H&E North discovers how one stadium north of the border has played to its strengths as it explores inventive new avenues of revenue in a courageous bid to keep its team afloat.

Dougie Hanley is the Stadium Manager at Falkirk Stadium, home to Scottish League One side Falkirk FC. All areas of the 8,000-capacity arena, excluding the auditorium and pitch which are overseen by the football club, fall under his remit. This involves managing 10 commercial tenants including Visit Falkirk and Business Gateway Falkirk, operating an on-site café and hosting a range of meetings and private parties in the stadium’s corporate boxes.

Up until the March lockdown, Dougie and his small team enjoyed a number of repeat bookings, with regular corporate meeting clients returning week-on-week. When the stadium was forced to cease operations, the building was closed to external businesses other than tenants and the football squad as they resumed training in July.

“Since we’ve returned, inquiries for event space have dried up, as we expected them to. We’ve had to reduce the capacities of all our rooms. Our largest corporate box, which could host 70, now has a capacity of 22 and our smaller boxes are down from around 10 to just two if we’re to comply with social distancing. It’s had a significant impact on our business and the scale of events we’re able to deliver.”

Match day hospitality was another key source of revenue, the football club procuring the service of the café to fulfil the catering for fans and corporate guests. On a busy matchday the kitchen could be serving three course meals to over 200 covers across the corporate boxes. That number is now zero, as Scottish sporting grounds remain empty of fans for the foreseeable future.

The difficult decision to furlough his entire catering, marketing and sales staff was made – only Dougie and a lean operations team remained: “There was just no way we were going to make any sales at that point. A few weeks ago, we were able welcome back the majority of our staff on flexible furlough. The first job for our Sales Director was to phone around our clientele and get the lie of the land. In terms of corporate meetings, we had the odd enquiry, but most of our regular clients are either working from home or conducting meetings remotely, so they don’t have the same reasons to use our facilities.”

Situated 30 minutes between Glasgow and Edinburgh off the main M8 motorway link, the stadium’s accessibility has helped it realise other avenues of income. The British Red Cross regularly conducted first aid courses from the stadium and were one of the first to return once restrictions eased: “Our location put us in a strong position to pick up a couple of new training course providers who obviously can’t work remotely due to the practical nature of their courses.”

The novelty of working in your pyjamas has long since worn off, another aspect of lockdown Dougie has tried to make the best of by offering the WFH crowd a welcome change of scenery: “We’ve seen a fair bit of interest in our hot desking promotion – we offer two-hour slots in our corporate boxes for the price of a hot drink. We have fast Wi-Fi, a waiting service and strict sanitising measures to put people at ease. Many users bolt on an extra hour or two, some will buy a lunch. It’s not a great deal of money but £10 here and there adds up. Our café is open for our tenants anyway, so it’s no hardship to open up a box. We need to entice people to come in and let them know we’re open for business and if there’s a demand, we can open up our larger meeting spaces.”

Aside from the rent received as landlords, the main area Dougie is trying to drive revenue is through the catering outlet: “We have a fantastic team here and the chef is always looking at trying new things. We’ve always done afternoon teas, but we recently relaunched the offering, tweaking the price to get people in. He’s currently working on a Christmas afternoon tea with a fantastic idea to offer a roast turkey and trimming skewer with cranberry dip.”

The skewers may be an interesting quirk to coax visitors through the doors, but can Dougie and his team’s ingenuity stem the tide of punishing restrictions? “Our area has been in strict lockdown with severe curtailments to the hospitality sector for the past two months. The overriding message is to work from home and that’s what people are doing. That’s 150 members of staff from our tenants who aren’t coming into the café, so we’ve had to tweak our hours accordingly. Plus, Scottish government is currently restricting hospitality from opening after 6pm, so our catering offering is limited in that respect.”

For Dougie, the furlough scheme has proved a tremendous relief, however young zero hours staff helping out with match days and private parties have taken the hardest hit as the scheme wound down across Scotland at the end of October: “We always knew that back in May the real tsunami was coming once the government support dried up. Hospitality is one of those areas which has virtually been shut down. The job market is not a good place for that 18 to 24 age bracket who we predominantly see working in the sector and the government needs to extend a lifeline to these young people.”

When asked if he believes there is a viable future for the stadium while restrictions remain, the only lifeline he believes will see them through, is the potential to bring in more tenants to their lettable space. However in the short term, the waters look choppy as he tries his best to keep heads above water: “My staff ask me week-on-week if I think they will be safe, and I have to do my best to reassure them we just need to pull through this six month period. At this stage, we’re not working to make any great profit, we are simply trying to break even and keep people in sustainable jobs which are going to be viable once we’re over the worst of the pandemic.”

“The great thing about my team is they’ve all been willing to be upskilled or reskilled in different areas to dig in and help out where they can. We’ve had the café operating on finer margins and staff from all departments have been washing dishes where they need to – no job is beneath anyone. It’s given staff a different perspective on things – at the end of the day, they just want to know that there will be long term viability for the company.”

Yet there have been silver linings, as constraints drive creativity. Live outdoor events are banned currently, but the drive-in format circumnavigates this restriction. Consequently, the stadium’s large car parking area has received a great deal of interest from pioneering outdoor ventures: “We welcomed a drive-in cinema over the summer, they were back with us for the Halloween weekend and we now have dates booked in for Christmas showings, so that’s been really positive. The Cineworld in our area closed down, so the hosts have seen the numbers attending the drive-in quite strong – as many as 200 cars per showing. We’ve also had enquiries from businesses looking to host corporate events, such as a construction firm which organised a health and safety day where staff watched from their cars –  though I’m sure it wasn’t quite as much fun as going to the cinema! The space gives us a lot of scope, and we are increasingly seeing more inventive use of the car park from all areas of the community.”

Dougie hopes some of the live event formats such as drive-in cinema which have landed on his doorstep by way of the pandemic, will stand the test of time and pave the way for long-term bookings: “It’s just trying to find new and inventive ways of kind of reselling what we’ve got and trying to get new business in. We just need to stay positive, we’re not going to be in this pandemic forever, but navigating our way through the next six months is going to be as much, if not more of a challenge than the last.”