Season finale, with Bernard Donoghue!

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, I speak with Bernard Donoghue, CEO of ALVA. 

Bernard Donoghue is the Chief Executive of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA), the umbrella body for the UK’s most popular, important and iconic palaces, castles, museums, galleries, heritage sites, stately homes, cathedrals, churches, gardens, zoos and leisure attractions. ALVA is a powerful advocate for the sector to Government, the media and business; it organises events, benchmarking, training, commissions research and the sharing of best practice for members across marketing, visitor experience, fundraising, public engagement, security, education, retail and a variety of other areas.

In May 2017 he was appointed to be a member of the Mayor of London’s Cultural Leadership Board and is the Mayor’s Ambassador for Culture. He has been a member of the UK Government’s Tourism Industry Council since 2014. In January 2021 he became Co-Chair of the London Tourism Recovery Board, to plan and deliver the strategic recovery of London’s visitor economy and sits on the GLA’s COVID Business Forum and various London Mayoral cultural and business recovery taskforces.

Bernard has been Chair of the award-winning London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) since 2010, having been a Board member since 2005 and Deputy Chair between 2007 and 2010. In June 2021 he became Chair of the Board of the Bristol Old Vic, the oldest continually operating theatre in the English-speaking world.

He is a Trustee of the People’s History Museum – the Museum of Democracy, in Manchester, and will take over as Chair of the Board in November 2021.

He is a member of the Cathedral Council of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, and a member of the Exhibition Advisory Board for Two Temple Place and the Hoare Trust. He was Chairman of WWF-UK’s Council for 10 years, until 2020, and is a former trustee of WWF-UK. He has been a trustee of Centrepoint, Kids in Museums, the Museum of The Home and the Heritage Alliance. He has been a judge for the Museum and Heritage Awards since 2003.

In October 2020 Bernard was named by Blooloop, the world’s leading online resource for professionals working in visitor attractions, as one of the world’s 50 most influential people in the museum sector.

“We made the decision to commission all the research and give it out for free, and that visitor sentiment research has just been vital. It was one of the best things that we did.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • What the fast-approaching end of restrictions mean for attractions
  • How to balance digital engagement with an overseas audience
  • What these past 15 months have really been like for Bernard personally

To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.

Skip the Queue Bernard Donoghue Blog large

The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Bernard Donoghue


Kelly Molson: Bernard, I am so happy to have you on the podcast today. Thank you so much for coming on and joining us.

Bernard Donoghue: It is my absolute pleasure. It was a choice between you and a meeting with four MPs so here we are.

Kelly Molson: Well, I mean, I have to say, I’m clearly the better choice here. Thank you. Okay. As ever, we’re going to start off with our ice breaker questions. If you had a time machine and you could travel backwards or forwards, what year would you go to and why?

Bernard Donoghue: Oh, good lord. Sorry, by the way, this reminds me of the brilliant line by Sandi Toksvig. She was in a café in York once and there was a sign saying we serve tea at all times so she asked for a tea in the Renaissance, and they didn’t understand her.

I don’t know. Wow. I don’t know. I think possibly in the 1920s because you’re just at the cusp of so many things. You’re at the tail end of the Edwardian period so you’ve got all of that and then you’re at the cusp of electricity and technology and radio and aeroplanes so probably then.

Kelly Molson: We’re hearing a lot about it being like the Roaring Twenties as well, aren’t we? Once we get through all of this too. It’s probably quite current that you’ve chosen that as well. 

Bernard Donoghue:  Yeah. 

Kelly Molson: Obviously, flapper dresses because all of those were completely beautiful. I mean, I would be down with that.

Bernard Donoghue: No. Seriously, I do look good in beads. It’s true.

Kelly Molson: I could see that about you. You’ve got that look. Great. Okay. If you were a WWF wrestler, which I can see actually, I feel like you’ve got the look of a wrestler about you as well, maybe not in beads, what would your entrance song be?

Bernard Donoghue: For years, by the way, I used to be a trustee of WWF UK and all of my friends just assumed that I had a sort of parallel existence in spandex somewhere and I had to remind them that actually, no, it was about conservation. What would it be? Something from RuPaul’s Drag Race actually because they’re always fantastic. Yeah. When they come back on the stage at the end, that’s the music.

Kelly Molson: Okay. Something really flamboyant I feel like.

Bernard Donoghue: Yeah. You know, you can strut … I mean, I know strutting is not necessarily a WWF thing but presence is all.

