Sometimes DIY is the only solution.
When the Highways Agency upgraded the A1 to M1 status in North Yorkshire in 2009, they also removed the sign and junction for Masham. Masham is renowned for its Sheep Fair www.mashamsheepfair.com, two breweries, creative community and luxury hotel Swinton Park, and independent retailers. The loss of the sign didn't just affect Masham but also 500 small tourism business that rely on passing trade on the route that runs through Wensleydale to Hawes from the motorway.
Businesses in Masham reported up to 30% decline in visitor numbers. Local MP Julian Smith got involved and managed to get the Highways Agency to agree to replace the sign - but there was a cost attached: over £36000 which the local businesses would have to find.
We had endless meetings, we petitioned the Highways Agency, we moaned and looked for other solutions. I flippantly suggested a sign in a neighbouring field next to the A1. Local campaigner and owner of the Old Station caravan park Flo Grainger seized on this idea and set out to find out the owner of the field and an old flat bed trailer (signs like this are apparently legal so long as they are on wheels and can be moved, therefore not considered permanent).
Felicity Cunliffe Lister of Swinton Park got a group of businesses to contribute: the breweries Black Sheep and Theakstons, the feedmills I’Ansons and Jamesons, the Old Station Caravan Park and luxury hotel Swinton Park. Artwork has been designed by local artist Rob Blades and created by Artison, the art studio and workshop, and local joiner Ian Johnson built it.
The sign is to be set up beside junction 50 of the A1 today. One tweet on my @dales_tourism account this morning has already led to hundreds of retweets and an early morning phone call from the BBC. Hopefully now we can stop having meetings and start welcoming visitors. The final cost? A tenth of that the Highways Agency proposed charging, and a MUCH more eyecatching, interesting, original sign.
This is a lovely story I noticed recently about a low cost way to stand out from the competition, by doing something different.
I keep hearing people ask "how do I get more followers on twitter", "I don't know what to say on twitter". I also see many organisations trying to rein in their employers and being so careful with their tweets, they completely lack any kind of character or real message.
For the last couple of months I've enjoyed tweets from Harrogate Tourist Info (@harrogatetic). They're to the point and promote different parts of the district, without being bland. A couple of weeks ago noticed a new account for a small town in Harrogate district @ripontourism, run by Paul Darbyshire. His followers are steadily growing, thanks to a simple idea - he writes a twitter poem about anyone who follows and about Ripon! As he told the local paper Ripon Gazette, "I'd never seen any poems on twitter before and thought it was a unique way of linking in all the city's attractions with a hint of humour".
In other areas, employees are so bound up with conditions, rules and "twitter strategies", they're scared to write anything interesting on twitter. It's great to see somewhere trying something different. It looks like it's working and has already led to one article in the local paper - and this blog!
Interestingly, my other example of great tweeting also comes from Ripon in the form of @RiponHornblower who "sets the watch every night at 9pm". This ancient tradition is watched by visitors from all over the world but George's influence is now spreading thanks to twitter. As well as tweeting local interest stories, each evening George also tweets reassuring messages about the watch being set, such as "Duty done - The Watch is Set, sleep safe in your beds, to you and yours, good night and God bless".
Ripon has spent a lot of money trying to find ways forward to generate more revenue for retailers and increase visitor numbers. I think the two simple actions of these tweeters may prove to be more successful.
The message is simple: be yourself, do something different and don't be scared to stand out and show your own personality.
"Buy one, get one free!". Sound familiar? Of course it does: price led promotions are everywhere.
Showing the world you're desperate
Years ago marketing tactics like this were quite unusual. Now they're the norm. There's a place for them, but more often than not, price promotions are lazy marketing, a not very imaginative way to show the world that your business isn't doing so well and you're desperate for trade. Some people think they raise awareness of particular products but how can they do that when the market is saturated with them? When the 2-1 offer says nothing about the product itself. Price led promotions don't really help build a longer term market.
