Business Planning for Heritage in Uncertain Times

17th January, 2022

Be comfortable knowing that you do not know all the answers. Be comfortable making your best estimate with the information you have, and be willing to change your mind when new information comes along.” – Louise Emerson


How do you update – or even create – a business plan in times of uncertainty? This short guide talks you through the considerations that should inform your business planning for heritage – from your own personality to your operating context. It also offers tools to help you prioritise what is important, and know when to consider new work strands or partnerships.

If you are a small organisation, the end result does not need to be long: 6 – 8 pages informed by a clear view of your options and circumstances is plenty to give you structure for the year ahead.

About this material

This blog draws from a talk given by Louise Emerson (of on behalf of Creative United for the Rebuilding Heritage training programme. You can watch the original webinar here. However, we have updated links to some of the resources you might want to consult: from audience sentiment trackers to shared ticketing system options.


Escape from the ‘Valley of Despair’

Heritage sites have lived through particularly tumultuous times since early 2020, and many leaders will have found themselves at the very bottom of the Kubler Ross curve at some points – often nicknamed ‘the Valley of Despair’. This guide will help you create flexible business planning for heritage so that you know when you should hold steady, where to make changes- and how to live with uncertainty for the road ahead.

Image shows the Kubler Ross change curve. This is a graph showing a rollcoaster like curve first gaing downwards from shock to denial, frustration and finally rock bottom to depression. But then it rises up again through experiment (engagement with the new situation), decision (learning how to work in that situation) and integration - a new high point with change integrated and a renewed individual.

Louise Emerson at

Don’t plan alone! – the positives of working with a team

Decide who will be updating or creating your business plan. In larger organisations, this may be led by your senior management team. But if you are in a very small organisation, consider including volunteers or other advisors. It is much easier to think holistically if you have a range of views.

Working with a group of staff and volunteers will help you bring people along with you – they will understand what you don’t know, how some decisions are made, and what is driving change. Being part of a team reviewing your business plan can be a powerful motivator to the people helping you to deliver it.

Consider your leadership style

Understanding your own personality, leadership style and appetite for risk is also important as you make a plan – because these will inevitably shape what you decide to do. The image below maps out how a more trusting, collaborative approach (on the left of the picture) gives more flexibility to deal with challenge and change. High control leadership (on the right) may mean you are on top of things in predictable circumstances, but is likely to limit the insights and support available to you – and leave you dealing with vulnerabilities alone if something unforeseen occurs.

One size does not fit all, and your colleagues and the circumstances will also shape your leadership approach – but insight into where you sit in this model will help.

This graphic shows how to consider leadership style. To the left are a bunch of qualities which come from a community-minded leadership style: shared responsibility, collaborative, flexibility, informed choices. These naturally lead to outcomes of trust, understanding, feedback, willingness and adaptability. To the right are the qualities of ‘high control’ leadership, including speed, and clear direction, but with the implication that you have all the answers. Surrounding them are some of the disadvantages - ignorance, fear, vulnerability, limits to insight and no buy in.

Louise Emerson at

Learning from the Pandemic

When looking at case studies of heritage organisations that coped well with the pandemic, one recurring theme has been looking beyond their own walls: finding solidarity and collaborating with partners that they had not considered before.

Not all of the approaches below are going to be right for every organisation, or as a solution to every kind of business challenge. But you may find it helpful to go into your planning session with these in mind. For some, stretching quite far from the usual core activity in an emergency (for instance, arts organisations participating in food drops) led them to a stronger position, and with a better reputation in their communities in the long run.

1. Can you collaborate on infrastructure? Think about some of your back end functions and whether you can share these with other similar organisations. Heritage organisations can often lose out on economies of scale, whether that’s a ticketing system, online shop or collections management system.

2. Local connections. Organisations with strong local links have typically emerged better from the pandemic.  In some cases, large national organisations have needed to partner with smaller, local organisations with grassroots connections in order to continue meaningful work.


Case Studies: Local Connections in Practice

The report ‘Townscapes: The Value of Social Infrastructure’ from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge says that during Covid, towns like Tavistock, Truro and Mold, which have higher levels of ‘social infrastructure’ also generated a greater number of mutual aid groups to weather the crisis – a correlation that can be mapped across hundreds of towns.