Kelly Molson: Absolutely. We can make it a thing. It can be whatever we want.

Bernard Donoghue: Thank you.

Kelly Molson: Okay. If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Bernard Donoghue: If I was 20, I think my advice to my 20-year-old self would be to make the … This sounds a bit professional. Just make loads and loads of connections, network, network madly, even though, and this will come as a bit of a surprise, even though, I’m an introvert, get out there and network because it suddenly dawned on me in the last few years, when I was in my twenties, I was a campaigner, I was a young lobbyist and I worked for disability charities and all the people who did the same kind of job as me then, are all chief executives like me now. 

Of course, that makes sense because you grow through the ranks so now I’ve got a peer group of lots of chief executives in lots of very varied, different spheres and realms. It’s been brilliant because we’ve all come through the ranks together and in good times and bad and now we’ve got a ready-made oven-roasted peer group that we can all rely on. There’s about six of us. I think that.

And B, take your job seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously.

Kelly Molson: That’s good advice. That’s really good advice. The networking thing is really interesting, somebody asked me a couple of weeks ago what has been the thing that … What’s been the one thing that I’ve invested the most in over the last few years that has made the biggest difference to my business and I completely agree with you and I said it is about building your network and it’s about getting out there and making those connections because such incredible things come from knowing such a variety of different people in all kinds of sectors.

You just never know what kind of opportunities and doors are going to be open for you from doing that. Also, you just can’t grow a business on your own or do anything on your own. You need that peer support around you. 

Bernard Donoghue: Yeah. You’re absolutely right. The key to that is knowing people who are not like you and in businesses that are not like yours. In ALVA, for example, I hear it time and time again that museums and galleries don’t actually learn much from other museums and galleries because they’re all kind of in the same boats and cathedrals don’t learn much from other cathedrals, but they will learn things from Zoos or Harry Potter or Warner Bros, so places that are very different to them and, therefore, come at an issue from a very different perspective. That’s where you learn most.

Kelly Molson: Absolutely. I completely agree with you on that one as well. That might come up later actually in our chat. Okay. Last one but it’s your one, what’s your unpopular opinion?

Bernard Donoghue: I hate the “phrases going forward”, and very much, as in, “I am very much looking forward to it” or, “I am very much committed to this.” I hate those phrases with a passion whereas it’s clear other people don’t. They would be capital punishments when I take over the rule. 

What’s another unpopular opinion? I cannot see how people can watch Jeremy Clarkson. I don’t get it. Absolutely don’t get it at all. Oh, oh, here’s one actually and it’s only because it was his birthday last week, I have never understood Bob Dylan and his popularity.

Kelly Molson: Wow. Gosh, that’s quite a strong one.

Bernard Donoghue: Yeah. I don’t get it. 

Kelly Molson: Okay. 

Bernard Donoghue: Glad he’s around, glad he’s there, not for me, thank you.

Kelly Molson: I like that. Bob Dylan and Jeremy Clarkson was not a mix I was expecting to get on the podcast today.

Bernard Donoghue: They’re not a duo that has ever performed together as far as I’m aware, or likely to. It’s probably just as well.

Kelly Molson: It wouldn’t make either of them even more appealing to you, though, would it? Not really.

Bernard Donoghue: No. I think I would have to take out a restraining order if they decided that they wanted to come around.

Kelly Molson: I love that. Well, let’s see what our listeners think, Jeremy Clarkson fans out there? I don’t know. It’s not my cup of tea. Tweet us and let us know what you think about that. 

Now, Bernard, I don’t even know where to start with this list so Mayor of London’s Cultural Ambassador, CEO of ALVA, Co-chair of the London Tourism Recovery Board, Chair of LIFT Festival and Trustee of People’s History Museum. Quite an impressive list that you’ve got going on there. What I want to know is where did it actually begin, though? Where did your connection with cultural heritage and attractions organisations start?

Bernard Donoghue: I’ve always absolutely loved … I’m kind of being paid for all the things that I would do at a weekend. 

Kelly Molson: Nice.

Bernard Donoghue: You know, when I was a kid, my parents would take us around National Trust properties and English Heritage properties and stately homes and places like that so the first place that I went to was Waddesdon Manor, which if people don’t know it, it’s the maddest, most beautiful Loire valley style chateau but in the vale of Aylesbury, just outside Aylesbury. Built by the Rothschilds as kind of an entertaining pad. Absolutely beautiful, absolutely stunning.