Leaving money on the table
What also happens is that visitors use the vouchers and offers when they were going to come to you anyway. Last weekend 3 friends and I had planned a visit to an art gallery, for which we were all perfectly willing to pay. Then someone noticed that if we took along our train tickets, we could get a 2-1 voucher for the entrance fee to the gallery. So we paid half the price we were willing to pay. Of course some people may be enticed into places for the first time because the price is lower than usual. It might help them decide to go. But will they go there again at the higher price? Or will they value it at the lower offer price?
Are 2-1 promotions ever good?
Sometimes. When they're properly thought through and not simply a knee-jerk reaction. When you want to open up new markets e.g. bring a friend who's never been before (doesn't always work though!) and when you've worked out how you'll follow through and build that new market. Attractions were there are opportunities to generate secondary spend through catering and retail may also benefit from getting more people in through the door.
What are the alternatives?
2-1 offers may work some of the time, but they are unimaginative and it's hard to make an impact now there are so many. Far better, to do something quirky, unusual, fun, interesting that helps demonstrate the emotional appeal of what you offer, that shows what you can do and why it's good. If you rely on price promotions, it focuses visitors' minds on the price not the strength of the product. It encourages them to shop around instead of valuing what you do. And once you've reduced your price once, what happens next time? How low can you go?
So the weather is awful (or the forecast says it will be, which can be just as bad for business). What can you do to prevent your tourism business being ruined by bad weather?
Here are a few ideas that really do work:
1. Put together a good list of rain-can't-ruin ideas and make it widely available - we did this in the Yorkshire Dales (scroll down this blog for the full story behind this, written in July 2012)
2. Stay positive - for example, don't tweet moans about the bad weather. Potential visitors see those tweets and don't feel inclined to visit. Tell visitors about the positives such as the fantastic pubs in your area which feel extra welcoming in cold weather, comment on how much fun children have playing in the puddles, highlight indoor attractions, mention the greenery...
3. Plan in advance. We know we'll have bad weather so what can you really do? One idea is to actively target people who will pre-book and still visit, such as groups and parties of people for whom being together is the key motivator.
4. Don't think you need to upgrade and splash out on new all weather facilites or indoor play areas etc. Sometimes offering people a jigsaw or scrabble game and mug of hot chocolate helps them create really cosy holiday memories.
5. Tell people about the places that are actually better in the rain such as amazing waterfalls or watching the waves from the safety of a cosy sea-view restaurant.
6. Be extra welcoming with small gestures, for example greeting guests or visitors with wet hair at your B&B by offering towels and hot drinks, not moaning about the awful weather and dragging down everyone's spirits. These small gestures become memorable and register with visitors as examples of excellent service - so the bad weather could even work to your advantage!
Great minds don't all think alike
As tourism businesses get ready for the Summer season, many are also reflecting on just how bad last year was for them and how they can improve what they do.
I recently visited a beautiful attraction which relies heavily on nature and a love of the outdoors. The owner has been thinking about how to increase profits and visitor numbers and reduce reliance on passing trade and sun.
He was considering a major investment in an indoor play area. You know the sort of thing: vibrant colours, noisy children, masses of plastic. Many family-friendly attractions are opening similar facilities and he felt under pressure to consider doing the same.
One of the phrases that stayed with me after reading James Caan's autobiography was "observe the masses, and do the opposite". This can take courage but is so often worthwhile.
The plastic play area wouldn't be at all appropriate for his setting or business. It wouldn't really cater for his key target markets, and may even put off some of his older visitors who enjoy the calm environment.
We talked about his passions and interests and it quickly became clear that there are many other angles to consider and new ideas we could put in place (I won't tell you here now - still secret), which would build on the owner's own knowledge, attract very specific markets and set this attraction apart from others. It will take courage to try something different - but the investment required for a major play centre would be larger and arguably take more courage.
