Making Good Business Planning Decisions in Difficult Times

15th December, 2022

“Heritage and culture feed the soul, but in straitened times we need to keep demonstrating our value to audiences to keep them coming back for more…” – Louise Emerson

About This Resource

This article was written by Louise Emerson (of on behalf of Creative United for the Rebuilding Heritage training programme.

It is part of a series of resources intended to support heritage organisations through the Cost of Living Crisis in the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic.


The past 12 months have felt increasingly overwhelming as the cost of living rises. Although these are undeniably hard times, it is helpful to deflate the word ‘crisis’ to its more manageable original meaning – which was a decisive or turning point.

CRISIS [Noun]; From Latincrisis’, from Ancient Greekκρίσις’ = a turning point or decisive moment.

In this article, we will examine how to ensure that our heritage organisations remain fit and functional after a period of disruption. We will look consider the following questions:

How do we decide what to change and what not to?

Are there opportunities?

Is now the time to pull the plug on some areas or activities?

How can we keep communicating through change?

As an exercise, business planning is no different in a crisis than at any other time. But during a crisis – particularly one as ubiquitous as the Cost of Living Crisis – we are left with a lot less latitude.

When there are so many considerations, starting solely with costs and incomes can lead to poor decisions. Instead, start with the audiences you serve before moving on to operations.

External Resource: The ‘Business Model Canvas‘ allows you to consider the impact of different options on costs and income in a nonlinear way, helping you to make informed decisions.

Your Value to Your Audiences

At the heart of your organisation is the value that you bring to the people that you serve – often called your ‘value proposition’. This means:

What you do for them and how you make them feel.

What they get from engaging with you.

What issues or inconveniences you can eliminate for them.

What keeps them coming back.

When re-assessing your business plan, these your value proposition should be central to your thinking, influencing all the other decisions you make.

Knowing Your Audiences

Current surveys [August – September 2022] reveal a complex picture in terms of how the public say they will react to the Cost of Living Crisis: the impact is not uniform across socio-economic segments, locations and ages. This means that knowing your audience segments well is crucial.

For example, the data suggests that under-25s are much less worried about the cost of living. As might be expected, although high(er) earners are trimming costs, they still expect to spend some money on non-essentials.

At the end of the day, despite the increasing costs and tightened budgets, people still want to have fun. Many will organise their spending in a way that enables them to have ‘treats’, ensures their children are learning or entertained, or allows them to enjoy new experiences that help them escape or relax.

Heritage and culture feed the soul, but in straitened times we need to keep demonstrating our value to audiences to keep them coming back for more.

Consider What you can Offer for Free

The latest data from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions indicates that all customer segments are increasingly likely to seek out free-to-visit sites. The following segments are currently the most likely to visit free attractions:


47% of those who felt worse off due to the increased cost of living

28% of those who had not felt any impact of the increased cost of living

49% of those who feel financially confident

The picture is significantly different for paid attractions. In this instance, 33% of those currently feeling financially confident anticipated attending more often, while many more of those worse off would be making major cutbacks.

Income from membership renewals will also be impacted, but again, there could be benefits in marketing the value-for-money aspect of membership – particularly to those who are still feeling financially confident or who are not greatly impacted.

External Resource: Download the full report by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions here.

Making Better Predictions

Keep an eye on the survey data emerging across the cultural/heritage sector. More importantly, if you have not already done so, start capturing your own customer data so that you can verify assumptions and make better predictions over the next couple of years, keeping in mind that the cost of living is not likely to reduce until 2024.

Staying Connected to Your Audiences

Your audience relations are key, as we learned through the dim days of the pandemic. Building good communications with clear messaging about your value is vital to retaining audiences. Think about:

How you may change your marketing messages over the next 6 months.

Which channels are the most effective at reaching who you want to reach?

What does your data say? Analyse your data and decide which communications are working and which should be reduced, increased, paused or cut.

Diversification is a long-term commitment for many organisations and there are funds available to support organisations on this journey.

Heritage Digital and the Digital Heritage Hub, help organisations with digital communications and can support you to access diverse audiences.

Remaining Flexible in the Long-Run

Small choices made in the short run can loom large over the long term. It’s important to look at a number of possible scenarios. Think through the ‘what ifs’ so that you are ready if and when things change.

Consider where things might be in 6-12 months’ time and how decisions made now might impact the future. Some of these scenarios might call for immediate actions while others will need to be monitored to ascertain if and when to act.

How You Do Business

When thinking about how to maintain and deliver your value for audiences and visitors, you will simultaneously be thinking about impacts on delivery, operations and resources.