My first stately home … Well, that’s kind of a stately home. The first stately home is Blenheim Palace. I just got the bug. I just have loved history, heritage, visitor attractions since I was a kid. I went off to do political jobs and then back in ’97 I joined Visit Britain as their first-ever head of government affairs, not quite a lobbyist because it’s a government agency and so you’re not allowed to be called a lobbyist, but it was all but a lobbyist. That just opened my eyes to tourism and then visitor attractions. 

On the culture side, the theatre side, the theatre has always been a complete passion so I stepped down this year as chair of LIFT London International Festival of Theatre after 11 years and I’m just about to go onto the board of the British [inaudible 00:09:15]. My theatre passion continues.

Kelly Molson: I love that. I love what you said, I get paid to do all the things that I would love to do on the weekend. What a fantastic role to be in. 

Bernard Donoghue: It’s absolutely true. I should show you my wallet actually. My wallet is full of membership cards, as in 30 of them, so occasionally I’ll look at my wallet and think, “This is money laundering essentially.” I’m being paid and I’m paying them back in return. This is just a circular economy.

Kelly Molson: That’s one of the things that you’ve done really well throughout the pandemic is you’ve been so supportive and you’ve been really proactive on Twitter about saying to people, “Look, if you want these places to still be around when we come out of this, buy the membership, buy something from their shop when their shops are open, or buy something from them online” and I think it’s been such a positive message to send out the whole way through, so not money laundering, supportive. Being very supportive in your role.

Bernard Donoghue: You’d have to talk to my bank manager because some days it was like money laundering.

Kelly Molson: There are loads of things that I want to talk about going forward, even though you don’t like that but what I want to go back to is a little bit in the past as well. I really want to talk about what it’s been like for you personally. I think you have been a real kind of pillar of strength to the sector and huge support and I think that as wonderful as that’s been, that can bring its own challenges on yourself as well. 

Ultimately, you’re the person that’s putting out this kind of positive message all the time and being really actively encouraging but I could imagine that’s had a lot of pressures and challenges for you personally as well. What has it been like, the last 15 months? How have you motivated yourself to be upbeat and positive throughout all of this?

Bernard Donoghue: Well, that’s very kind, first of all. Thank you. I think I divide it between last March until Christmas and then sort of Christmas onwards. Last March until Christmas, there was a sense of really being able to cope because the adrenaline was getting you through. It was all novel and new and I’ve always thrived in crisis management. In all the roles that I’ve had over the last 20 years, crisis management has been at the heart of that, whether that’s about actively managing crises or the corporate PR response or being a spokesperson or whatever.

In some ways, I sort of thrived on all of that through adrenaline. It’s been much, much more draining and exhausting since Christmas and I think that’s probably the same for everybody actually. We’ve gone through it again and actually, it’s no longer new and it’s no longer novel and now it’s just sapping.

I have often felt on an almost kind of daily basis, and this is just honest, I’m not exaggerating, there’s quite a lot resting on my shoulders and it feels quite lonely because the advice from the government has been so inconsistent and so unclear and often contradictory. There’s a small group of about three or four of us in the tourism sector who have had to daily unpick all of that and interpret it for our respective sectors.

Bernard Donoghue: I know that if I weren’t doing that then it just wouldn’t get done … It would probably get done somewhere at somehow at some point but, as you know, I do a daily bulletin so it goes out every evening at six o’clock with the latest information. There’s a real sense of I need to get this out and get it done every day. 

I’ve made a rod and back really because there was nothing that I would love more than stop doing these bulletins. That’s not possible while we’re still in a state of flux. It’s been a bit lonely. It’s been odd working from home when normally I would be a consummate traveller and visit loads of my members around the country. There’s been a lot of pressure but the feedback from people about the vital nature of the information and the advocacy and all the rest of it, and the achievements actually, has been extraordinary.

I don’t think myself, my work has ever been more exposed than it has in the course of the last 15 months. Sometimes that felt scary and sometimes that felt brilliant.

Kelly Molson: I think as well it’s never been more celebrated as well because you have had so much support from the sector. There are a lot of people looking for you. Like you say, you’re delivering daily bulletins, you’ve been doing incredible webinars with ALVA so regularly, you’ve opened those up to non-members as well so everybody can benefit from the knowledge on them. There’s a lot of eyes on you as well. That’s a lot of pressure. I think from a positive perspective, what I see being delivered back to you is nothing but encouragement. Everybody has been so incredibly supportive of what you’re doing and so grateful for the things that you’re doing for them. I think that’s been really lovely to see.

