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ALVA’s Bernard Donoghue on COVID-19 and UK attractions

Bernard Donoghue is the director of ALVA and the Mayor of London’s Ambassador for Cultural Tourism.

Bernard Donoghue ALVA

Bernard Donoghue of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) talked to Blooloop about the COVID-19 crisis and the response of UK attractions. He has over 20 years’ board experience at some of the UK’s best known and well regarded NGOs. He also has senior executive experience across a range of organisations. This includes the Royal Household, central government, government agencies, EU and UN political institutions and charities.

Appointed by Sadiq Khan to be a member of the Mayor’s Cultural Leadership Board and the Mayor’s Ambassador for Cultural Tourism, Donoghue is working with the Mayor’s team to support and strengthen the cultural offering and creative industries.

Speaking about his career to date, he says: “My background has always been in comms and lobbying: public affairs and advocacy. After university, my first job was as a researcher in the House of Commons. This was for the all-party parliamentary group on youth affairs.

“I then went over to work at the Council of Europe. I was a speechwriter in Strasbourg, in the very early nineties. The Berlin Wall had just come down, and Europe was changing. It was a really exciting time. I was there for a year. When I came back, I started working for charities as their government affairs/comms/lobbying person.”

Bernard Donoghue and ALVA

Following this, he worked for Sense, the disability charity, and then for the National AIDS Trust. In 1997, he went to work for Visit Britain, the national tourism agency (then called the British Tourist Authority):

“I headed up their government affairs, public affairs and policy work, until 2010,” he says. “It was the opportunity to establish a government affairs role for tourism and the National Tourist Board, and to really raise the profile of tourism – its economic importance, its social importance, its cultural importance – with parliamentarians in a way that hadn’t really been done before. It was a great opportunity, and I absolutely loved it.”

He joined ALVA as chief executive director in 2011 and has been there ever since. Before discussing COVID-19, Bernard Donoghue outlined the purpose of the organisation:

“ALVA is 30 years old this year. It’s principally an advocacy body for the largest visitor attractions in the UK. Our membership criteria is that you have to have around a million visits at your site or sites per year. That means that we have about 70 organisations as members. But they cover about 28% of all day visits made in the year.

“They range from individual sites like Titanic Belfast or the British Library through to the National Trust and English Heritage; from Blackpool Pleasure Beach to The Making of Harry Potter at Warner Bros.”

Adaptive solutions in a post-COVID-19 world

Since the very start of the COVID-19 crisis, ALVA has been issuing daily bulletins to all its members, says Bernard Donoghue.

“We’ve had weekly webinars, with guest panellists from across the visitor attractions industry. These have been on the theme of recovery and reopening; anticipating and assisting people in their own recovery plans.”

Titanic Belfast
Titanic Belfast

“I’ve been on calls nearly every weekday with government ministers across the UK. For example, civil servants, members of parliament and the media. I’ve been really stressing the importance of the attractions sector to the UK.

“The cultural heritage sector in the UK is the number one reason that overseas visitors say they’re coming to the UK. Furthermore, we Brits also say that the cultural heritage sector is vital to our happiness and to our quality of life.”

The importance of the UK cultural heritage sector

The sector, he says, is not just economically significant, but also important in terms of cultural, social, and wellbeing:

“All my conversations with ministers have been stressing this. When we can reopen, we should be able to do so safely and responsibly.”

ALVA member The Eden project domes and gardens in the summer
The Eden Project

Bernard Donoghue says there have been discussions about a kind of kitemark that attractions can use to reassure members of the public that they are adhering to Public Health England guidance on COVID-19.

“This will show that they’ve undertaken their COVID-19 risk assessments, and put all of the necessary protections in place to reassure and protect both their staff and also their visitors.”

One of the actions ALVA has taken is to commission new visitor sentiment research.

“There will be at least four waves of this. We have had the first wave published already. The second is just taking the temperature of the public and seeing what they’re looking forward to visiting when they’re allowed to. For instance, what health and safety measures they’re looking forward to seeing. And what would make them anxious or deter them from visiting initially, or in the medium term?

“All of that fresh visitor research is helping all of our members prepare and make their sites customer-ready for when they can open.”

Digital engagement

The unprecedented nature and global scale of the COVID-19 crisis has left the sector without a roadmap, says Bernard Donoghue.

