When Gemma Price started her new role as General Manager of Prescott Hill Climb on February 3 earlier this year, nothing could’ve prepared her for the challenges she would face in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 24, one day after Boris Johnson had put the UK into lockdown, Gemma and her staff were in the office demonstrating a new IT system when the news came through.
Motorsport UK were suspending all permits to run competitive events until further notice and the Cheltenham venue, who were deep into their preparations for the new season, were forced to push the pause button on their plans.
“When I first heard the news, I initially thought I was going to be the only general manager that worked here and never ran an event,” Gemma began. “We hadn’t run an event up until that point, our season starts the last weekend in April.
“So, I’d started and not delivered any events and then we got put into lockdown.
“It’s scary. You don’t know what the financial impact is going to be, you don’t know how long it’s going to go on for.”
The pandemic reduced the venue’s income by 86% overnight. Their packed-out calendar had been stripped to nothing and revenue streams had been temporarily stopped.
Gemma went on: “With events, because everything is pre-booked, we had to then cancel everything, so the workload went through the roof.
“It was hard, I was burning a lot of hours. I was working at half one, two-o-clock in the morning regularly. I think I went down to four hours of sleep a night for about two or three months.
“But we cut our costs hard and we cut our costs early to stabilise the club and ensure it survived COVID.”
Sporting venues across the nation were keen to get back up and running as soon as possible, Prescott and the Bugatti Owners Club were no different.
At the end of June, Motorsport UK reinstated permits following an ease of lockdown measures across the country, which provided a glimmer of hope to Gemma and everyone involved at the BOC.
With the green light given to start running competitive events once again, work began to plan and deliver a revised calendar for the 2020 season.
“I had lots of meetings with senior officials. We talked about how we could bring back events safely. There was a lot of documentation. A lot of risk assessments.
“We had to check the insurers were happy with those risk assessments as well. We did everything to make Prescott COVID secure.
“Then, it was a case of looking at the financial viability for each event. If you’ve got less competitors and no spectators, your revenues go down. Yet, some of your costs are still fixed and some even increase.”
Competition could only return if it was in strict compliance with government and Motorsport UK guidelines, which meant large scale changes to the way things would operate on event days.
In order to best prepare the club and its volunteers, Gemma organised ‘Drive Thru’ events before the official calendar was set to begin.
These events were designed like any other ‘Drive Thru’ – cars would come to the hill, drive the track and then remain in their cars located in the paddock.
“They were really important,” Gemma continued. “We used them as test events to develop our strategy for managing COVID.
“We ran them as if they were fully marshalled, competition events – even though they weren’t. We used it to train the marshals and develop the systems.
“It was a dual purpose. It got people back on the estate, it got cars on the hill, it helped keep members happy, but it also provided a training platform for the marshals and the volunteers.”
On August 22, almost four months after the season was due to begin, the first hill climb of the year finally took place with the ‘Reopening meeting’.
No action had taken place since October 2019, when the previous years’ schedule came to a conclusion. Finally, the former Vintage Sports Car Club competition secretary was getting to reap the rewards of her hard work to keep the club afloat during one of the most challenging times of its long, rich history.
When summing up that weekend, Gemma said: “It was pure relief to have competition back again. All the competitors and marshals were so happy to be here. There was no hassle, just relief.
“We haven’t been able to go the whole hog, though, and running without spectators has been a bit of a sticking point.
“A lot of people are members of the club because they get free entry to spectate. But what that’s resulted in – is we’ve started livestreaming events which has generated interest and viewership internationally.
“It’s forced us to do something that we should’ve been doing anyway and doing it earlier than we would’ve done otherwise. That has had a really positive effect.”
Over the last couple of months, Gemma and the BOC have put together a whole host of events and welcomed a range of cars to the hill; from pre-war Bugatti’s at the Vintage Prescott – Long course event to the global debut of the McLaren Elva when the Targa Car Club spent the day at the famous venue.
“I think this season has been a total success,” she continued. “Going into lockdown, we didn’t think we were going to run anything this year, but we’ve ran almost a dozen events.
“I’m now really looking forward to next year. It’s going to be really exciting.
“We’re proceeding with caution because we don’t know how things are going to go with COVID, but we’ve got a number of new and exciting events we’re going to bring on board.
“A brand-new event called Prescott Italia, which will be only Italian cars here at Prescott. We’re hoping we’ll be allowed spectators for it, but we’re anticipating about 500 Italian cars on site, things like Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Maserati’s.
“When I started here there was always a plan to restructure the events calendar so in a way, the pandemic has given me the ability to strip back to absolute basics and to the core of what the club is about and we’re rebuilding from there.”