Bernard Donoghue: Yeah. It absolutely has and, in particular, from those organisations and businesses who, as you say, are not members of ALVA, I mean, I took the decision on day one that although ALVA is a tiny organisation and people will probably be really surprised, there’s me and one other member of staff.

Kelly Molson: Wow. I’m surprised.

Bernard Donoghue: We’re just two people. Lucy is brilliant. She’s our finance and business manager. She’s living in Norwich and I’m here in London. It’s just the two of us. It’s a tiny organisation so we’re spread very, very thin. But given the nature of our members and my role of years in getting high-level meetings with government and all of that, I just thought we’re in a leadership role here, we should use that for the benefit of everybody, let’s be generous, let’s not be parochial.

We made the decision to commission all the research and give it out for free, and that visitor sentiment research has just been vital. It was one of the best things that we did. Open up our webinars to everybody. If anybody wants a bulletin, they could go on the mailing list. Whether they’re members of ALVA or not because there was the analogy, it’s been used a lot of times but I think it’s true, we’re not actually all in the same boat. We’re all in the same storm but we’re in very, very different boats and some are bigger and more stable than others. We happen to be in a relatively stable, well-structured boat so I think it’s beholden on me and us to try and help everybody as much as possible.

Kelly Molson: I am absolutely gobsmacked that it’s just the two of you. I did not know that myself and I think that’s an incredible achievement, what you’ve been doing, just the two of you to organise all of that. Wow. Hats off to you both there.

Bernard Donoghue: It’s exhausting. I mean, look at me. I’m actually 27 in real life.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Me too. That’s what I tell to everyone, Bernard. Gosh, that really has surprised me. Just go back because you said about you’re a big traveller, you would be out and about all over the place and up and down the country, I’m sure, what do you think that you’ll take away as a positive from the time that you spent working at home? Are there any kinds of changes that you’ll make to your working habits? 

For example, I would commute to my office on a daily basis, I would often be out in London or all over the place doing meetings. Now I start to think, well, some of them I’m really missing but some of them are actually probably a bit unnecessary, we can cut down on the fuels that we’re burning, we can cut down on the time that we have, and I’ve actually quite enjoyed having a little bit more personal time to do things like eating better because you don’t eat that well when you’re travelling or doing a little bit more exercise. Have you found that there are some positive things that you can take from this that you’d continue?

Bernard Donoghue: Yeah. There’s a number. I mean, one was we made the decision, we used to have an office in Somerset House on the Strand, a beautiful, beautiful room in grade one listed former palace. Absolutely gorgeous. Looking down onto the piazza, currently covered in trees. I couldn’t justify the cost because Lucy, my colleague, went over to Norwich to be near her parents. We very sadly lost one of our colleagues. There used to be three of us in the office and we lost one of our colleagues last year to cancer. 

There were just the two of us and I thought I can’t justify an office just for me, lovely, though, it is so actually we haven’t had an office. We’ve given it up, which means that I am, for the foreseeable future, working at home. There are plus things to that … Well, this is a plus and a minus, this is no particular priority order, we’ve got a cat, Tom, he’s a badsy cat. I think he’s going to go into trauma whenever we leave the house.

Kelly Molson: Oh gosh. Yeah. 

Bernard Donoghue: We’ve been around 24/7. We are now more grateful … When I say we, this isn’t a royal we. This is me and my partner. We are now more grateful than we ever thought possible to have a garden in central London. That’s just been fantastic. 

But I am looking forward to getting back to some degree of working normality because I have to say I’ve never worked longer or harder than I have over the course of the last 15 months. It’s been exhausting.

On a normal day, I would probably have five or six, at least, one-hour Zoom meetings back to back. And then write the bulletin at six o’clock in the evening. Typically, I’m working from about 7:30 in the morning until about seven in the evening. I was doing a bit of that pre-COVID but it’s pretty unsustainable so I’d like to get back to a degree of normality.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Definitely. I think that the difference between having multiple face to face meetings during the day is very different to the Zoom meetings. I don’t know about you but my diary gets crazy and I look and I think, “I’ve got four back to back” and there’s no time to process in-between. It’s that cognitive overload whereas if you had back-to-back face-to-face meetings you don’t get the same kind of drained feeling. Yeah. I really feel you on that. It’s definitely been longer working hours for us here as well. I really sympathise.

