Students at Oxford Brookes partner with Oxford Castle & Prison to pitch new ‘Dark Tourism’ ideas

Oxford Brookes Business School students taking part in the presentation day
Students pitch their idea for the Dark Tourism attraction to representatives from Oxford Castle & Prison

Students at Oxford Brookes University have partnered with Oxford Castle & Prison to plan and design a new dark tourism experience, to immerse guests in the chilling history of the 1,000 year old venue.

For their final assessment on the ‘Dark Tourism’ module at Oxford Brookes Business School, postgraduate students received a client brief by Oxford Castle & Prison to come up with ideas for a new attraction for visitors, with the hope that one or more of their ideas can be adopted for real.

The students were asked to develop a new experience that fits within the historical timeframe of the venue, and were given a strict budget to work within. Students also had to consider the materials and equipment needed to deliver their attraction ideas, such as props, costumes and technology, as well as considering aspects like staffing levels, risk assessments and promotional activity to attract visitors.

The students, divided into small groups, then pitched their ideas to representatives from Oxford Castle & Prison at a presentation day on the University’s Headington Campus on Thursday 2 May, which was followed by feedback from the panel members. The venue will consider in due course  whether they wish to adopt one of the ideas presented. 

Dark Tourism comprises members of the public visiting real or recreated places that are associated historically with death, suffering or tragedy. Other examples in the UK of Dark Tourism venues include the Tower of London,  where over 100 executions took place, and St Leonard’s Ossuary in Kent, which is a crypt underneath a mediaeval church that contains preserved skulls and bones.

Current attractions at Oxford Castle & Prison include private tours of the 1,000 year-old venue by a guide dressed in historical costume, where guests can climb the 101 steps of St George’s Tower for a view across Oxford, as well as heading underground to see a candle-lit crypt and prison cells. Guests can also take part in a ‘jail break’ type event, where they attempt to solve puzzles to escape a jail cell, participate in ‘Murder Mystery’ themed evenings, and take ghost tours of Oxford. 

Dr Brianna Wyatt, Senior Lecturer in Tourism and Events Management and the Dark Tourism module leader approached Oxford Castle & Prison to enquire whether they would be interested in supporting the assessment. It was from there that the students  received the client brief. 

Dr Wyatt said: “This assessment is valuable because the students not only have the chance to apply their learning, but they are able to make industry impacts. Although it is not confirmed yet if any of the ideas will be implemented, each group had the opportunity to gain specific feedback from staff at Oxford Castle & Prison, and follow-up about their ideas. 

“This is incredibly helpful for the students in understanding what industry is looking for and needs in the current experience economy, and particularly for those students wanting to create visitor experiences for visitor attractions after they graduate.  Beyond this, the students have developed skills to create experience ideas, assessing the unique selling proposition (USP) and competitive advantage, costing up an experience and determining a budget, conducting risk assessments, and creating a marketing plan - all skills that will enhance the future employability of these hospitality, tourism and events management students. 

“The partnership between Oxford Brookes and Oxford Castle & Prison is a great one. The students' feedback has shown that they have enjoyed this module and this assessment in particular, noting the flexibility, creativity and ownership they’ve been given over their learning experience. While the Dark Tourism module is only in its second year, I have already discussed next year’s cohort with Oxford Castle & Prison and we are now in discussion about what they’d like to see from them.”

The Dark Tourism module is an elective module available to postgraduate students studying Hospitality, Tourism and Events Management courses, and the planning, work and presentations count towards their degrees. 

Kesia Middlemore, Operations Duty Manager at Oxford Prison & Castle attended the day of presentations at the University campus. Following the presentations, Kesia said: “We were very impressed by the students' application and hard work that they have shown in presenting their ideas for brand new dark tourism attractions for us to consider. 

“They presented a range of interesting and innovative ideas, all while proving that they could work within the strict budget constraints that we set. We are very thankful to them for their efforts, and to Brianna Wyatt for helping us to organise this partnership. We will now review the ideas that were given to us and consider whether we will adopt any of them as a real life experience at Oxford Castle & Prison.”

Manasa Kambhampati, an Msc International Tourism, Events and Hospitality Management student who took part in the assignment, said: “This assignment really brought me out of my comfort zone, and put me into an environment that I had not experienced before. However, the chance to plan and design our own idea for a dark tourism attraction, and then pitch it to a real life client has been a worthwhile experience.”