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Attractions 'hit hard' during coronavirus crisis as financial impact deepens

By Megan Archer | Features | Published:

There is uncertainty for attractions during the lockdown as running costs build up and fears over visitor numbers once restrictions are lifted.

Dudley Zoo and Castle is among the attractions feeling the pressure during the lockdown

West Midlands attractions are feeling the pressure as a lack of visitors leaves dozens of usually-bustling parks and zoos thousands of pounds out of pocket.

Three more weeks of lockdown have been confirmed by the Government, forcing well-known Black Country and Staffordshire attractions to keep their gates closed for longer.

But for some – three more weeks could have drastic impact on their recovery in the future.

While some venues have been able to shut their doors completely and furlough staff, many attractions do not have this option.

Dudley Zoo, West Midland Safari Park, and even the SeaLife centre at Alton Towers, still have to be on site daily to keep the thousands of animals warm, clean and well-fed – costing hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Dudley Zoo

Dudley Zoo has been hit hard financially by the coronavirus pandemic, its director has said.

Derek Grove said it was costing around £220,000 a month to continue to pay wages for the staff along with food and heat for around 1,600 animals, with income dropping severely due it being closed.

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Costs have been trimmed at the zoo, with 25 per cent of non-vital staff being furloughed – with the other 75 per cent needed to look after the animals.

It has led to bosses dipping into the reserve fund which is used to expand and improve exhibits – with projects potentially being postponed until next year, depending on when the zoo can re-open.

Dudley Zoo has kept keepers on to care for the animals while other staff have been furloughed

But despite the “huge” financial impact of coronavirus, Mr Grove said they had been “fortunate” that none of the staff or animals had become ill.

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Mr Grove said: “We closed down on March 23 and financially, that’s had a huge impact – we’ve lost the majority of our income and we’ve reduced costs where we can.

“But the main costs are still there – we’re maybe less fortunate than other attractions who can reduce their costs quite quickly, but we have to maintain them.

“The majority of our costs are food for the animals and heating as well.

“It’s really impacted us and we do realise it’s going to take a while to recover.

“But he most important thing is that all the staff are healthy and the animals are well – we’re incredibly fortunate.”

Stocks of food remain high at the zoo due to bosses preparing a month in advance of the lockdown by purchasing specialist items.

West Midland Safari Park

The closure of West Midland Safari Park has had a big impact on key projects and upgrades planned across the attraction.

Bosses at the park said it was a “difficult decision” closing the Bewdley park back in March but it was a move which was both “necessary and sensible.”

But projects ongoing – including the new luxury safari lodges – have had to be paused while the park has closed.

Staff have still be caring for animals at West Midland Safari Park during the lockdown

Darren Chorley, managing director of West Midland Safari Park said: “We took the hugely difficult decision to close the park on March 19 but it was a move which was both necessary and sensible to protect the health and wellbeing of our guests, staff and wildlife.

"Like the majority of businesses, it is undoubtedly a tough time but our whole team at the park have reacted superbly to what is a unprecedented situation.

“We have such a well-loved collection of wildlife here at the park and they have continued to receive the best care from our team of keepers who are sticking closely to social distancing guidance.

"The animals are doing really well and I am sure everyone will be pleased to hear that they have been enjoying the sunshine we’ve had in recent weeks.

“The closure of the park is only temporary but unfortunately it has had an impact on some key projects and upgrades we had planned.

Lions at West Midland Safari Park

"This includes the construction work of our new luxury lodges which has been paused for the time being.

"Moving the project forward will become a priority once we reopen.

“More than anything, we look forward to welcoming back our guests once we feel it is safe to do so.”

Severn Valley Railway

Severn Valley Railway fears the longer-term financial impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the attraction despite an emergency plea for donations.

Around £416,000 has been raised to ensure the heritage line between Bridgnorth and Kidderminster can continue to operate on a care and maintenance basis.

It was announced last week that the attraction’s short term future had been secured after its emergency appeal reached its target.

Severn Valley Railway has been forced to close and cancel numerous events as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in a significant loss of income.

The appeal was launched less than a month ago, and initially aimed to raise £250,000.

But the attraction says it faces longer-term uncertainty with fears of lower passenger numbers amid the knock-on impact of the outbreak.

Sandwell Park Farm and Forge Mill Farm

Although the premises have closed to visitors, it remains business as usual behind closed doors at Sandwell Park Farm and Forge Mill Farm, in West Bromwich.

A dedicated team of staff are still needed to look after the resident animals, like cows and sheep, at both sites.

All public facilities, like the visitor centre, the farms and toilets, have closed to the public at Sandwell Valley Park – which is the wider leisure area – amid the coronavirus outbreak.

However, a reduced number of staff are still working on a rota basis to maintain attractions, like the farms, and the upkeep of the area.

Staff have still be working to care for animals at Sandwell Park Farm and Forge Mill Farm

Matt Darby, operations manager for Sandwell Valley Park, said: “Our main concern is ensuring we look after the animals.

“It is a real shame that the farms have closed at the minute. We are in lambing season. At the moment, we have got about 70 lambs at the farm.

