Normal post william cursham

William Cursham: "Even with no sport running, there is still an enormous amount to do"

In my last blog I described how we made the desperately difficult decision to cancel all BE events with immediate effect. As a Board we felt absolutely gutted at having to do so, but there really was no option.

So, what now? Things do not stop with the decision to shut down. No events are running, but the machine that runs our sport, including BE’s HQ at Stoneleigh, still needs to keep running - but in a streamlined form, given that BE’s income streams have been heavily impacted by COVID-19.

One of the first things that struck me when I joined BE at the beginning of this year is the sheer knowledge and dedication of BE’s staff. We employ approximately 44 staff, both in the Head Office at Stoneleigh and in the field, as well as contractors such as Technical Advisers and Scorers. For an organisation that has around 15,000 members and oversees nearly 170 events per year, this is not a large staff at all - in fact, it is near the bare minimum. Through dedication and love of the sport, this staff keeps our sport going to the very highest standards. Most work well over their contracted hours, and this is true right from the top down. The whole team go above and beyond to keep the sport running. If Members are worried that they are not getting value for money, they needn’t be.

Even with no sport running, there is still an enormous amount to do. First and foremost, there is the immediate fall-out from the cancellation of all our events. Thousands of entry fees have to be refunded by the team at HQ. Questions and queries from Members still have to be answered. 

And, of course, detailed plans have to be put in place for when sport starts again. We want to get up and running as soon as we can, but no-one can predict exactly when that is going to be. So Jude, Wendy and their team are looking at every possible scenario and working out (in conjunction with Regional Co-ordinators and organisers) how long it will take to get the sport going from a ‘standing start’. One great unknown is how quickly riders and their horses will be able to get back to competing; the longer the suspension lasts, presumably the less fit horses will be and the longer it will take for them to get back to competition fitness. Also, the time of year when sport is able to start again will provide different challenges. If it starts late (e.g. in autumn), will we be able to run events later, into November?

A critical part of the sport’s machine that has to be in place when sport starts again is a fully-functioning Entries, Admin, Results and Scoring (EARS) system. BE has made this a top priority. As I mentioned in my last blog, the Board recently had a meeting with some of the amazing Entries Secretaries, Scorers, organisers and stewards who are at the coal-face in terms of using this system, and the Board and BE’s staff will be working closely with them during this period to ensure that the system can hit the ground running when sports starts again. 

Like many people, the only part of the EARS system I have seen is the page on BE’s website where you enter for competitions. I had never seen the other elements of the system that sit behind it, and so I spent three hours with BE Scorer Sue Thompson looking at how it all works - entries, balloting, reports, outline timetabling, sectioning, times and scoring. There are some elements of the system that need fixing, others that are too clunky and others where enhancements are needed - but it is very clear that these are all fixable and once that is done, we will have a very good system that will actually do a good deal more than the old systems.

In the past few days a further issue has cropped up which we have been grappling with. When we made the decision to cancel all events forthwith, on 16 March, seven events had passed their ballot dates. Under its Affiliation Agreements with organisers, BE has to pay entry fees to the organisers (to fund the events). BE has an Abandonment Insurance policy in place to reimburse BE’s Members for these entry fees, but when our broker, KBIS, reported our claim to the Underwriters, their initial response was that the policy would not cover the claim, citing a number of exclusions. This puts BE in an extremely difficult situation; as much as we would like to refund the entry fees, we can’t, because we no longer hold them, having paid them over to the organisers (as we are obliged to do under our Affiliation Agreements). So, we are doing all we can to challenge the decision in support of getting our Members their money back. We have had a positive view from our specialist insurance solicitors on this and I have also spent several hours looking at it, along with another lawyer, and I too consider that we have a strong basis to challenge the decision

Amongst all this, we cannot forget the long-term future of our sport either. In times like this it is all too easy to focus on fire-fighting the immediate issues that confront us. However, during this period both the Board and BE’s staff will continue to look at the future of the sport beyond COVID-19. How can we ensure people come back to BE? How can we attract new Members? Is there scope for introducing new formats?

There is, therefore, more than enough to do during this period. With income drying up, BE has to look at saving costs wherever we can. We have stopped all noncommitted costs and a recruitment freeze has also been put in place. 

We have taken swift action to reduce staffing costs. The government’s Job Retention Scheme that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced at the end of March is a god-send, as it allows us to ‘furlough’ staff and keep them connected to the organisation longer term, but with the government paying up to 80% of their wages. So far, we have furloughed 28 of our 44 employees.

It has been said a million times, but these are unprecedented times. There is still a tremendous amount going on behind the scenes at BE. From my own point of view, what started out as a job requiring attendance at six Board meetings a year has turned into a job requiring attendance at one meeting per week (virtual, of course) and daily phone calls, emails and text messages. But I don’t mind that a bit, because I love this sport, and I know that everyone at BE is doing this, and more, to ensure our sport comes out of these difficult times fit and raring to go.