Black Country Living Museum chief looks ahead to reopening
"Without our visitors we are nothing really" - those are the words of Andrew Lovett, chief executive of the Black Country Living Museum, as staff get ready to open their doors to visitors once again after four months.
The museum, based off Tipton Road, Dudley, was forced to close its doors on March 18 due to the coronavirus crisis. During that period of closure, bosses at the museum would have expected to welcome around 150,000 visitors through the gates – and have faced losing more than £3 million of income.
The majority of staff were furloughed, expansion plans put on hold and they were left counting down the days to see when they could reopen one of the region's most iconic and much-loved attractions once again. The museum has also been forced to cancel a number of popular events, including their Peaky Blinders Nights in September.
It was announced earlier this month that the museum would receive £1.175 million of financial support from Arts Council England's Emergency Response Fund.
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The Black Country Living Museum will officially reopen on Saturday, August 1. Some changes have been implemented to adhere to social distancing, but as a largely outdoor site, Mr Lovett hopes the experience won't change too much.
The underground mine experience will have to remain closed for the time-being, but bosses hope to open as many cottages and shops – including the famous fish and chip shop – as possible. Costumed characters will instead be on the streets of the site, telling stories of the history of the Black Country. Zones will be created around the sites to try to break up the flow of visitors.
But Mr Lovett is encouraging visitors to come back to the museum to visit, in a hope to boost the chances of the attraction surviving through what he says will be "difficult period" for many such operations.
Mr Lovett said: "It has been four months since we closed on March 18 and it has been a very difficult period. Around 94 per cent of our income comes from the visitor, so the day we closed that income just dried up completely. So that has meant we expect by the time we reopen on August 1, we will have lost a bit over £3 million of income and we would have expected to, during the time of closure, welcomed about 150,000 visitors.
"So those numbers paint a very stark picture. We do look forward to reopening but what we don't really know is what the level of visitor attendance is going to be like, social distancing obviously weighs on the capacities we think we can safely handle. So those things limit the amount of income we can earn.
"Trying to gauge how the recovery of places like ourselves is going to pan out in the next few months is very, very difficult really. We are very aware for example that the furlough scheme is coming to an end at the end of October. If the recovery hasn't really got into its stride and matured, we will face some difficult decisions because we won't be able to carry the level of cost we have been able to do in the past."
Museums were given the green light to open earlier this month, but Mr Lovett said they delayed the reopening until August so they could prepare further.
He said: "The support from visitors and members has been exceptional. It has been one of the most heartening things from this. When we announced closure back in March, we had an awful lot of traffic through social media channels saying how sorry they were that we had closed. Then a kind of understanding from visitors that we are reliant on them to be able to survive very largely. We received a great outpouring of support.
"Without our visitors we are nothing really. I would say one of the highlights of the period is the support we have had from visitors to know they value you us and want us to open as quickly as possible.
"We decided to wait till August to reopen because preparation needed to be done, that was the main thing. Museums could open from July 4, and I think you are seeing a staged opening of lots of museums, lots of the nationals are opening in August. But for us it really was preparation time I think, to allow us to do that properly and to communicate with the staff how we were going to do it. It was also to give a decent run up of time for people, the public, to know that is when we are reopening.
"The thing for us though we need to keep an eye on the level of visitor attendance and it will match the number of staff we need – so we are taking people we need slowly off furlough to be able to prep for the site coming back and once we reopen.
"We have to make sure it is financially viable for us, that's the great issue for us. I notice that a lot of attractions, museums and businesses that is their biggest dilemma, although they might be able to open can they afford to open? So we hope people will buy tickets – importantly if they do buy tickets or book a slot that they do turn up. That would be the biggest help that people could give us."
Mr Lovett added: "But until this happened [coronavirus] we have seen six years of continuous growth in attendance. Last year was 360,000 visitors. I would say if we could achieve 300,000 next year it would be a result – but it may be less than that and if that is the forecast then we will have to cut our cloth to be able to afford and survive on the reduced level of attendance.
"We will be looking for further funding from the taxpayer and Government to survive, we will take every opportunity and that will be equally as important to help us survive alongside how the market recovers in the months ahead. Like or all attractions, it will be a difficult period really.
"I would just like to express my thanks for people's support – I means a huge amount to us to see the supportive messages. It means a lot to me personally and to all the staff that work here. We look forward with relish to welcoming people back on August 1 and to physically see their support will be great to see.
"It will be lovely to see visitors again because they bring the energy and life to the place."