Chester Zoo CEO on the ‘massive challenge’ facing the attraction after Covid-19 lockdown

Chester Zoo is facing up to the “massive challenge” of the Covid-19 crisis with hopes they can get the site open next month to help them start to plug a growing financial black hole.

Mark Pilgrim, CEO of Chester Zoo, spoke to Business Live, as the site deals with weeks of lockdown closure and the prospect that the impact of the pandemic will continue for months to come.

In the short term there is no cash crisis as the zoo had recently taken on an extended loan facility for capital works that is now being spent on running costs.

But Mr Pilgrim warned there would be long term consequences with the prospect that if this drags into 2021 they would be in “serious trouble”.

He said there would be difficult decisions in the future to cut costs.

They are keen to open in June with reduced visitor numbers and social distancing in place but say on the current UK Government timetable July is looking the most likely month when the gates will open again.

He said: “It is a massive challenge. We closed on March 21 and have been closed since then.

“We would have expected to make £5m in that period so you can see it is a massive gap in revenue.

Mark Pilgrim, CEO of Chester Zoo
(Image: Chester Zoo)

“We have placed 270 staff into furlough – out of about around 500 we have here. These are visitor facing staff but we can’t furlough zoo keepers, vets, maintenance, we can’t just mothball like many other charities and businesses.”

Mr Pilgrim said they are fortunate that the current crisis comes after a positive 10 years.

He added: “This comes on the back of a very successful decade and this has come from investing in the zoo, in our exhibits, to generate growth and to keep bringing the public in.

“We had just increased our loan facility to support our capital projects for the next few years – we are now living on that money to just keep us running. Projects are now on hold for two years.

“We had projected that this August we would owe £7m – now we expect that to be £17m.

“That loan means that we don’t have a short term crisis, we can feed our animals, we are not talking about putting animals down.

Measures have been taken to make the park safe once it is reopened
(Image: Chester Zoo)

“But we don’t know how long this will go on for, if this goes on beyond the end of the year then we are in serious trouble.

“Any business with massive overheads and zero income will go bust at some point – we are fortunate at the moment but all debts have to be paid back.

“I am optimistic but we really will need to cut back on everything to survive.

“We are damaged but we are not broken.”

On the issue of getting back open, he said: “We want to get back open as soon as possible.

“We have an online booking system and can manage how many people we allow in each day, we are used to managing large crowds and already have a one way system in place.

“We have 130 acres here and zoos on the continent are already back open.

“We are ready to open with reduced numbers and could be back open withing three or four days of an announcement.

“We want to be open by June 1 as we believe we are similar to garden centres but currently the Government is saying July 1.

“We need to get open so we can start taking in money again, another month would make a huge difference.

“We know it is also about confidence, so people will feel safe coming back.

“We know there are some that will not want us to reopen that early. We have though taken all the measures we can to make the zoo ‘Covid safe’ for visitors, staff and our animals.”

Along with partners at the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums they are lobbying for long term Government support.

A £14m UK Government zoo fund has been set up but this was aimed at small zoos at risk of having to put animals down.

Mr Pilgrim said: “That fund was not for zoos like us, we are not in the position of putting down animals – there are lots of schemes but nothing that fits us, we can’t take on more debt. We are not expecting a big government bailout but would like measures that could help us.”

The support of their members has been a huge positive factor.

He said: “We had expected a big drop off in membership (which stands at 220,000) but this has not happened – we are very grateful for that.

“That money has been a lifeline to us.

“We also have an appeal running which has been supported although I think people think everything is okay because we are not in immediate crisis but that is not to say we don’t have huge challenges.”

See the Chester Zoo website for fundraising and membership details.

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