Back to the reason for thinking about this - how to mitigate against wet weather. If the attraction develops something completely new and different, something with clear target markets, we'll be able to attract higher spending pre-booked groups who will come regardless of the weather. We'll be able to extend the season and develop a new range of profitable products to sell alongside entrance tickets. We'll be focusing on profit, not just higher visitor numbers. And the owner will feel really comfortable with what he's doing, and able to invest more passion and enthusiasm in his own business.
So before you spend a fortune to follow the crowd or do what you think people want, take a moment to think what you could do that's different, special and follows your heart. It takes courage to swim against the tide but when you do the rewards can be MUCH bigger.
I just re-learnt a useful tourism marketing lesson from N, my 12-year old. We're planning a weekend in Berlin. I lived in East Germany in the early 1980s in the days of the Cold War and find it fascinating to go back. N. really wasn't keen and at first I couldn't understand why not.
"Whenever I think of it, it's in black and white and sounds miserable and horrid. When you talk about being arrested and bad food and people following you, it makes me think it's like a scarey old film. I don't want to go there".
The penny dropped. N has heard me talk about my experiences living in East Germany. I've never told her the full story of the reunification or how Berlin has developed into a funky weekend destination. Her mind is full of pre-conceptions and outdated, incomplete information: I need to overcome some of those before she'll look forward to a weekend in Berlin.
This is something which happens so often in tourism marketing. We can waste a fortune by failing to understand what's already in someone's mind. This conversation reminded me of VisitBritain research which found many Chinese people have read Sherlock Holmes stories and therefore believe London is still prone to pea-soupers. They need to see new images of modern-day London before they'll want to visit.
Tourism marketeers don't always help themselves. For years the North East was promoted as "Catherine Cookson Country", as the setting of some of the most miserable books you'll ever read. Just because a certain literary style or writer is popular doesn't mean it should be the focus for all your marketing.
Until very recently businesses in Haworth (see earlier blog on this) couldn't understand why tourism wasn't constantly developing on the back of the Brontes (3 sisters who died before their mid thirties and a drug-riddled, alcoholic brother are not always the best advert for a place even if they write well).
Tourism marketeers are constantly throwing out messages, telling me people what we want them to hear. But how often do we stop to think about what's already in their minds? What are they really interested in? What misunderstandings do we need to overcome? Have we assumed potential visitors are all as fascinated by the things we want to tell them about (Brontes for example) or are there other aspects of a place we should stress? Do our visitors even understand the information we're putting out?
What are you telling your potential visitors? Is it at odds with what they might already know/believe? We need to find out what's already in their minds before we can fill them with new (and sometimes contrasting) information.
Last week I went to a Posh Picnic on the beach at Port Mulgrave on the Yorkshire Coast. Sunny but cold, and not the obvious thing to do in December. It was fantastic!
I spend a lot of time advising clients to focus on local distinctiveness and what makes their place special. We know that visitors look for authenticity, love new experiences and getting an insight into other people's lives. They enjoy meeting locals who have a real passion for their area and true inside knowledge. And yet, very few places really offer this.
Sean & Tricia Hutchinson and their sons Luke and Thomas run Real Staithes, which is the best example I've ever found of a family-run business offering visitors chances to create magical memories and giving them stories to talk about.
They greet their visitors in a hidden location that only insiders are likely to know about and take them to their hut on a secret shoreline. Visitors are plied with fresh lobsters, mulled wine, delicious cake, and cheese and given an insight into another world. Sean talks fishing and wildlife, pointing out the Peregrine Falcon and Roe Deer that most of us would never normally notice, Tricia shows visitors how to make paints and dyes out of natural products found along the beach. Luke and Thomas scramble on the cliffs and foreshore, bringing back what look like balls of mud, but which turn out to be marvellous fossils. It's all very home-spun, natural, and friendly. Participants can't help but get caught up in Sean and Tricia's enthusiasm for the local area.
Since I've been back, I've shown countless friends the four fossils I found, the photographs of the lobsters and the hut - this is exactly the kind of experience many visitors look for but never find.
