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West Midland tourist attractions fighting for survival once again

Directors of attractions across the West Midlands today spoke of their frustration as they face the ongoing challenge of surviving the latest lockdown.

Andrew Lovett, chief executive of the Black Country Living Museum
Andrew Lovett, chief executive of the Black Country Living Museum

But they also said they were optimistic for the future as they look to better days ahead, with hopes of opening up in time for the spring and summer.

Current lockdown rules has meant the closure of zoos and other tourist attractions.

But with animals to feed and maintenance to carry out, it doesn’t mean they can simply shut up and mothball until the coronavirus crisis eases.

Chris Kelly, managing director of West Midland Safari Park, said the latest closure had brought dismay and disappointment.

But he said he expected there to be a great demand from the public to get back out and enjoy the park once they are able.

He said: “We entered 2021 with hope for a much brighter and prosperous year, following what has been an extremely tough time for everyone during this global crisis. So it was with a very heavy heart that we announced a third temporary closure of the park.

“The disruption we faced from a second national lockdown in November resulted in us having to forfeit our much-loved Christmas experience, which was felt deeply by us here.

“To now go through another closure that could this time affect our highly anticipated Safari Lodges launch, is undoubtedly a huge blow to us all. We rely on the public visiting our park to help us maintain the high levels of care for the precious animals we have here and the conservation work we are committed to.

“As ever, we must do what it takes to beat this virus and to keep everyone safe.

“We would like to thank our guests and the public for their unwavering support during this tumultuous time.

Feeding time at West Mids Safari Park. Laura McGeachan with Asian Rhino Sunny.

“We are very much forward to welcoming them back through our doors as soon as we can.”

Guests with pre-booked tickets will be reimbursed in the coming days and annual pass holders will have their passes extended by the amount of time the park is closed.

The park’s long-awaited Safari Lodges launch, which will allow visitors to plan overnight stays, was scheduled for February but is now under review.

Derek Grove, director of Dudley Zoo, said: “It is pretty grim and we will make use of the furlough scheme but the majority of staff deliver animal care.”

He estimated the zoo will lose £200,000 in January alone based on last year’s figures. But he also said that things were well set up to ensure supplies of food for the animals as the zoo tends to deal with local businesses.

He said: “The animals do like visitors. They are used to visitors around.”

Despite being well organised the zoo faces costs of £250,000 plus.

Dudley Zoo director Derek Grove

He said: “We will survive as over the last few years we have had a master plan for development and planning permission to extend the tiger exhibit and others for the bears and orangutans. We have been living off the reserves that needed to have gone to development. The aim is to still do it this year.”

He is now waiting to hear if the zoo will benefit from money from a Defra Zoo Fund.

Mr Grove added: “It is tight for us but I am confident we will come out of this and carry on.”

Andrew Lovett, chief executive of the Black Country Living Museum, said: “We are working through the implications of the new national restrictions on our 2021 programme.

“We are fortunate to receive support from both Arts Council England and the Government in 2020 but a further period of closure and the associated loss of visitor income will pose a financial challenge for us as an independent museum.

“The continued support of our community remains vital to us, so we won’t stay closed to visitors for any longer than is absolutely necessary.

“In the meantime while restrictions on physical attendance remain in place we’re looking at ways we can still serve our community and engage our audiences – including schools -participation through digital experiences.”

Maggie Appleton, chief executive officer for RAF Cosford, and president of the Museums Association, admits it has been a “tricky nine months”.

RAF Museum Cosford CEO Maggie Appleton

She said: “The amount we have lost in income is massive, and that’s not going to come back. But we’re lucky in our sector that we’ve got such supportive people around, sharing information and expertise, just making you feel like you’re not alone.”

For RAF Cosford, 2020 was expected to be a big year, with major plans to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain all prepared. They had to be cancelled, and it was a major blow.

“We had a huge programme of events and activities planned for the whole year. We were also planning on going out and really engaging with people in the local area. It was heartbreaking for our team because they worked so hard on the programme and were really looking forward to it.”

It has largely been a year of hardship, but the chief executive prefers to take a positive view. She said the museum’s online engagement has gone “through the roof” during the pandemic, giving the museum another strong platform to connect with the public and tell the stories of war heroes of yesteryear.

“We’ve been looking at how we can support people during the last two lockdowns,” she added. “We’ve got online sessions that we are offering to schools. We are all going to be part of a really positive recovery.

“A big part of it for us is looking after our 240 paid staff over the two sites. We’ve used the furlough scheme and we’ve been managing our budgets.

“I don’t want to underestimate at all the fact that some are worried about their long term future, and it’s not over yet. It’s about understanding what everyone has been through and really managing where we are. It’s all about recovery.”

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