For example, the culture and community centre @TheGrange in Blackpool switched during lockdown to providing food parcels, growing kits and check-ins with vulnerable residents. Heritage can also generate ‘pride in place’ and social bonds – in Ramsey, Cambridgeshire residents drew from Ramsey Rural Museum, a Victorian walled garden and remains of a WW2 training camp to revitalise the area. This sort of local connectivity helps in difficult times, creates bonds and possibilities that remain after a crisis – and may also be a positive when it comes to attracting funding.

1. Consider the overlap between heritage, health and wellbeing. There is growing interest in work where wellbeing and culture overlap – some heritage sites have found common ground with organisations in health, wellbeing or social care. The newsletter of the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance is a good place to start both for sample projects and a heads up when relevant funds open to supporting this kind of work. The Heritage Alliance ‘Heritage, Health and Wellbeing Report’ also looks at when and why you might want to do this kind of work.

2. Training online. Post-Covid, the shift to online learning and ‘blended’ and ‘hybrid’ events is here to stay. Some organisations have found new audiences virtually – perhaps even internationally – which they are keen to keep. People have also been willing to pay for online events that teach them marketable skills.

3. Nature and parks. Venues with outdoor space have found it easier to be resilient to the pandemic – attracting people when many venues were closed. Heritage venues with gardens consistently got more footfall during and after the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. This is on top of a new trend of venues looking again at their green spaces in the light of the climate emergency, the effectiveness of vegetation in cooling cities and an interest in biodiversity both in rural and urban settings. If you have outside space, consider how you might harness this for new activities.


Case Studies: Making the Most of Your Outdoor Space

The Museum of East Anglian Life has reoriented itself to become a museum of food – growing food crops in its grounds, training local people in farming and cooking skills, and linking that back to its collections as a museum of a rural and agricultural area.

Meanwhile, the Natural History Museum is radically rethinking its gardens, reconceptualising them as an outdoor museum telling the history of life on earth, and an exemplar of promoting biodiversity for planetary health.

Case Studies: Reinventing the High Street

With around 17,000 chain stores disappearing in the year up to August 2021, and remote working and online shopping here to stay, it is widely accepted that high streets will need to be reconfigured for the future. Increasingly that vision includes events, entertainment, natural features and meeting places – including the many heritage sites and museums within a 15 minute walk of high streets large and small. Historic England is running a ‘heritage and the high street’ programme until 2024, exploring mutual benefits from collaboration. This work began well before the pandemic, but the trend has become even more important as a result of it.

What’s in Your Circle?

When business planning for heritage, this diagram of the ‘circle of control’ helps you to think about the environment you are operating in. At the centre is your organisation and what happens within it. Whether it’s in-house skills, organisational culture or budgets, you have a high level of control in terms of what you do with these assets – and in being able to change tack if things go wrong.

A drawing of the circle of control, showing three circles nested inside each other. At the centre are the issues easiest for you to directly affect, within your own organisation - for example budgets, organisational culture, comms, decisions and who you decide to work with. The next circle out is your ‘circle of influence’ for example customer behaviour, funder budgets or cuts - where you can’t directly control, but may affect things through relationships. The third ‘circle of concern’ shows things that will affect you and need watching, but are beyond your control - for example government pandemic guidelines.

Louise Emerson at

Beyond your organisation is a ‘circle of influence’ – visitors, customers and partners who you deal with regularly, who will be influenced by what you say, and who will largely wish your organisation well. Ask yourself what assumptions your planning is making about their actions – and if there are further ways you can positively influence them towards your ends.

Finally, the ‘circle of concern’ covers issues significant to your organisation where you have no influence. In the context of the pandemic, that might include vaccines and how well they hold up against new waves and new variants. It is important to be conscious of these – they may profoundly influence how things play out. But it’s also important not to waste energy on what you can’t influence or change, and plan for where you can.

Finally, consider where all of these elements of your plan fit within your circle of control.

Governance and leadership

Content, events and programmes

Finance and income generation

Audience and stakeholders

People more generally associated with your organisation

Your collections and site

Working practice and organisational culture.

