Impact of Covid-19 on DCMS Sectors
The Minack Theatre is a unique open-air theatre on the cliffs of the Cornish coast, just 3 miles from Land’s End. Our season of performances runs from early April to October. We welcomed over 300,000 visitors in 2019, 120,000 to watch a performance, 180,000 to explore the theatre and the history of our founder, Rowena Cade.
Immediate Impact of Covid-19
The timing of the lockdown due to Covid-19 could not have been worse for us as an organisation, coming just as our visitor numbers were due to increase as the weather improved and our performances began (the first one was due on the 26th March 2020). It also hit at the point when our cash position is always at its lowest point for the year as winter expenditure had all been committed.
We would have expected about 33,000 visitors from the 21st March (our first day closed) to the 30th April of whom about 13,500 would have watched a performance. Our budgeted income for this period was about £225,000. Almost all of this income has now disappeared.
The longer the lockdown goes on, the more significant this becomes for an organisation which relies on the income from April to September for its annual income.
Budgeted income for future months:
Thankfully, the Minack has been operating for many years now with operational surpluses and has cash reserves to cover 12 months of operating costs. One of these reserves (£300,000) was earmarked for a year with a 25% down-turn in visitor numbers. This is unlikely to be sufficient to see us through this crisis (depending on how long the lockdown lasts and also the time after this before we can rebuild to business as usual).
Our Business Interruption Insurance does not cover any element of this shut down, it purely covers physical damage to our premises or obstructions on our narrow approach roads.
Once the Chancellor announced the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme we furloughed 60 of our 70 employees, keeping on two part time box office team members, three part time garden and grounds staff, and four of the five senior managers.
Sadly, 21 of our 60 furloughed employees were contracted before the 28th February, but had not started work as they are employed on a seasonal basis and because we don’t like keeping people on zero hours through the winter, we generally take them off our payroll. The Trustees have approved that the Minack will cover the cost of their wages until the end of May. This will cost us about £20,000 of wages that we will not be able to reclaim under the Job Retention Scheme. However, we need these employees to be available as soon as we re-open so it is not realistic to make them redundant.
Support from DCMS and other Government Departments and Arms-length Bodies
The Minack receives no public funding so we do not have a relationship with the Arts Council.
We are a member of UK Theatre and have found their support useful.
As we operate as a successful tourist attraction, bringing significant numbers of tourists to the far west of Cornwall, we do have strong relationships in the tourism sector, particularly with Visit Cornwall. I sit on the Visit Cornwall CIC Board and have been part of a task force working with the Visit Cornwall team on the immediate and medium-term priorities.
It is clear that many of the support measures are being welcomed by the tourism sector which is being decimated by this lockdown, however there remain cases where the support is harder to access, particularly where businesses operate across more than one sector, for example a farm which also has a glamping field.
This will really depend on when and how the lockdown ends. I am projecting a worst-case scenario for the Minack of reopening fully in September. This will cost the organisation in the order of £500-£600,000 in cash loss.
Artistically, we can defer most of our 2020 season to 2021. As we also produce our own work, we will reopen with Minack Productions. We had our Easter production almost ready for the stage at the point of closure (having invested over £60,000 in the production). We should be able to get this back on our stage with two weeks notice, provided the cast could travel to Cornwall. We would then run a different style of season until our visiting productions were available as per our advertised season. However, we will have a real challenge marketing this work to the people around in Cornwall and we will be very dependent on the domestic tourist market for any shows to be financially successful.
Longer term, in order to rebuild our reserves, we are likely to have to cut back our education work. We currently invest over £120,000 a year into projects to engage, inspire and train local and visiting people in the performing arts. We will also have to re-consider our programme of Minack Productions which have been subsidised by our operating surpluses.
Tourism businesses and their supply chains are likely to need support in the longer term. Many of these organisations operate commercially without any public support so they, like the Minack, do not have relationships with ‘funding’ organisations. We are also a sector who have seen income completely vanish. I don’t know where this support might come from, or how it could be funded, but without something, the economy of Cornwall is going to be hit very, very hard due to its reliance on tourism.
Visit Britain will need to refocus its marketing support to help the regions of the country and support domestic tourism within whatever limits are set on movement under social distancing guidelines going forward.
The local professional theatre sector is also going to be affected, particularly in Cornwall where there are a large number of organisations who operate seasonally. Not all of these have a relationship with the Arts Council, but they may need support from ACE to sustain them into 2021. I believe the Hall for Cornwall receives funding from ACE specifically to support the sector – this may need to be reviewed and potentially increased to ensure funds reach the organisations who contribute significantly to the cultural landscape of Cornwall and who are at real risk of collapse.
Lessons that can be learned
I think there were real issues at the start of this crisis with the Prime Minister / Chancellor making announcements to the public without any systems in place to support these announcements.
For example, while I understood the reasons why Boris Johnson advised the public not to go to theatres, he made this announcement at 6pm on a Monday. This then needed the sector to react unreasonably quickly to be ‘seen to do the right thing’. This caused issues with refunds which would have been a significant cashflow issue for many theatres.
The Chancellor then announced to the public the Job Retention Scheme – this meant all our employees were expecting to receive 80% of their income. I moved quickly to activate the furlough only to find after I had already written to the employees and had them accept the furlough, that the magic date of 28th February was announced 6 days later in the detail behind the announcement. While we have lobbied hard on behalf of seasonal workers, the Treasury are holding so firm on the date of 28th February that it should really have been included in the Chancellor’s initial briefing.
I feel the sector on the whole reacted amazingly quickly to the changes and continues, on the whole, to work to support the government’s directives. However, we are seeing many issues of the public being very quick to criticise organisations and it feels like this is being encouraged by the guidelines from the government.
There was clearly a balance initially between trying to get the public to understand the seriousness of the message, whilst not being able to be clear about the timescales. When the schools were closed and the summer exams cancelled, many organisations took this to mean we would not be returning to ‘normal’ until at least September. As a business leader, I seemed to be saying a lot that there was no need to rush into announcements about cancelling performances any further ahead than the government lock down period. However, I felt in the minority for this and am aware that many Cornish tourist businesses continue to be criticised by customers for not offering refunds beyond the end of the government’s lockdown period.
Every business who survives this period is clearly going to be reviewing their business interruption insurance cover going forward.
How might the sector evolve post-Covid-19
This is a difficult question to answer. From the Minack, and Cornwall’s point of view, it really depends on timing and how much of the 2020 season we ‘lose’. There will be businesses who do not survive the next 18 months as even if they get through the short term, they may not secure enough business during the remaining 2020 season to sustain them through the winter to Easter 2021.
There is also a possibility that once restrictions are lifted, domestic tourism may experience a boom. This will bring a social challenge for areas which have not been hit hard by the pandemic yet as this could further inflame tensions between locals and visitors if the locals perceive the visitors bringing in more cases of the virus. There will need to be careful government support for messaging around lifting the restrictions.
As I am a natural optimist, could this be an opportunity for regions such as Cornwall to decrease their economic reliance on tourism by attracting other industries to the area? Are there industries that could grow in Cornwall now that the population are learning to work remotely from their colleagues - being in the same office may be less of an issue? This would clearly have huge environmental benefits too.
The theatre sector is a very dynamic sector. For instance, Spektrix, our ticketing system, produced an app in a matter of days which is enabling venues to convert ticket sales to donations where customers are happy to support the organisation rather than needing a refund.
This situation has given theatres and self-employed performers and teachers an opportunity to test the market with digital audiences and digital students.
It is to be hoped that a balance can be achieved in the future where maybe we all travel around slightly less and can live a slower pace of life whilst still achieving sufficient economic prosperity.