Use your customer value and mission to prioritise the following:

What are you really good at or what is unique about you – better than the alternative?

What best enables you to deliver your value?

What enables you to attract income streams?

Are you open/operational when your visitors want to visit?

What opportunities may be arising from changing local needs?

Are there areas that are draining energy and resources without generating value?

Can you reassess the ‘pet’ projects and the sacred cows? Either put them on hold or put a stop to them altogether.


Look for partnership opportunities that offer a mutual advantage, helping you to maintain your value at a cost you can afford.

Good alliances and collaborations can help you to create additional value, reach more visitors, reduce the resources needed or costs incurred.

When thinking about a possible new partnership, consider the following:

What benefits could current or new associations provide?

Do they have community contacts that you want to access? Could you work together to provide value to those communities/segments?

Or perhaps there are companies in your area who wish to be more embedded in the local community? Would they value your connections in a reciprocal relationship?

Do you have a competitor with whom you could form a complementary relationship, enabling a reduction in costs and a focus on strengths?

Could a partnership eliminate a cost or the need for a particular resource?

Equally, you will need to consider if you are holding onto partnerships which have ceased to be useful. Are they delivering as they were intended to?

Secondary income streams [e.g. Physical or Online Retail]

‘Secondary income streams’ means profitable activities that are additional to your main money-making activities (examples may be space rentals, bag storage or even investments).

If you have commercial income streams, it is important to ensure that they are fully costed. This gives you an accurate picture of the surplus (or deficit) created.

Think carefully about your assumptions when creating these offers.

Keep one eye on the future. Consider the dependencies and connectivity between activities and resources.

Are your secondary activities enhancing your audience or visitors’ experiences, without costing you money?

In a rush to cut costs, critical support or skill can be lost inadvertently. Having a clear view of the customer value will help you to make difficult decisions, whether they are about retaining or reducing.

Your Team

Your staff and volunteers are your most valuable asset. They create your organisation’s culture. When they are valued and supported, it makes hard times much easier.

For many heritage organisations, reassessing business plans may mean change: whether this is the development of new skills, the loss/merging of roles or restructuring.

In times of crisis, leaders can often limit authority to a small top-down team, making all the big decisions and telling the rest what has been decided.

Smarter decisions get made when you ask the team (including volunteers), listen to their suggestions and take time to communicate often and clearly. Involve them in the reassessment of your business plan – they know how things work on the ground. You will not only get smarter decisions, but also everyone involved will understand the challenges being faced and the changes needed.

Seek out ideas, views and insight from across the organisation

Be sensitive

Have a clear rationale

Communicate often and well

Make sure any changes are in keeping with your values and match your objectives

Take time to restore energy and lift spirits

The next few years will not be easy, but it could be a time to learn valuable lessons, hone skills and generate new ideas and ways of working. For those who take time to think strategically and act decisively, a firm foundation will be created for the future.

Revenue Streams and Cost Structure

As you begin to think about your audiences and operations in this way, you will generate a range of scenarios in terms of costs and income. These scenarios can be used it arrive at a cost/revenue structure which will allow you to deliver within your means and model future scenarios.

Good financial management means looking at every cost that will continue to be part of your structure, considering whether you need to bear it, or if it can be shifted to a partner. If you do have to bear it, what negotiations or exchanges can take place to reduce it?  If you are carrying costs (i.e. subsidising other organisations through free services or resources) you will need to consider if that is still affordable and desirable.

Price-cutting is not usually the answer; maintaining price and reducing the cost will serve you better. For charged sites, time-limited offers and incentives which initiate additional sales could be attractive, particularly at lower traffic times or for particular target groups.

Spending reserves on cost-of-living increases is not recommended: reserves are needed to reduce risk in fundraising and for unforeseen emergencies. Reducing operational and energy costs should therefore be a major focus. Making this part of everyone’s role and turning it into a challenge can make the necessary reductions less onerous, more motivating and even a cause for celebration. It will also reduce your environmental impact.

Partial or seasonal closure may be an option for some, but this needs to be carefully considered in light of all the knock-on impacts.


In closing, the key steps towards good business planning in difficlt times are:

Put your audience at the heart of your plan and keep them close

Listen to your team and communicate well

Focus on delivering value to audiences and/or visitors

Eliminate areas that are not delivering your plan, or are draining resources

Keep an eye on the medium term and check your assumptions as things change

Form strategic alliances in order to reduce costs or increase income

Adapting your business plan is personal to your organisation, so, listen and watch what is going on, but make your own decisions based on your unique organisation, your visitors and your local situation.

This article was written by Louise Emerson (of on behalf of Creative United for the Rebuilding Heritage training programme.

Stock images from Pixabay.

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