Bernard Donoghue: Also, I mean, the meetings that I’m having, bluntly, you can’t coast because either I’m the guest speaker so you can’t wing it, or it’s a meeting with ministers or SAGE or public health England and so it’s serious grownup stuff. You can’t step back, you can’t just switch off, you can’t think I’m going to coast this for half an hour, I hope that nobody asks me a question because they’re not those kinds of meetings.

Kelly Molson: No. You can’t switch off your Zoom and quickly grab a cup of tea and a biscuit while everyone else is talking, can you? It’s not the done thing. 

Bernard Donoghue: It’s not really, no. 

Kelly Molson: That was a good segue way into something that’s going to happen today. We are recording this and it is the seventh of June. There are reports that Matt Hancock is going to give us another COVID statement this afternoon and, potentially, that is about the dates that we are due to be opening up with no restrictions.

Now I want to ask you a little bit about what that means for attractions and what we could potentially now be looking at. We are hopefully coming through to the other side. The vaccine program is doing phenomenal things. What does this fast-approaching end to restrictions mean for attractions now? Do you think that we’re going to see this extended?

Bernard Donoghue: It’s a really good question. I’ve been talking to about five or six chief execs over the course of the weekend just about guidance and advice. I think there are two very significant things and at first glance, they’re in contradiction with each other. The first is that the longer we have social distancing measures and face mask use and mitigation measures in place, the longer it will take for the sector to recover.

When we have businesses, whether it’s a hotel or bar or restaurant, a theatre or an attraction when we have those businesses opening up one-third capacity, none of them is making a profit. Actually, they’re opening for PR purposes and in order to achieve fuller visitor figures down the track so no one is operating profitably.

Getting those backup and running is really critical but we know from all of our visitor sentiment that still 80%, eight zero, 80% of the British public are uneasy or cautious about those very mitigation measures, like social distancing and face mask use, being eased too early. 

Visitor attractions are faced with a real dilemma I think, which is if it’s announced that on the 21st of June all social distancing measures are lifted throughout England and, therefore, visitor attractions can up the numbers, don’t have to do face mask use measures, abandon social distancing, still the vast majority of their visitors won’t like that and will feel uncomfortable and a tiny minority will think they’re in bliss and think that they’re liberated and all the rest of it.

Bernard Donoghue: My advice has been to visitor attractions, you and your visitors have to be the ultimate arbiter of the visitor experience. It may well be that you have to keep social distancing and face mask use measures in a place way beyond the 21st of September because that’s what the public wants so, even though, you are technically allowed to get rid of those things by government, actually, take your lead from the public because they’re going to be the ultimate arbiters. 

Those things are potentially in contradiction with each other. One of the things I’m constructing literally this week is some ALVA national advice to visitor attractions so that front of house staff can basically say to an irate guest on the 22nd of June, “I know the government has just announced that but actually, we’re adhering to ALVA national advice” in order that they don’t get than that confrontational pushback from members of the public because I genuinely feel that the loudest voices are for liberation but the quietest voices are for care, safety, sensible precautions and we need to manage that really, really carefully.

Kelly Molson: That’s a really difficult challenge, isn’t it? For front of house staff that will be in that position of having to push back on people. I can see it in my head happening. There’s an encounter where people are angry about the fact they’re being told that they still have to wear their mask, yet the government has said that they don’t need to do this anymore. I can’t imagine how difficult that’s going to be so I think what you’re putting in place is a really valuable kind of asset for the organisations to have.

Bernard Donoghue: We saw some examples, relatively limited, but we saw some examples of poor behaviour on the parts of the public last year when attractions reopened for, frankly … It’s not an excuse but it is understandable. They, like us, we’re tired, fraught, and quick to anger, end of their tether, and they just wanted to get out and be in nice places. We’ve seen some of that poor behaviour on the part of the public again this time round as indoor and outdoor attractions. 

Honestly, for every one person who pushes back saying, “Don’t make me wear a mask. Don’t manage my social distancing”, there are nine others watching saying, “Well done, you. You’re doing exactly the right thing.” That, I think should be the barometer of safety.

Kelly Molson: How does this work with … What we want to see is attractions open and open at full capacity. But we, obviously, have got this challenge around overseas visitors and many of them not being able to come here, many of them not feeling safe to come here at the moment, understandably. How do attractions manage that? If they can open at full capacity, is the reality that they’re not going to be at full capacity because we just don’t have that influx of people that we need?

