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Michael Chandler was just six months into his role as chief executive of the renowned London music venue Union Chapel when the pandemic forced it to close its doors.
The venue has hosted global stars such as Adele and Elton John, and used the profits from these gigs to fund charitable work, particularly with the homeless.
“We faced a loss of income of over £1.5m — this placed the organisation in serious jeopardy and its future existence was undoubtedly at risk,” he said. “We had to radically and quickly change our model and consider how else to raise income to survive.”
But he was just as concerned about what the closure would do to the charitable work: “I was deeply worried about the impact on the homeless, the most vulnerable and isolated in our communities of this pandemic,” he said.
Four-fifths of Union Chapel’s charitable work is funded by the income from the venue. “Despite this, we escalated our charitable work, turning one of our spaces into a food bank, and working with partners across North London to support the most vulnerable,” said Chandler.
The support was desperately needed. In the first year of the pandemic, Union Chapel handed out over 3,000 meals and 1,600 support packs, helping over 1,000 people.
Homelessness is a growing problem in the UK capital. “We used to see 30-40 people a day, now we’re seeing between 50 and 60, regularly. We are concerned this will continue to rise, as people face more challenges ahead,” adds Chandler.
Chandler and his team reshaped the business for a Covid environment by introducing livestream and pre-recorded events. In June 2020, British folk singer-songwriter Laura Marling chose the venue to perform a live streamed gig. Since then, it has hosted a number of live streamed performances, interviews and TV productions, with stars such as Michaela Coel, Stephen Fry and RagNBone Man reaching a total audience of more than 1m.
The business launched a crowdfunding project that raised £90,000 between May and June 2020 — double its initial goal. It was also quick to access government aid, including receiving more than £130,000 from the Culture Recovery Fund. In total, the team raised about £730,000, which has helped stabilise the venue’s finances.
But Covid continues to present problems, with staffing shortages due to isolation rules. The venue is now hosting live gigs again but there is a skeleton team, including office staff stepping in to help manage the bar.
Chandler is not taking anything for granted as business support schemes come to an end. “We are not out of the woods yet, and financially in many ways, this year may be more challenging than 2020.”
This is the latest article in a series for the blog that explores the impact of the pandemic on people and businesses around the world.