Exercise: Review Where You Are at the Moment

In the light of where your organisation is placed at the moment – its main areas of difficulty and success, and considering what you can and can’t control, ask yourself:

What have you got right?

What would you do differently?

What’s emerging – where are the glimmers of opportunity?

What are you going to stop?

People: Staff and Audiences

Governance and leadership

Over times of radical change you may have relied on your Board more – and/or realised you need to bring in new skills, either immediately or over a couple of years. Remember that funding organisations are always looking at your board and asking if it reflects what you’re saying about yourself. You may find yourself diversifying, and bringing in younger people with new skills.

If you have to reduce staffing levels

You may have already had to make difficult decisions about reducing staff, deciding which skills are most needed as well as adapting to the absence of volunteers and staff working from home. Ask yourself what worked well and what didn’t.

Remember too that being a little more open about how and why decisions are made, make them easier for people to accept.

Your audiences

As of the close of 2021, many are finding audiences are returning, but at much lower levels than pre-pandemic – for museums, some early estimates are around 40 – 50% of previous footfall, although some individual sites are bucking the trend. Some seaside resorts and areas of natural beauty received larger-than-usual influxes of visitors over the summer, giving a much-needed supply of optimism. The picture has been more mixed in cities, especially London, most affected by the lack of international visitors.

Whatever your situation, a crucial first step is to keep communicating with your audiences. This will be second nature to many, but some smaller organisations may find that they are making an audience comms plan for the first time.

Here are some questions to structure your thinking:

Has the core of your audience returned? If not, explore the visitor sentiment resources below, along with more local knowledge to discover what is blocking return, and what will help overcome wariness about making a visit.

Have you expanded to attract new audiences (whether online or those visiting attractions closer to home for the first time). How do you keep these new contacts?

Are you thinking of teaming up with another organisation, to encourage a cross-over of visits and audiences? Are there situations where previous competitors should now become collaborators?

List your stakeholders, whether they are patrons, members, funders and how they can help.

Organisations that are membership run, including the Heritage Alliance, the Association of Independent Museums, Arts Marketing Association or Association for Cultural Enterprises. These and others will be asking questions about what you need and how they can support you.


Visitor Sentiment Resources

Much of the data feeding your business planning for heritage will be generated from your own visitor stats, surveys or financial data. But some other sources giving a countrywide picture may also be useful.

Visit Britain has been tracking sentiment across the population since the beginning of the pandemic, including confidence audiences feel in coming back to different types of attractions.

The Office for National Statistics has offered useful figures ranging from the extent of face mask-wearing to the percentage of people working from home.

If you sign up for newsletters from either The Audience Agency or Centre for Cultural Value, you will find both offer fascinating insights on how audience segments are responding to the pandemic, rates of return, and wider insights into motivations and attitudes.

The DCMS ‘Taking Part‘ survey gives data on cultural participation.

Income Generation and Resources

If dealing with fluctuating income streams, consider what will resume, what is gone forever and where there is new potential. This might also be the opportunity to choose to cease some activity that isn’t serving your central purpose.

There’s evidence that although schools have appreciated the development of digital offers, they have also hugely missed real-world experiences.

It’s easier to keep existing members than to recruit new ones. Members continue to be more philanthropic than usual, but some will be facing financial difficulty. You may want to ask people for more information if they decide not to renew, and ask yourself whether you can make an offer to keep them on board.

Life events: some weddings have been put off to 2022, others are holding events to celebrate someone’s life on the first anniversary of their death, especially when an adequate funeral wasn’t possible due to the pandemic. Heritage sites can be ideal venues.

There has been an upsurge in hobbies during the pandemic – can you link some of these to your venue and events offer?

Can efficiencies improve your financial situation?

“It is worth reviewing how you monitor incomes and outcomes so that you have the true costs and financial value of everything you do.” – Louise Emerson

Many organisations have had to make cuts over the past year; these might not last forever. Here are some issues to consider:

Sharing basic facilities. Heritage organisations often lose out on economies of scale in back-office functions, ticketing systems and shops – and some plans were in place even before the pandemic to address this.

For example, the Art Fund has launched a free ticket management system designed for museums and galleries, which has had significant take-up in 2021.