Bernard Donoghue: Yeah. That’s right. I mean, bluntly, there are some visitor attractions in the UK and just off the top of my head, they’re places like the British Museum, Edinburgh Castle, Stonehenge, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London that are so heavily dependent on overseas visitors, inbound visitors coming from the rest of the world, that even the best ever staycation this summer won’t help them repair their balance sheets. 

We’ve made it really clear to ministers … I took the minister for London and the minister for tourism round four visitor attractions in London a couple of weeks ago to Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, London Transport Museum and the Royal Opera House and, at each one, showed them what a COVID safe welcome and visitor experience looks so they were comfortable with that but also made it clear to them that some of those, particularly, the Royal Opera House, Tower of London, Westminster Abbey are so dependent on inbound visitors that they will require additional support way beyond the rest of the sector to really recover sustainably because their visitors, their market won’t come back in any meaningful numbers until next year.

It was really to peg to ministers even if you lift all restrictions on the 21st of June, that’s not the end of the story. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Yeah. You have to be prepared to give more support past that point as well. Those attractions, in particular, that do rely really heavily on overseas visitors, what can they start to think about putting in place at this point? I know there are many attractions that have put on lots of digital events or things that people can engage with online. Do you see that continuing hugely for the rest of the year and then into 2022 as well?

Bernard Donoghue: Yeah. Yeah. I do. I mean, we’ve talked about this actually. At the VAC conference, one of the great achievements of last year was the explosion in digital content and not just the amount of it but the diversity and the brilliance and the innovative use of digital. I think because the last year has been sort of chaotic and odd and no holds barred, it’s just liberated a lot of organisations to take risks with their programming and their content and their decision making in a way that they would never have conceived of before and to speed up some of their decision makings and just to think actually let’s just do it and see what happens.

I think the digital explosion has been absolutely phenomenal so downloadable jigsaws and recipe books and maps and behind the scenes tours and going up into the attic of buildings and into the archives, all of that, absolutely phenomenal. 

It hasn’t particularly connected with audiences who weren’t already interested in those buildings so it’s had some public engagement successes but not massive but what it has made people do is get on the customer journey so if they’re seeing the stuff online, they’ll one day aspire to be there and stand there on the spot because it can’t replace the actual physical experience of being there.

Bernard Donoghue: In terms of digital output, the Bristol Old Vic, and the London Symphony Orchestra, they’ve both made decisions recently that in addition to their live performances, they’re going to broadcast their performances on digital as well. If you’re in Tokyo or San Francisco, you can subscribe to watch these performances, a bit like a Netflix subscription, so you buy a book of 10 performances at reduced costs.

What this means, of course, is that those theatres, that orchestra is getting a whole new audience who are paying money that they never had before but they’re also starting them on a customer journey so that person in Tokyo one day, hopefully, will want to stand in the Bristol Old Vic and see where David Garrick performed. You’re getting them on that customer journey whilst also monetizing it as well.

I think that’s probably the biggest evolution and change to businesses in the course of the last year. You may have got round to it in about three or four years time but all of that has just been sort of contracted and sped up in an extraordinary way.

Kelly Molson: It’s what you said, it’s about risk-taking. I can remember having this conversation with Laura Crossley from the National Football Museum. They came on the podcast to talk about their podcast and they said that actually, it was something they’d been talking about for ages, they were going to do it, and then things kept getting in the way. Ultimately, they just got to a point where they were like, “Let’s just try it. Let’s just throw something at it. Let’s see if it sticks and let’s just do it.” 

I loved that attitude that has been taken by so many different organisations this year and it’s propelled them forward in a digital sense because let’s just try it, who knows what’s going to happen? None of us had a clue what was going to happen last March. That whole attitude about risk-taking I think is really important and I’d really like to see that continue as well.

Bernard Donoghue: Yeah. Me too. I mean, two years ago, people would have thought it would be utterly impossible to run a business with nearly all of their staff working from home and even if they thought it was possible, it didn’t sound particularly attractive because it just sounded too complicated and messy. Look where we are now.

Things can be done. I think one of the things that we’ve done for years is collect all of the visitor numbers from all of our members and then publish them in the media in March. I’ve done some longitudinal research to look at are there common characteristics or behaviours on the part of those visitor attractions that sustainably and successfully grow their visitor numbers but also diversify their business numbers as well? 

I do a presentation and a workshop on this and, funnily enough, there are. There are common behaviours. You can absolutely see them. In that group of about six or seven behaviours, one of them is about the appetite for risk on the part of the board and senior management. The other one is about the confidence to foster creative partnerships with unusual suspects. Don’t just work with the people who are your natural neighbours, either physically or theoretically, but actually, this is something we were talking about at the beginning, try and foster creative partnerships with people who are not like you and, therefore, they bring something completely different to the party.