“They have come from a mixture of sheep, like Shropshire sheep and Leicestershire longwool. We have also got a herd of Hertfordshire cows. All of our animals are rare breeds. We are a rare breed centre.”

It's quiet at Sandwell Valley Country Park outside Park Farm as visitors stay away

Thankfully for park staff, there has been no cases of Covid-19 among them. But the outbreak has impacted on the calendar of events in Sandwell.

The vast green spaces of Sandwell Valley Park are still open for local people to exercise in.

But visitor numbers have – understandably – reduced amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Normally we would get 10,000 visitors here over an Easter Bank Holiday weekend,” he said.

Very quiet on the car park, at Sandwell Valley Country Park, near Sandwell Park Farm

“I can’t accurately estimate how many visitors we have are having now. But looking out my window, the car park has 300 spaces, but there is only half a dozen cars.”

And he has a message for visitors still using Sandwell Valley Park. “You are welcome to come,” he said.

“However people shouldn’t really be driving here by car. It should just be local people coming by foot.”

Black Country Living Museum

Bosses at Black Country Living Museum may be faced with “tough decisions” amid fears visitors will stay away even when the coronavirus lockdown is lifted, the boss of the attraction has admitted.

Chief executive Andrew Lovett said some museums would be left struggling to survive the impact of the lockdown which has seen income collapse.

And he said the longer the lockdown continued the more likely it was he and fellow bosses would have to act to safeguard the future of one of the region’s most much-loved attractions.

Crowds attending one of the Peaky Blinders nights at Black Country Living Museum

All but a small number of the workforce has been furloughed, while the Dudley-based museum will stay closed until at least June. Multi-million pound expansion plans are also on hold for now.

Mr Lovett said the worry is people will be reluctant to visit attractions where there could be large crowds when restrictions are eventually lifted because of the fear factor caused by coronavirus.

He said: “We are in unknown territory with how the public might react. Research suggests open spaces might recover a little better.

“I would be concerned if we go into a recession and a lot of people are losing their jobs. It will be an economic situation that won’t be easy for people.”

He added: “The big issue is what will the recovery look like? I’m trying to get intel from European museums, who are probably a little bit ahead of us, to see what public behaviour will be like. At Black Country Living Museum we get 60,000 schoolchildren a year. Will there be a reluctance from schools to return? We just don’t know at the moment. It’s an absolute heritage tipping point.”

Mr Lovett said he appreciated the longer the lockdown continues, questions would be asked about jobs. “We have made no decisions about that,” he said. “If this goes on for a long period of time and there isn’t money to support costs we will face some tough decisions, just as museums across the country will.”

Alton Towers

It’s all quiet at Alton Towers in Staffordshire – normally the popular theme park is alive with thousands of visitors each day.

But since going into lockdown, the attraction now only welcomes a handful of engineers to keep the rides ticking over and several gardeners to keep the gardens and buildings looking neat.

The exception to this is Sharkbait Reef by SeaLife, where a team of aquarists still have to go in everyday to take care of their 2,500 aquatic animals.

Aquarium manager Naomi Sale-Hancock at Sharkbait Reef at Alton Towers

Due to the lack of visitors, the team have to spend plenty of time with the marine life – playing games and setting fun challenges for them – to make sure they are happy and engaged during lockdown.

Aquarium manager Naomi Sale-Hancock heads up a team of five, for who it is “business as usual”.

She said: “Our team really love what they do. They’re doing a fantastic job as always. We have introduced social distancing and hygiene measures to keep us as safe as possible but apart from that we are running as usual.

“We’ve got 2,500 aquatic animals to look after, doing the daily checks, vital plumbing, food prep, water tests, and more. Our favourite time of day is feeding – the animals get so excited when they see our blue shirts or hear the doors banging – and if I’m honest our least favourite is cleaning tanks. But we keep them clean, nice and presentable for when we re-open.”

Naomi, aged 28, explained that the fish still needed entertaining while there were not many visitors.

“They lack stimulation because there are not many guests. When people visit it’s really engaging for the animals, especially the more intelligent ones like puffa fish or sharks.

Alton Towers in Staffordshire

“So the team try to replicate this by hiding treats in food boxes for the animals to find and open – it really gives them the attention they require. There’s definitely a difference when visitors aren’t here so we spend lots of time making sure they have one to one time. We also keep the music playing as normal – as the animals are so used to it. We don’t want it to be too quiet for them.”

The team are also busy creating a new rainforest display for when visitors return – and are keeping guests up to date on social media with what’s going on at the park.

The park staff have also launched a campaign on social media with the hashtag #AltonTowersTogether where they are sharing images from the attraction, behind the scenes footage, and also creative challenges to keep people inspired at home.

They have also donated ponchos, used at the park, to local hospitals and surgeries for protection – and have also lit the Towers in blue to show their support for the NHS.

Visit altontowers.com/about-alton-towers/blog/introducing-altontowerstogether for more.

Megan Archer

By Megan Archer
Chief Reporter - @MeganA_Star

Chief Reporter with the Express & Star. Give me a call on 01902 319363 or email megan.archer@expressandstar.co.uk.

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