Scottish Seabird Centre – 60 days into COVID19 Closure

Our CEO provides an update on how we’re continuing to try to chart a course through the financial impact of COVID19


In the immediate aftermath of closing our Centre’s doors to COVID19 you could feel the spotlight on the leadership and management of our Charity. What has gone wrong? Why is the financial picture so challenging? Who is to blame? But, as time is passing, I believe a greater appreciation is developing that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong. It is just that when you rely heavily on a seasonal tourism income to support year-round charitable activities, and that income source stops overnight, a very big cliff edge appears quickly. At times that is what it’s felt like – a cliff edge that’s crumbling away from under your feet and you’re scrabbling to get back onto safer, more solid ground.

Business resilience
We’d already implemented steps to reduce the reliance on our not-for-profit income including a restructuring of the business at the end of 2019. The recent investment in the refurbishment of our learning hub and discovery experience was specifically designed to support the enhancement of the marine educational and science communication capabilities we have. This was layered with a carefully thought through Strategic Plan for 2020-2025: Inspiring people to care for our marine environment intended to focus us more on growing the partnerships to strengthen our position as a key contributor to conservation, environmental education and science communications in Scotland.

We’re not alone
But COVID19 put all this change in jeopardy. Both disturbingly and comfortingly we know we are not alone. The Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions (ASVA), and other representative bodies, have pulled together evidence from the sector and used it to provide the bigger picture context on the challenges being faced. It is clear that many businesses are vulnerable and there’s a need for long-term support to get the tourism and hospitality sector back on its feet again. We are grateful to ASVA, and others, for all their evidence gathering and advocacy work. This is being heard and appears to be helping to shape support from both the UK and Scottish Governments.

Working towards financial stability
We’re now in a position where we have a little more time to try to put a complete funding solution package in place. The Third Sector Resilience Grant shored up the very immediate cliff edge. Then two very significant individual pledges of financial support were received which led us to believe that maybe, just maybe, we might be able to see a way through the financial impact of COVID19. But, we’re not there yet and we still need your support.

One of the challenges we have is to lever in a further £200k, before the end of July 2020, to unlock some of the pledged resource. So, we are talking to East Lothian Council and also took the decision to launch a public and members appeal in early May – the first time such a step has been taken since the Charity was established. The Urgent Public Appeal received the backing of both Chris Packham and Simon King who said:


“… Connecting people with nature, generating an affinity for it and then drawing upon this love to prompt proper conservation has never been more important. So please do whatever you can to support the centre through these challenging times. Thank you.” Chris Packham

“The Scottish Seabird Centre plays a vital role in bringing us closer to the magnificent natural heritage of our seas by providing state of the art interpretation and educational facilities to many thousands of people. It is a bridge between the wild spirits of the ocean and the enquiring minds who want to discover it ….” Simon King

We have been quite overwhelmed with the level of donations received. We raised £71,000 within the first fortnight of ‘go live’ of the appeal. Even more importantly there have been so many warm messages of support, from a wide range of people and organisations. These reveal the story of how the Scottish Seabird Centre has played a part in their lives and how much they want to see us continue to be able to do so. We thank each and every one of you.

Looking forward
There are sufficient prospects now to enable us to look a little further ahead again. We don’t yet have much certainty about what a reopening will look like, or the timing of that. However, the very fact that we’re starting to consider and plan out different scenarios is a positive sign that the cliff edge may have receded just a little.

Our boat operators Seafari, ForthWild and Braveheart are also looking at how they can restart the informative and fun wildlife experiences around the islands in the Firth of Forth, so that we can start to delight locals and visitors again. The safety and well-being of both staff and visitors will be at the heart of our approach.

Over 90% of our staff team are furloughed under the terms of the UK Coronovirus Job Retention Scheme. These individuals have found their own new routines whether that’s home schooling, caring for family members, DIY or hobbies, supporting community responses, or advancing their knowledge and skills through online learning. But, they would rather be back in the workplace delivering on our charitable objectives and delighting in providing the 5-star service to our customers that is the reputation of our visitor attraction.

One of our immediate priorities is how we secure funding to bring some members of our team out of furlough so that they can produce new learning resource, digital materials  and content for our new website. Our financial position is neither strong nor secure enough right now for us to be able to afford to lose the Government furlough payments, so these charitable activities are largely stalled for now. We need to explore other funding opportunities to unlock these activities.


A digital world
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling a bit ‘zoomed out’ at the moment. The working environment has by necessity been switched to digital and, as part of a greener economy and society, we must learn from the changes and carry best practice forward into new ways of working. But let’s not forget that some of the past was also good. The social and mental health benefits of face to face interactions, the skills and confidence that can be developed through indoor and outdoor learning cannot be replaced in entirety with a virtual world. Many of the people we interact with are excluded by a digital-only approach and we can’t allow those inequalities to widen.

I am fortunate that throughout lockdown I have been able to continue to appreciate the landscapes and the nature around us. I have no doubt it’s what has kept my own well-being in balance. As I take time to observe more closely the aspects of rural life unfold, as the days and weeks of lockdown go past, it re-enforces for me that we absolutely must have a healthy environment at the heart of our society and our economy.

Next steps
In my initial 30 day closure I signed off by saying “I hope that people will get behind us in the coming weeks/months.” Many of you have in so many, different ways and I thank you for that. You have given us the opportunity to believe that we may survive to continue building on the 20 year legacy of our Charity.

I may yet find myself writing a 90 day COVID19 closure blog. If I do, I hope it will continue to demonstrate that we are making progress and will be in a stronger position to deliver our charitable activities in the months and years ahead.

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