Published on Wednesday, April 15, 2020

UK tourist attraction discusses the true impact of the pandemic

James Weld, the owner of one of the UK's key tourist sites, Lulworth Estate in Dorset, answers questions about the challenge currently being posed by coronavirus.

What has been the immediate impact for the Lulworth Estate? 

Most of the immediate impact has been around employment and the concerns of our staff - specifically, about what happens in terms of their pay if they need to self-isolate, how they will care for their children or even if they catch the virus.

Over a period of two weeks we experienced more and more of our businesses being closed at each new announcement by the Prime Minister, until on 23 March, our total tourist operation ceased with the need to furlough over 140 staff.

Our revenue has suddenly dropped by 90% which has required us to curtail all but essential expenditure. This has consequential effects, not only on our own business for 2020, but also on the local economy and the lives and aspirations of our staff and many local people and businesses. The need for all businesses to preserve cash wherever possible will only exacerbate the longer-term effects on ourselves and the economy as a whole.

We are now operating with a skeleton staff of about 20 people, maintaining our properties and preparing as much as we are able for the re-opening of our sites.

What are your main concerns in terms of the months ahead?

Our primary concern is to maintain as much revenue as we are able, and by drastically cutting other costs, I hope that we can continue to cover our normal monthly payroll supported by the Government's Job Retention Scheme.

The pressure to retain cash and liquidity will be one of the most difficult aspects and we, like others, have been in negotiations with our bank to see how this can be best achieved, deferring interest payments and making additional facilities available for when they will be required. It is too early to say whether we will be able to make proper use of all the assistance to business offered by the Government, but we are hopeful that initiatives, such as interest free loans, will become clearer; any loans of course still need to be repaid increasing cashflow pressures when we do start operating again.

We are probably fortunate in that we should be able to restart our businesses quite quickly as soon as we are able to do so, re-employing many of our staff and ensuring that we can offer UK destinations to the population who will have been cooped up for some weeks, at the very least.

If schools remain closed, whilst other activities are re-opened, this will make it more difficult for our staff with young children to return to work and we will have to ensure that we have a plan in place to deal with this.

 Do you face any unique challenges in being a historic estate? 

The primary difference between a rural estate and many other businesses is that our staff are also part of the community on and around the estate; their welfare and our ability to continue to pay wages is essential to everyone's social wellbeing. Many of our staff are also residential tenants and we need to be able to continue to pay their wages.

Does being part of a historic estate, which has the hindsight of generations that have gone before and got through massive challenges, give you a certain resilience? Is there any wisdom of insight from this that you could share to inspire first generation business owners?

Arguably the fight to stay in business might be more acute; I do not wish to be the generation that failed the estate and its heritage, the community and our longevity, being the eleventh generation to own and manage Lulworth, whatever the excuse might be.

In my view, the primary driver is to look after our staff, keeping them employed and to be able to keep paying them; as a community based on the estate, all our staff, from the owner to the newly started worker who has just left school, contribute to its success. It is vital that we keep that community together, continue living and working together, continue to support each other, even more than usual in such a situation.
Our advantage is that community, and the help that we can give as a business, an estate and a family to our staff is much wider than simply continuing to pay them.

Does the situation present any opportunities for the estate?

We would hope that, notwithstanding the current difficulties being experienced with people not avoiding others and continuing to enjoy the outdoors, that being a primarily outdoor destination, Lulworth will be one of the first to begin opening again when we are allowed to do so. With everyone being required to stay at home, the importance of being able to get out again, as soon as it is safe to do so, will be a very important factor in the well-being of everyone.

Is the government doing enough for the leisure and tourism industry? What more needs to be done?

The long-term effects on business and our economy are going to be devastating and the government is certainly putting a huge amount of effort into reducing the impact as far as they are able. However, inevitably, some people and businesses will fall between the cracks.

Seasonal workers, who regularly join the tourism industry each year now find no work, and those that were employed after 28 February have no means to replace their expected earnings as they are excluded from the Job Retention Scheme. We have committed to paying 80% of the expected earnings of those we employed after 28 February, which we are unable to recover from the Treasury, but are unable to make similar assurances to those we may have taken on since we closed.

The tourism industry is unique in that its services, such as holidays, are usually paid in advance and those that are now unable to take their holidays are seeking repayment. The absolute need to retain cash is directly contrary to proper customer-care and is testing many in the industry, both big and small.

We have decided that future customer loyalty is more important than preserving cash and we are either offering alternative dates to those unable to take their holiday or, where there is no alternative, repaying anything they have already paid.

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