It’s going to be a long few weeks for Shropshire’s attractions – and Salopians who love to visit them – as the nation remains in a third lockdown.
While it may be a necessary evil to keep popular venues like RAF Cosford, Blists Hill Victorian Museum and Hoo Farm closed to prevent further spread of Covid-19, times have been tough both financially and from the human aspect of missing seeing people.
“It’s been a tricky nine months,” admitted Maggie Appleton, chief executive officer for RAF Cosford, and president of the Museums Association.
“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 Maggie 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.”
At this time of year, Hoo Farm in Telford would normally be full of children on school trips, feeding and petting animals. This year is quite different, although manager Will Dorrell says they’re getting used to it.
“We always used to close from Christmas Eve until March, but the last two years we made a point of opening in January,” he said.
“It isn’t as catastrophic as it could be because it isn’t one of our busiest times of year. Certainly not as bad as last year when we had to shut for Easter.
“We are taking the optimistic approach. Hopefully we will be able to get back open in March and we’ll have the bulk of our season.
“Last year we missed Easter but we were able to open for the summer, so it probably didn’t hit us as hard as it did for a lot of businesses. Some will have been pretty much closed for a whole year.
"I’m reluctant to ask people to feel too sorry for us because others have had it much harder. That said, it has been the biggest challenge for us and for the industry since foot and mouth 20 years ago.”
The challenges faced at Hoo Farm are replicated at other animal attractions in the region.
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.”
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.”
Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin councils have just launched a survey to help monitor the impact of the latest lockdown on the county’s visitor economy.
Nick Ralls, CEO of Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust and regional tourism representative for the county, said: “Tourism is one of top five sectors for economic prosperity and growth in Shropshire, attracting over 13 million visitors and generating circa £800 million per year for the local economy.
“The county is home to major flagship destinations, including Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site, Ludlow Castle and our historic county towns. Providing the right support to help businesses survive and regrow is absolutely essential.”