Monday, 10 August 2020

Museum brings in parking charge

Museum brings in parking charge

THE River & Rowing Museum in Henley is to limit its opening hours and introduce a parking charge in a bid to reduce the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis.

The venue in Mill Meadows, which will re-open on Thursday, expects the number of visitors in the year to April 2021 to be reduced to as low as a fifth on its previous estimate.

A record 118,000 people visited the museum in the year to March 31, 2019, producing income of £226,296.

The venue was hoping to better these figures but it has been shut during the period when almost half of visits are normally made while footfall between now and March 31 is expected to be lower than usual.

The museum, which is run as a charity, must limit visitor numbers and keep some areas closed to enforce social distancing.

Furthermore, school visits, which are an important source of revenue, are not expected to return to normal until September next year.

Sarah Posey, the museum’s director, said the venue had taken a “significant hit” since it closed on March 16 and this needed to be made up quickly.

For the time being, the museum will only be open between 10am and 4pm from Thursday to Monday whereas previously it was open from 10am to 5pm every day.

Visitors by car will now play a flat fee of £4 to park for the day. Patrons and members of the museum’s friends scheme will receive a limited number of vouchers allowing them to park free of charge.

There are no plans to raise admission fees even though the charge for a single day’s entry was reduced last summer in a bid to boost visitor numbers.

Dr Posey said: “The impact of the pandemic has accelerated our need for changes while also giving us pause for thought and reflection.

“We have introduced the car parking charge reluctantly but all proceeds will support our charitable purposes. It was the only free car park in the centre of Henley but as well as needing the income, we want to push a ‘greener living’ measure and encourage people to walk, cycle or take public transport.

“We have to ensure our long-term stability so it’s a change we need to make to address our budget and ensure we’re here for future generations.

“We rely on income from visitors to function, which in turn comes from admission, retail, the café, venue hire, events and school visits.

“I don’t want to go into the figures but it’s a fairly significant hit to be closed to the public for four months, especially with further uncertainty as to how quickly the numbers will return to normal.

“Our immediate concern has been to address the current position in this financial year and we’re keeping the situation under very careful review.”

The museum also hopes to cut its long-term costs by installing more environmentally-friendly lighting systems.

There are also plans to install electric car charging points and bicycle racks to encourage greener travel.

“The specifics are still to be determined but we will be looking to progress these in the autumn,” said Dr Posey. “We’ve wanted them for some time as we want to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”

The museum closed on March 16, the day that Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised the public to stay away from crowded public places. The 21 staff, who are either full- or part-time, were kept working behind the scenes for a week until the Government imposed the lockdown.

Most were then put on furlough with only a skeleton workforce remaining to maintain the venue.

Some were brought back to prepare for the re-opening and the museum will employ others on reduced hours under the flexible furlough scheme.

Dr Posey said this had been an “absolutely amazing” source of support, as had its friends and those who joined the scheme in the early days of lockdown.

The museum was also supported by the Informality gallery in Market Place, Henley, which donated a share of print sales from a recent exhibition by photographer Adrian Houston.

“We really appreciate the community’s help at this challenging time, including those who became friends even though they knew they wouldn’t be able to visit,” said Dr Posey. “There wasn’t a significant increase in membership but it was noticeable and the first few times it happened, I got in touch personally to say thank-you.

“In response, people said they were glad to help because they appreciate that we’re here for the people of Henley as well as visitors. It was a tremendously thoughtful approach and one which many people shared.

“We’re equally thankful to our long-standing supporters, including Henley Royal Regatta, Invesco and the patrons in the Henley 100 Club.

“We really need our supporters and hope people will continue to visit, and encourage others to do the same, so that we are still flourishing into the future.”

Despite the financial pressure, the museum chose not to open when it was allowed to on July 4 as the trustees wanted more time to make safety arrangements.

Initially, it will only open its downstairs gallery, which will host an exhibition of Gertrude Hermes’ work until September 17.

Admission will be limited to preserve distancing.

The upstairs galleries should
re-open in September but the Wind in the Willows display downstairs will remain shut because it is such a tight space.

Visitors must wear a face covering and provide their address as part of the Government’s “track and trace” system to reduce the risk of a second wave of infections.

Dr Posey said the Government only released museum guidelines at the last minute and her team was still reviewing them while applying for Good to Go accreditation.

The title, awarded by the Visit Britain tourist initiative, will confirm it is following best practice to protect staff and customers from covid-19.

Dr Posey said: “Very few museums opened in July and many more are opening in August, with some waiting until later in the year.

“We know some are sitting out this season altogether and re-opening next year so I’m pleased that we’re doing it when we are.

“Our staff have worked really hard to make this possible and it’s very much appreciated.”

In the year to March 31, 2019, takings from all the museum’s trading activities, including the shop and café sales, made up just over a quarter of its total income of £844,241. The rest came from other sources, including donations.

Its expenditure that year was £1.4 million but it also made almost £530,000 in investments, resulting in net expenditure of £42,707.

The museum land is leased from Henley Town Council, which charges a “peppercorn” rent and £6,300 a year to operate the car park.

The council supports the new parking charge.

Mayor Ken Arlett, who is an ex-officio museum trustee, said: “It makes no difference to the council and there’s nothing in their lease to stop them doing it — we have looked when it was discussed in the past.

“Even if it wasn’t permitted, we’d probably have allowed it anyway to help at a difficult time.

“I encourage people to support the museum. I still don’t think many Henley residents are aware of it but it has a lot to offer. It’s a credit to the town and long may it continue.”

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