Kelly Molson: That’s going back to what we talked about, about museums not learning from other museums and theatres not learning from other theatres because you’re just in the same challenges all the time. Looking at that kind of wider sector communication of sector cooperation even and seeing where the boundaries overlap and what you can do that like you said, the theme park or the zoo down the road might be doing but you’re a theatre. How can you embrace some of the things that they’re using?

Bernard Donoghue: Yeah. Yeah. One of my favourite examples recently is that I was down … I’ve managed to get out of London a couple of times since September in the last three weeks and I was down at Bristol going to see the Bristol Old Vic. They’re doing something really, really clever, which is they have just parted ways with their in-house catering company and they’ve just decided that they want to be a community showcase so they’re getting in local Bristol restaurants and chefs to be their in-house caterer for a month and they have a different one every month.

It’s just blindingly brilliant because, A, they’re connecting with their communities, they’re showcasing the diversity of food in the local area, it’s all five-mile menu stuff so it’s all locally sourced. But it also means there’s a new reason to come back every month, even if you don’t go to the theatre to see a show, you’ll go there to eat. I just think that was genius.

Kelly Molson: It is genius.

Bernard Donoghue: I’ve been sharing that with a lot of museums and galleries and heritage attractions saying actually if you’re in-between contracts and you’re thinking about an interim period between catering contracts, why don’t you think about this?

Kelly Molson: That is an absolutely brilliant idea because I love attractions but I’m a big foodie as well so, for me, I’d be looking and going, “Oh, well, I need to book a table at that place at least once a month now because I’m going to go back and I’m going to experience a different food” or, “I’ve really wanted to go to that person’s restaurant, how amazing, I can combine eating that person’s food with a show that’s on at the same time.” It’s a genius idea.

Bernard Donoghue: It really anchors the theatre in its community. We’ve seen over the course of the last year that the wreaking of your community and understanding your community and reflecting back who your community are through your work and your HR programs and your staff recruitment measures and all those kind of things, that’s been absolutely key because if you lose your connection with the community, you’re lost and wondering.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Completely agree. I think, for me, personally, that’s one of the best things that have come out of this. As an individual, I’ve always been really keen on supporting local independents and shopping locally anyway but even more so since this happened because you can see the effect of what’s happened so drastically on your own community. You want to be able to do as much to support that as possible. That is such a great idea. I hope everyone that’s listening picks up on that because I just think that is awesome. Well done, them. 

We’re coming to the end of the podcast interview but I can’t not ask you what’s next for ALVA? What have you got planned that’s coming next? It’s been a pretty full-on year. Are the webinars going to continue? Are your daily bulletins going to continue for the foreseeable future? Sounds like you might need a little bit of a break at some point.

Bernard Donoghue: Yeah. Well, the daily bulletins will certainly continue because I don’t think anything is going to change significantly until September or such. The webinars are coming back. We took a month off from the weekly webinars so we had a webinar every Wednesday from the beginning of January until last month with over 50 case studies from across the UK. I mean, they were all amazing. Absolutely amazing.

I think, by the way, that it’s been through the webinars and also your work as well, that we’ve got to know what people are doing in a little bit more detail and from unusual suspects in a way that we didn’t really before. We always used to rely on big annual conferences to get case studies and stuff. Now we’re just full of case studies everywhere. I love that more generous, more open, more accessible, more sharing environment that we now inhabit.

The webinars are coming back at the end of June. They’ll probably be fortnightly and our first webinars will be the latest wave of visitor sentiment research so what are people thinking about now? Are they confident about going back into attractions? Are they confident about social distancing measures and those kinds of things?

Also, we’ll be doing case studies about post-21st of June, how visitor attractions are going to cope with that dilemma about being told, on the one hand, you can open with no restrictions, on the other hand, knowing well, that their visitors require and expect some degree of social distancing and protection of safety measures. How do you balance those two things? Those will be the first two webinars.

Then beyond that, I suspect global domination. 

Kelly Molson: Of course. It’s the obvious next step, isn’t it?

Bernard Donoghue: Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to get Napoleonic about it all but I think we could be replicated around the world.

Kelly Molson: Well, actually, on that note, what can people that are listening, what can our listeners do to support ALVA? Bearing in mind that I’ve had the bombshell that it’s just the two of you that are doing all of these things. What can our listeners do to help you back?

