SECTOR FOCUS: The Visitor Economy – Businesses who adapted to survive the pandemic

There are many obvious ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly disrupted our way of life but there have been others that have been less than visible but no less devastating.

Businesses across the Liverpool city region, including those here in Knowsley, have faced huge challenges to keep their businesses going over the past 16 months and have demonstrated great resilience. Here are just three examples of how adaptable businesses have had to be…

Acorn Farm

More than 30 years ago Acorn Farm in Kirkby was established as a facility to allow disabled people to work with animals while gaining new skills. According to manager Fiona Smith, who has been there since the beginning, in the early days it offered little more than “a rabbit and two gerbils”.

Since then Acorn Farm has grown into a popular Merseyside visitor attraction, welcoming more than 80,000 people a year seven-days a week. Its animals include sheep, cows, goats, pigs, horses and chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs and even meerkats.

It is a working farm, so often has baby animals including lambs, goat kids, piglets and chicks to see. During weekends and school holidays, the 33 full and part-time team run small animal petting sessions and horse rides. There is also a farm shop selling fresh produce, a cafe and a shop selling plants.

When the first Covid-19 lockdown was announced in March 2020, Fiona wasn’t overly concerned at that point and believed, as so many of us did, that the crisis would be over in a couple of months.

“When we were putting people on furlough in March I was saying ‘I think we’ll probably be ok by the summer’,” said Fiona. “But when we got to June I realised how bad things were and it became obvious we were not going to be able to open for our busy summer period.

“We are a community facility and we want to be as affordable as we can be and we only charge around £3 for entry, a lot less than you would pay at other attractions. We don’t make a surplus in the winter but we do in the spring and summer and that makes us enough to be viable.

“This is not a big place and I realised that with social distancing rules we would not be able to open to the public and still keep the people with disabilities who we support and who are very vulnerable to be Covid-safe.”

However, what Fiona and the staff found even more difficult was the enforced suspension of their day service for people with disabilities, the farm’s original purpose, when the first lockdown was called. “Even now I get emotional thinking about it,” she said. “When the people who we support realised they had to stop coming to the farm they were devastated. They rang us up regularly to ask when they would be able to come back and also to check that we were looking after the animals properly in their absence.”

Pic: Tom with the goats at Acorn Farm

But by July 2020 the farm secured permission from the various authorities to resume their work with disabled people, and that has continued to this day, even through the most recent lockdown, much to the relief of Fiona and her team.

The overall impact of the pandemic has had a major impact on the finances of the business. All of the public attractions, apart from the plant shop, have remained closed. Fiona said: “Yes, we were able to put the staff on furlough but the animals don’t understand lockdowns and they still had to be fed and cared for.

“We also normally do a lot of work with schools but because of the risk of Covid spreading among young people we have had to suspend that for the time being too, which has been really sad.

“We were looking forward to opening on June 21 and when the decision was taken to push that back that was really difficult. It had a big psychological impact on everyone here. However, we are optimistic that we will open up again on July 19 and I