22 Mar 2023 World leisure: news, training & property
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Attractions Management
2022 issue 3

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Leisure Management - Bernard Donoghue


Bernard Donoghue

When COVID hit, the CEO of ALVA stepped up, with nightly bulletins, free research and advice and tireless lobbying of government that got great results for the sector. Magali Robathan finds out how it was for him

Donoghue’s daily bulletins were a lifeline for many in the industry Photo: ASVA
The spirit of openness and generosity within the sector and the support of the British public was humbling, says Donoghue Photo: Merlin Entertainments/Legoland Windsor
Outdoor attractions bounced back more quickly as people looked to reconnect with nature Photo: Jeff Eden © RBG Kew
ALVA members saw membership retention levels of 82 per cent in 2020, despite being closed for much of the year Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
ALVA publishes annual visitor numbers for UK attractions – a ‘Top of the Pops’ for tourism Photo: Warner Bros
Donoghue was frustrated when saunas could reopen but not the vast Turbine Hall of Tate Modern Photo: TATE MODERN

When I meet Bernard Donoghue, CEO of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA), he is about to take some well earned time off to breathe and relax after the most hectic two and a half years of his career. He is not planning to lie on an exotic beach reading a book though – instead he is staying in the UK and visiting “as many amazing visitor attractions as I can, because that’s just what I love doing”.

This genuine passion for attractions is what makes Donoghue such a powerful advocate for the sector. As chief executive of ALVA – an umbrella body that represents the UK’s largest museums, galleries, heritage sites, stately homes, cathedrals, gardens, parks, zoos, performance venues and leisure attractions – Donoghue has worked tirelessly through the pandemic, lobbying government, speaking to the media, commissioning and sharing research and supporting members (and non-members) with bulletins, online webinars, information and guidance.

Lobbying efforts resulted in a package of financial help from the government that included a temporary reduction in VAT to 5 per cent for visitor attractions, the continuation of furlough and the creation of the Cultural Recovery Fund – a fund offering financial support to cultural institutions struggling due to the pandemic that currently stands at £2.1bn.

Donoghue’s efforts were officially recognised in June 2022 when he was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to tourism and culture. “It was a great honour and surprise,” he says. “Tourism and culture have had the most turbulent, challenging few years and the public have been reminded of how important they are to our lives, so it’s an enormous privilege to be able to contribute to their recovery, growth and dynamism.”

Donoghue has been CEO of ALVA since 2011, and in that time has doubled its membership. He is also the London Mayor’s Ambassador for Cultural Tourism, co-chair of the London Tourism Recovery Board and chair of the People’s History Museum, the Museum of Democracy in Manchester, of the National Trust’s Regional Advisory Board for London and the South East and of the Bristol Old Vic theatre, where we meet for our interview.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and lockdown restrictions forced all non-essential venues to close in March, Donoghue and ALVA made an immediate decision to support the industry as a whole, sharing visitor sentiment research free of charge and opening up ALVA’s webinars and bulletins to everyone, whether or not they were a member.

“That spirit of openness and generosity and sharing was vital for a sector in trauma and shows that we are better together,” says Donoghue. “ALVA is an extraordinary organisation where people share data and insights and trends really openly, but under COVID that went to a higher level. The capacity and willingness of people to share and be open was really humbling.”

Donoghue spent long days working from home, advocating for the sector in meetings with government and, armed with data from the sector, was able to make strong arguments about the value of culture and attractions.

“What became very apparent even in the early days of COVID, is that we in this sector have really good data – about membership numbers, average transaction value, dwell time, the economic impact of a visitor attraction in their local economy,” he says. “That was gold. It enabled us to open doors and have quick and influential conversations with DCMS and Treasury officials. We were able to show very clearly the economic worth of tourism – and attractions at the heart of that – and that made all the difference.”

From February 2020 until earlier this year, Donoghue delivered a daily bulletin to members, reporting on the latest information for the sector and trying to make sense of the government’s ever-changing rules. It was invaluable for so many during that turbulent and confusing time, but it must have been exhausting unpicking the government’s often mixed and complicated messages on a daily basis.

“That whole period was exhausting,” Donoghue agrees. “I don’t think my work has ever been under more scrutiny and accountability. People have been very kind and said my daily bulletin was a lifeline, but they were also saying, let’s not make any decisions until we hear what Bernard has to say at 6pm. That was a pretty terrifying responsibility.”

When I ask Donoghue what the toughest points of that time were, he says: “There were two. One was a real sense of frustration when the government said museums and galleries had to stay shut while saunas could reopen. You just wanted to say, show me the epidemiology here that justifies a sauna staying open but not the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, one of the largest rooms in the country. The inconsistencies were frustrating.

“The other was Omicron hitting during the winter of 2020/2021. During the first phase of the pandemic, the adrenaline saw me through, but the winter of 2020 was really depressing and draining.”

What about the positives of that whole period?
“The last couple of years of chaos and madness let organisations take risks and say to themselves: What’s the worst that can happen?” he says. “We’ve seen some amazing examples of creativity over this period.”

I ask for some examples of this creative thinking and Donoghue picks out an online, interactive challenge by Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Mystery at the Museum took place in December 2020 and was devised by wildlife presenter Steve Backshall and escape room creator Agent November. “They took a risk on it and it worked brilliantly,” says Donoghue. “It was a fundraiser, it developed new audiences, it was fun and it was phenomenally successful.”