Finding out the real cost of what you are doing. Some organisations believe that their online shop is making a profit, but often they are not considering the full costs of e.g. staff time, bug fixing. However, remember that you may retain some loss-leaders because they meet your core purpose.

Staffing decisions. If you are making difficult decisions about staff costs, consider which core skills you need every day, and which specialist or short-term skills could be brought in by a freelance.

Scenario Planning

People can feel despondent about scenario planning because they think it involves contemplating all the worst things that can happen. The best way to approach it is to take the situations you face or immediate decisions you have to make one by one. For example, income generation might be an issue, or you might be facing cutting staff, or you might be considering a change of service. By restricting yourself to one issue, you make the process more effective and you save time and energy.

Then look at the key factors that have a bearing on each issue, whether short term or long term. If some factors are highly correlated and move together, then put them together: don’t generate hundreds of scenarios that falsely separate the issues (see the worked examples below which demonstrate this).

Creating a scenario matrix

Next, create some scenario matrices – these will help you decide which issues you are going to prioritise, and which you are going to ignore from your list. The matrices allow you to see what is important to you, and the ways that these issues might play out.

Worked examples

Income generation – in this example the horizontal axis looks at income from visitors returning, or not – and the vertical axis looks at another major source of funds, in this case, local authority support. Then you can see the consequences of four potential outcomes – for example, where visitors return against a background of local authority cuts, “visitor is king” and your business plan will want to maximise time spent on optimising their experience.

Image shows an xy axis to plot out scenarios. In this example The x axis charts whether visitors are anxious or keen to return, and the y axis whether there are impending funding cuts or income is secure. Each area of the graph then considers how to respond to these variables - for instance if there are funding cuts, but visitors are keen to return, you need a plan where ‘the visitor is king’. Where visitors are anxious about returning, but there are budget cuts, getting marketing right might be your primary response. Any two factors can be charted against each other on this kind of scenario planning graph.

Louise Emerson at

Schools – This matrix looks at how to engage schools, against background considerations of whether your venue is able to open, and how much schools want to engage. If your venue is open, but schools are in no hurry to return, your business plan may want to spend more resources on diversifying to attract other audiences; if your venue is closed but your school audiences are keen, you will want to devote time to a creative programme that can engage digitally or off-site.

This second example of the scenario planning matrix shows whether venues are open or shut along the X axis (with intermediate stages if only partial opening is possible) and the reaction of schools along the y axis - from being keen to engage or adopting other activities. Again, outcomes are mapped out in each area of the graph - for example if your venue is open but schools are uninterested, then your plan for that scenario is to diversify content to reach other audiences. Options in other regions of the matrix include schools returning or a distributed programme.

Louise Emerson at

Once you have a number of these matrices you can start identifying the priorities that will inform your business planning for heritage – e.g. which is ultimately more important to you out of your general visitor audience and schools audience?

You may decide that some matrices are of such low priority that you can remove them altogether. For the ones that are left, apply a timeline, and feed each issue into your business plan.

The Revisiting your business plan grid is divided into four quadrants. Top left is what is known about your organisation - with the advice to ‘challenge your truths’. Top right is what you are known for, with advice to collaborate. Bottom left is ‘known unknowns’ inviting organisations to find out and test their assumptions. Finally the bottom left quadrant is the entirely unknown - things that can be discovered by scenario planning and experimentation.

Louise Emerson at

These techniques should give you some key considerations when writing a business plan or renewing it. Depending on your own organisation, some of these areas will be more relevant than others.

Top tips when business planning for heritage

Keep it simple – you don’t need to have a business plan that is more than 6 – 8 pages long.

Ground yourself – remind yourself of where you and your organisation are strong, and what issues you don’t have to worry about.

Collaborate if you can – even if it is just to become more knowledgeable, but if you can also cut your costs by sharing your services, that is a win.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable. We have been living through a period that is worse than normal, but you will never have all the answers when business planning, and dealing with uncertainty is an important skill.

Prioritise – ignore some things and focus on what will make a difference

Look after your team and yourself!

This article was written by Kate Smith of Goosegrass Culture.

Adapted from content delivered in partnership with:

Stock images from Pixabay.

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