Bernard Donoghue: Oh, well, the most useful thing and I’ve said this a lot, honestly, it’s been my complete saviour, is that we wouldn’t have been able to achieve things like the reduced rate of VAT for visitor attractions, the continuation of furlough, the construction and the creation of the Cultural Recovery Fund, I mean, all of those critical measures for the tourism sector … I mean, the tourism sector, by a long country mile, has been the part of the economy that’s received the most financial support from the government. 

I think it’s partly because we were hit first, hit hardest, and we’ll take the longest to recover but it’s also because we’ve had amazing data. I know data is a bit un-sexy but, honestly, we couldn’t have got through the meetings that we’ve had with treasury and number 10 and DCMS and public health England and the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Ireland governments without the depth of really, really useful data that visitor attractions have been able to provide us, what their percentage of furlough rates are, where they’ve had to make staff redundancies in what areas, where their visitor numbers have been affected, the difference between the dependence on domestic and inbound tourism, conversion rates in shops, average transaction values.

All of that kind of stuff has just been bliss to work with because it’s really good, really solid, well-evidenced data and as a lobbyist, that’s just gold. Keep giving us information, anecdotes, case studies, and experiences as well. Those case studies can often feed through to government ministers in a way that just a raft of figures can’t. If you can bring it to life, particularly, in small kind of epithets like sanitise the site, not the visitor experience and you can’t furlough a penguin. Really short, understandable, Sesame Street type lobbying, that works.

Kelly Molson: I love that. Keep sharing, keep cooperating, keep helping others, and we’ll get through the other side in the best position that we possibly can.

Bernard Donoghue: Yeah. I’m confident of it. Absolutely confident of it.

Kelly Molson: Good. I’m really glad to hear that. Last question for you, we always end our podcast by asking our guests for a book that they love or a book that’s helped shape their career in some way. Can you suggest one for us today?

Bernard Donoghue: Actually, if I’m going to be really, really honest I’m not sure that I’d be in my job today were it not for Lady Bird books, that I had when I was a kid. Everything from Marie Curie to the plant life of Africa through Joan of Arc through to Christopher Columbus. Honestly, those Lady Bird books ignited my curiosity and the more I got, the more I started just reading about heritage and history and sciences and those kinds of things. 

Yeah. I mean, it’s not quite Brideshead Revisited but if I was going to be completely honest, it would be the collection of Lady Bird books that my parents got for me from car boot sales and secondhand shops when I was a kid.

Kelly Molson: Oh, I love that. I can remember them all lined up on the bookshelf as well with all the different coloured spines. Beautiful. All right. We’ll choose one. Let’s have a think, off-podcast, and we’ll choose one. Then as ever, if you want to win that book when we decide what it is if you head over to our Twitter account and you retweet this episode announcement with, “I want Bernard’s book” then you’re going to be in with the chance of winning it.

Bernard Donoghue: Actually, I have got spare copies of the Lady Bird book of London from about 1960. I’m very, very happy to donate it.

Kelly Molson: Oh my gosh. Well, that would be fantastic. If you’re happy to do that then all right, listeners, get tweeting and you could be in with the chance of winning. That’s a really lovely gift. Thank you. Bernard, I’ve loved having you on today. Thank you so much. You are our season finale as well because we’re going to have a little bit of a break over summer and we’re going to come back again in October once all of you listeners will be so busy over summer with plenty to do. You’ll have more interesting things to do than listen to this podcast every day. 

I’m really delighted that you could be our season finale. Thank you. I know how busy you are and, even more so, having had a chat today. We’ll put all of your contact details and everything into the show notes so people can find where you are. If you’re not following Bernard on Twitter, then, one, you’re a fool and, two, where have you been for the last 15 months? Because, for me, personally, if there’s been anything that I’ve needed to understand about what the sector is going through or go and find, it’s either speaking to people on this podcast or it’s go and follow ALVA and Bernard on Twitter and I’ll always find out the answer to what I want.

Thank you for being such constant support and thank you for all of the hard work that you’ve been putting out there through this pandemic. Really appreciate it.

Bernard Donoghue: Oh, no. It’s my pleasure and for those of you who do follow me on Twitter, I can only apologise for my behaviour on Eurovision song contest night. I just got carried away and it was inappropriate.

Kelly Molson: What goes on on Eurovision, stays on Eurovision, Bernard. Don’t worry about that.

Bernard Donoghue: Thank you very much.


Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.


Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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