Before early 2020, Blackpool Grand Theatre’s chief executive, Ruth Eastwood, would have told you that there were two main sources of income at the historic venue: beer and tickets.
And yet, that all changed in an instant, when, on 17 March, the Prime Minister decreed that we should “avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues.”
Just a few hours later, the theatre closed and those two vital revenue streams dried up.
Yet, 18 months on, Ruth can look back on a testing time, but one from which the Grand has emerged as a more resilient organisation, with new opportunities that are helping the team to look to the future with optimism.
Ruth explains: “When the theatre closed to the public, there were the inevitable refunds and rescheduling. But even more crucially, without any income, we had to think fast about how we could ensure that the venue, which has been open since 1894, could survive until some kind of normality resumed.”
Ordinarily, the Grand hosts a diverse programme of shows, including comedy, pantomime and musical performances. Its location in the seaside resort means tourists flock to the listed theatre in the summer months.
But the team also prides itself on being there for its local community even when the weather turns cooler and the tourists return home.
Ruth says: “Blackpool Grand Theatre is a registered charity so we have to create a public benefit through art, education and heritage.
“We work year-round with schools and social services to translate our stage shows into learning opportunities for children and young people.
“Each story is a chance to improve literacy and build young people’s decision-making abilities: encouraging them to think about the choices characters made and what they could have done differently.
“So, the theatre’s survival was essential, not only as a generations-old place to gather and be entertained, but also to safeguard the future of our outreach which includes some of the town’s most deprived neighbourhoods.”
Looking for support, Ruth discovered the business development programmes at Lancaster University Management School (LUMS).
She says: “My first experience of a LUMS business engagement programme came at exactly the right time; at the very start of the pandemic.
“I quickly realised that one of the biggest benefits of the programme was the opportunity to share experiences, challenges and solutions with other delegates. It was such a useful source of reassurance and inspiration at a time when we were all making major decisions about the future of our respective organisations.
“We came from hugely different backgrounds and yet I was surprised to find so much common ground with a potato farmer and a logistics expert!
“As the pandemic continued there was, unfortunately, no choice but to make redundancies at the Grand. The LUMS’ business programmes helped me to manage that difficult time and then think pragmatically about how to be productive and resilient with a smaller team.
“For example, those of us remaining decided that we all needed the skills required to run the theatre on a busy night, so we each learned how to sell tickets and offer refunds, to pull a pint and safely use cleaning chemicals.
“We changed job titles so that at peak times, it could be ‘all hands to the pump’ - literally in some cases.”
But, until the theatre could safely reopen and those beer pumps flow again, Ruth and her colleagues still had to find a way to diversify the Grand’s output to bring in more money.
The team began working with LUMS academic, Professor Stefanos Mouzas, to explore how selling intellectual property could become a new source of income.
Ruth explains: “Stefanos taught us about copyright and it quickly became clear that we were giving away our most valuable asset, our creativity, too readily. Instead, we found that we could sell our productions to other venues, or direct to customers online, to help cover costs and cut the risk of each production.
“Our first pay-per-view show was Pantomonium!, last Christmas. It meant that, when we had to cancel the in-person shows when restrictions were tightened, we could still sell tickets for a live online broadcast and recoup some of the outlay.”
Now, the future is looking bright for the theatre: online, on stage and in the community. “In autumn 2021 we reopened to full capacity, whilst following all the UK government guidelines on covid safety,” says Ruth.
“We’re now selling tickets for our first pantomime in almost two years and we’re also exploring how we can develop our work to bring in additional income from online performances.”
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The Lancashire Forum is designed to help owner-managers, MDs and senior decision makers of SMEs to grow their businesses. It is fully funded and available to businesses which are eligible under the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) criteria.
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