lot of online packages and web development sites and booking systems, online booking systems. And at first, I toyed with the idea of designing my own website or doing it myself. I’m fairly computer literate. But I very quickly discovered that that was beyond my capabilities. So I then looked around for a local web developer. And I found three, two of which were eliminated fairly quickly for varying reasons. The third one I found was very close to my home. So I actually went, walked down to their office and spoke to them. And they were so accommodating, and professional in their approach that I engaged them on the spot more or less. And, and they’ve done us proud, they really have.

Johnny Thomson 09:00
And that’s the thing isn’t it? Often I think it’s a case that, especially if you’re if you’re feeling a bit strapped for cash and so on, you feel automatically I can either do this myself, or I can beg, steal and borrow and somebody local can can help out with it. It’s often the case of getting it done properly isn’t it, is the best way?

Mark Harris 09:17
I think so. I mean, yes, initially, the website and the booking system that we had worked well did what it was intended to do. But people expect more now things have moved on. So yes, we now have a professionally built website, incorporating a professionally designed booking system, and I think it’s a major improvement, and most of the people I’v spoken to think so as well. So hopefully I’ve done the right thing.

Johnny Thomson 09:50
Tell me a little bit about how that booking system works.

Mark Harris 09:55
How it works? Okay, I did a lot of research, I looked at a lot of different systems that I found online. And the one I settled on in the end was Hallmaster. And the main reason I settled on that particular one was because I liked the layout of the calendar, in particular. You can view it in monthly, weekly daily or agenda view. The weekly view was the closest match to our existing system. So if you put the two side by side, they’re almost identical. And that was what I wanted, I wanted the same look for people coming to the website for the first time, not so much for our regular users, because they know what it looks like and what to expect. But for new people looking to book our hall. I particularly wanted something that was clean, clear, simple to read, and simple to use. So I settled on Hallmaster. They were offering a 90 day free trial period and I thought, well, I’ll give it a go and if it doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. And as it turned out, it proved to be fairly easy to do. The initial setup took me about four days, to transfer everything across from our existing system onto Hallmaster, that was just a few hours a day, obviously, not continuously. But once I got it all set up, and all the customers in on all the rooms, and the charges and all the other bits and pieces, I now find it second nature.It’s really easy to use. Some of our, I can see some of our customers might struggle with making bookings, but we can get around that. They can just tell me what they want, and I can put it on for them, so that’s not an issue. For the most part, the people that are booking private parties, and they’re the ones that are booking online, having looked at the website, shouldn’t have too much difficulty, because they tend to be in the younger age group. Whereas most of our regular users are in the older age groups, and may not be so capable, technically capable, because it is a little bit more involved.

Johnny Thomson 12:21
And really, there’s several benefits, isn’t there Mark, in keeping up to speed with your website? Aren’t there? I mean, apart from anything else, you can you can just attract a wider audience can’t you through your website?

Mark Harris 12:32
Yes, it’s been specifically designed to work on all devices. So smartphones, tablets, laptops, PCs, whatever people are using, once they’ve registered, they have to register to use the booking system. But to view the website, obviously, that is available to all. And yeah, I think it’s more the younger audience now are doing more and more things, particularly on smartphones, that that seems to be the way people you know things are going now. And yes, it works on any device.

Johnny Thomson 13:07
I think I think you’re right, I think our generation you mentioned, you know, that you don’t use the telephone number anymore. And that was our, that was our way wasn’t it, you know, if you if you thought on a whim, I’m going to go and do a class, or I’m going to you know, get myself involved in, in some club or something like that, you would you would just pick up the phone and find out more information that way and, and say, when can I come and so on with a with a real person. But it’s not like that now, the kind of the automatic place for people to go is they go to the smartphone, find a website, find that information themselves and then book something, using the buttons on their, on their phone, rather than a voice and interacting with a person. And I know that may seem strange, very strange to our generation. I think we all have to accept and I mean, I live in that world now, as well anyway, and I’m sure many of us do, despite the fact that we’re getting on a little bit. You know, it’s just way way more convenient to do it that way, isn’t it?

Mark Harris 14:07
Yes, everything’s online. And with a smartphone, of course, you can do the same as you can do on a tablet, laptop or PC, virtually. But yeah, for finding things,you have to be online. There’s no two ways about it now.

Johnny Thomson 14:23
Yeah, your latest website is terrific by the way. I love how it gets straight into ‘what’s on’, you know. It’s got that button there, which you can click on, which tells you what’s on and then there’s another button there for booking an event. So it’s really great stuff. It just gets straight to the point and straight to the reason, that an essence your customers, if you like, if I can use that word, are looking for.

Mark Harris 14:48
Yeah, absolutely. All the information is there at the click of a button like you say or the scroll of a page. And if you want to make a booking, you can do that very easily. So yes, it’s all there, all in one place. The other thing that we we managed to get incorporated was a link through Google Maps. So you see on quite a few websites now, usually at the bottom of the page. And indeed, that’s where ours is that there is a map, showing people where we are. And there is a link to get directions, which you can then download to your mobile device or wherever. So, you know, you can find all the information you need, you can book an event, and then you can get directions. And you can send that to other people as well through through various links. So it’s all there in one place, and can all be done online. It’s absolutely brilliant.

Johnny Thomson 15:45
So to kind of finish up Mark, what’s your advice to halls out there, given the kind of online journey that you’ve all been through there?

Mark Harris 15:54
Well, you need a website, first and foremost. It needs to be attractive, eye catching, because you don’t want people to look at the front page, the first bit they see and they think, ooh, I don’t like the look at that we’ll go elsewhere. So it needs to be eye catching. If you can incorporate your booking system into that website as well, that is a bonus. The Hallmaster system incorporates an invoicing module, so you can do all your invoicing through the booking system. There is also a way of incorporating your invoicing into your accounting package. And there is a facility for online payments via a particular online payment system, which I won’t mention by name, but which everybody knows about. So yeah, it’s all in one place. It’s all there.

Johnny Thomson 16:49
Yeah. And it’s just more efficient, isn’t it?

Mark Harris 16:51
Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. It’s terrific.

Johnny Thomson 16:55
And the website, by the way, that we’re talking about is We’ll put a link to your website with this episode Mark, for anyone who wants to take a look, along with a few of their other useful resources.

Mark Harris 17:12
Yeah, fantastic.

Johnny Thomson 17:13
And brilliant. Well, thanks, Mark. Really appreciate the insight. And hopefully that stirred a few thoughts amongst trustees and other halls out there and anyone else who wants to make the most out of being online.

Mark Harris 17:26
Thank you very much for having me on your show.

Johnny Thomson 17:29
No, it’s been great. Well, thanks for thanks for coming along. And thanks, as always, to our headline sponsor and specialist insurance provider AlliedWestminster, for making our podcast possible and who services you can discover more about at And online booking system provider Hallmaster deserve a further mention of course, not just for providing a great service to Bowerhilll and many other village halls, but for also kindly sponsoring this podcast as well. So you can find out more about Hallmaster by the way at You’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast, a unique listening community for Britain’s village, church and community halls and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. We’ll be back again soon with another episode. So if you haven’t already, please visit to subscribe, sign up for updates link through to our social media pages and to find out more. Until the next time. Goodbye for now.