The operators of regional open-air museum Beamish, the Living Museum of the North in Durham, UK, also impressed Donoghue with their flexibility and creativity. “They managed to put in new exhibitions, a 1950s street, and launch interesting partnerships – they now make heritage sweets on site and sell them through Fenwick department store.”

London Zoo’s streamed virtual bedtime stories, Tails from the Zoo, also caught his eye. “It was a brilliant idea,” he says. “I just loved seeing the explosion in interesting digital activity across the sector.

“People realised it was okay to take risks and amazing things happen when you do. You rarely get an opportunity in a career to draw up a blank piece of paper and say ‘this is how we’re going to change’ – the last two years have given us that.”

Another big positive says Donoghue, was the support of the British public for the industry.

“I learned a lot about British people during that whole time,” he says. “In 2020 we did a survey and found that membership retention rates among our members was an astonishing 82 per cent, despite the fact that attractions were closed for much of that year. That wasn’t laziness, or people forgetting to cancel direct debits, that was people realising how important culture was to them. When visitor attractions reopened, people came back with generosity and love. It was startling and humbling to witness.

“The challenge now is, how do we as a sector reciprocate that love? The public turned up for us when we needed them, now it’s our turn.”

Donoghue has some words of advice for attractions looking to do just that. “Be generous,” he says. “Deliver a warm welcome. And challenge yourself to reopen your doors to people who are different from those you closed them to in March 2020.

“The Cultural Recovery Fund has been an absolute lifeline for so many in the sector and it was funded by the British taxpayer. If the people coming through your door don’t look like the taxpayers who live in your community, you’ve got a problem, because they bailed you out.”

How is the industry responding to this challenge, I ask Donoghue.

“They’re responding in various ways and at various speeds. All of them completely appreciate that in order to have a credible mandate to exist, they must look like the population in which they sit. More than that, they need to have programming and collections and events which reflect the diversity of where they are housed.

“One of the really interesting things over the past two years for me has been the confluence of the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and COVID, where we sat at home and were confronted with the reality of racial and social injustice and the continuing legacy of slavery, which permeates every part of society.”

So, I ask Donoghue. What’s the picture looking like now for attractions in the UK?

“The honest answer is, really variable,” he says. “Some, particularly outdoor attractions – parks, gardens, zoos, stately homes’ gardens and outdoor spaces – are doing really well. The first thing people wanted to do after lockdown was breathe, heal and reconnect with nature, and that’s still a really powerful motivation.

“Indoor attractions, by contrast, are slow to recover. Most museums and galleries are reporting that they’re at about 75 per cent of 2019 visitor figures and that’s without the huge return of inbound visitors.

“There are two groups struggling most of all, those are the ones that are usually highly dependent on overseas visitors – they probably won’t be back to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 – and theatre and performance venues.

“It’s a really mixed, complicated picture. Throw into the mix the cost of living crisis, energy costs and petrol costs – we always predicted that this year could be more financially challenging than last year and unfortunately that’s proving to be the case.”

In March each year, ALVA publishes visitor numbers for the previous year – a “Top of the Pops for tourism,” says Donoghue. “Almost every year it’s a play off between the British Museum and Tate Modern at number one and number two. This year’s figures were completely different – Windsor Great Park was at number one, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew at number two and Chester Zoo at number four.”

As well as publishing these annual figures, Donoghue analyses them to try and spot common behaviours in organisations successfully growing visitor numbers and diversifying their audiences.

“There absolutely are commonalities between the attractions doing this well,” he says.

“One is provocative and disruptive programming that is thought-provoking, a bit jarring and a bit surprising.

“A great example of this was Historic Royal Palaces’ Queer Night at Whitehall Palace a couple of years ago, telling the story of the queer court of King James VI and his male lovers. It was brave and extraordinary and fascinating and so well appreciated by the LGBT community who suddenly saw themselves and their history being told with panache and joy.

“Successful organisations are bold, they take risks and they foster creative partnerships with unusual suspects – museums and galleries working with theatre companies to tell their stories in different ways, Beamish working with Fenwicks, for example. They really stretch their brand and get involved in cultural conversations, events and programming. One of my favourites is Historic Royal Palaces going to Bestival, doing Tudors on Tour. That outreach work is fascinating.”

Donoghue is an optimist by nature and enjoys focusing on the positive, but he admits the sector is facing a challenging period.

“Just as we thought we thought we were coming out of the pandemic, the cost of living crisis is coming in,” he says. “People are having to make tactical judgements about their leisure spend. So far, they don’t seem to be sacrificing day trips to leisure attractions, which is heartening, but as petrol prices increase, they will start to make decisions about whether they can afford to go to more rural locations.”

The plan for the coming months is to carry on doing what Donoghue and ALVA have been doing – supporting the sector through tricky times.

“We’re getting our meetings back in real life, which is great,” he says. “We’ll keep on commissioning our visitor sentiment research for as long as it’s needed – we’re still in a very unpredictable, highly variable environment and people really want good data.

“And we’re continuing with our advocacy and lobbying efforts – reminding politicians that COVID isn’t over and some parts of our sector are experiencing the tourism equivalent of Long COVID and they won’t repair their balance sheets until they get overseas visitors back and repay their loans.”

Donoghue ends on a positive note. “It’s just so lovely going back out now and meeting up with members and seeing how they’re recovering and how optimistic they are,” he says.

“What I really want is for people to hang on to that and keep the best bits of the last two years – that boldness, flexibility, responsiveness and creativity.”

Photo: ASVA

Donoghue says the creativity of the sector has been amazing

Originally published in Attractions Management 2022 issue 3

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