“One of the really interesting pieces of the research, and one of the media activities that we’ve been undertaking for the last seven weeks, is promoting all of the online experiences that people can enjoy. So although our visitor attractions are physically closed, they’re open 24 hours a day, seven days a week online.”

Royal Observatory Greenwich
Royal Observatory Greenwich

“We’ve been promoting the fact that Brits – and, indeed, anyone in the world – can go online and look at the visitor attractions here in the UK. They can draw up their wish-list of places that they want to explore and discover. Places that they want to revisit, or those they want to visit for the first time. And that’s been hugely powerful.

“Because it has enabled people to think about, and therefore appreciate from afar, the diversity and the breadth and the excellence of the attractions that we have in the UK.”

Public confidence

“Something else that came out of the research was that the public has got absolute confidence in the professionalism of the staff at visitor attractions to do the right thing during COVID-19. For instance, to wear the right personal protection equipment; to manage social distancing; to put in measures like contactless payments or to have single routes.”

Chester Zoo Tiger
Chester Zoo

“This is extremely encouraging, particularly for the front of house staff who work at visitor attractions. However, people have much less confidence in their fellow members of the public doing the right thing.

“So, that throws down an extra challenge to the front of house staff when they come back. Not only do they need to be actually policing social distancing, but they really need to be seen to be doing so as well. Because being seen to do so will reassure the public.”

COVID-19, Brexit and profitability

The question of profitability is an important element for attractions considering re-opening after the lockdown.

Bernard Donoghue says:

“For some attractions, particularly smaller ones, if they operate on 30% capacity in order to adhere to social distancing measures, that may not be economically viable. And it may well be that in order to be economically viable, they need to stay closed for longer.”

“In which case, our ask of the government is that they extend furloughing measures, for our sector in particular, beyond that for the rest of the economy. Tourism in the UK was hit first, hit hardest. And it will take the longest to recover.”

Brexit has been pushed from the headlines by the pandemic. However, its impact on the UK leisure industries has not been diminished.

“Before COVID-19 hit, Brexit was the greatest significant challenge to the tourism economy in the UK, perhaps ever. We had already seen a downturn in EU visitors to the UK. That’s significant because three-quarters of all inbound visitors to the UK are from the EU.

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Bernard Donoghue COVID
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

“We had seen a falling away in the numbers of people from the EU coming to the UK, and also in the number of people from the mainland EU who work in UK visitor attractions. They had been leaving their jobs in the UK and going back to their homes. Because they were uncertain about their future or felt uncomfortable about the environment in which they were living.”

A difficult return for inbound tourism

“We were also concerned that, when Brexit technically happens at the end of this year, there are still a number of unknown variables like queuing systems to get into the UK ferry ports or things like passport controls or supply chains working well. So, whilst COVID-19 has been extraordinary, Brexit shouldn’t be forgotten.”

“I think we’re looking at a difficult return for the inbound tourism industry to the UK. Normally, in an event that would affect the UK tourism industry so dramatically – and we’ve had those in the past: foot-and-mouth disease, or terrorism, or security concerns – the first market to come back would have been American visitors. But they have got their own problems in the US. And they don’t tend to travel abroad in a US presidential year.”

The British Museum Bernard Donoghue COVID
The British Museum

Under ordinary circumstances, there would also be the Chinese market:

“But they’re prioritizing staying at home in China right now. We have probably lost them for the rest of the year, too. And then it would be the EU. Now, of course, we have the threat of a two-week quarantine for anyone coming into the UK.

“We are telling the government that is something that would decimate the tourism industry because 90% of all those people who come to the UK on a leisure holiday are here for less than two weeks.”

Bernard Donoghue on being a voice for the attractions industry

Fortunately, Bernard Donoghue is in a position to keep these issues at the forefront of the government’s COVID-19 discussions.

horniman museum gardens Bernard Donoghue COVID
The Horniman

“I’m luckily on the government’s tourism industry councils. So I’m speaking to the Tourism Minister and the Secretary of State two or three times a week. The attraction sector is absolutely being heard.

“That the broader tourism industry is important economically, socially, and culturally is absolutely understood by the government. Which is why they’ve been so vocal in ensuring that we can get back up and running as quickly as possible.”

Background image: ICON roller coaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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