So many people profess to love the place where they live but so few actually manage to pass on that passion. It's great to see Real Staithes doing it so well. Some people shout about what they do, but somehow fail to do it properly. Others like the Hutchinson family just quietly get on with it, showing us all the way. Take a look at their website: they could even solve that last minute present problem with a gift voucher!
I've been thinking. Or more precisely, I've been thinking about thinking. The subject is innovation. If we want the tourism industry to develop, to find different ways to increase spend, create new experiences and stimulate growth, what's the best approach to take?
A couple of weeks ago I went to two very different events focused on innovation. The first was run by the York & North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership. They are running a "Pathfinder Project" (as in, can you find which track to hack through the jungle) and wanted to tell people about it. It was clear that they've been doing a lot of thinking, a lot of consulting, a lot of modelling to consider how innovation can be stimulated. They even have a clever chart, a special model showing the different stages of innovation. Interesting to see the thought process and consider this approach. Its in its early stages, but the project has already had a lot of publicity and the results will eventually shared with the tourism industry at large.
The second event was one I was helping to run. Part of a larger project, the workshop was for Haworth businesses. For a long time the businesses have traded on their location in "Bronte Country". OK, but not fresh or particularly inspiring unless you love a certain kind of literary style. The workshop was intended to stimulate innovation - we were there to encourage the businesses to take a different approach and generate much more visitor spend.
My job was to present information about consumer trends, suggest some possible new angles and make some initial recommendations for them to build on. I was brave - I didn't say they should ditch the Brontes but I did say the Bronte Country approach is a little tired. (Bear in mind that Haworth's been trading on the Brontes for one and half centuries and West Yorkshire folk can be a tad stroppy). Perhaps there are ways of getting better value from the Brontes as well as promoting different aspects of Haworth?
We had a lively debate and I used a few examples from elsewhere to generate some more thoughts. Then the workshop adjourned to a local pub. Less than a week later one of the participants (a creative chap - one of his many ventures involves leading walks called "Wuthering Hikes"!) had called a further meeting, and come up with an action plan. Several people have already changed their marketing, or decided to create new packages and experiences. Some have got ideas for different ways to do business which they're already putting into practice.
So back to my question: what's the best way to stimulate innovation in tourism? Plan and create a model, consult, think or in the words of a company known for its innovation, "Just Do It"? We've already brought about change in Haworth - it's based on strategic thought and some planning but there's a large element of "suck it and see". Failure is possible.
I'm really interested to see how the LEP Pathfinder Project develops - I enjoy seeing different approaches. In many ways this project safeguards against failure.
But I admire the bravery and can-do attitude of the Haworth businesses. I've found it satisfying to have acted as the catalyst to that change, which has cost barely anything but will hopefully reap rewards even before the New Year.
Right now I'm working on three major projects which all involve extensive product development, capitalising on key trends, doing things differently and getting hands dirty. Failure is an option. But I think that can be a good thing - a chance to learn.
Lesson 1: Find a strong USP
Beijing had the big budgets. We couldn't compete on cash or splash. But we do have one or two special features - elements that are truly our Unique Selling Points. Danny Boyle cleverly identified those and used them in a quirky, understated British way.
No fanfare, just quietly leaving the audience to see and share the joke and the pride. He showed our aces. A quiet, almost discrete, slap in the face. "Ha! China, America, Russia, India, Brazil... you may be in the ascendancy, you may have cash but you can't buy gems like the Queen, James Bond, Mr. Bean. You've either got them or you haven't. We have!"
How many other countries would have dedicated a whole section of their ceremony to a batch of beds and healthcare workers? The message was clear: we should be proud of our NHS. We did it earlier and better than most watching nations.
Lesson 2: Think about lasting impressions - be different
Tourism is about service and welcome. We often focus on the importance of first impressions. But it's the lasting ones that count. Make a strong lasting impression, do something better or different to others and you'll get talked about and benefit from word of mouth recommendations. Danny Boyle certainly got that right (we'll forgive him Macca since Stella's Elvis costumes for TeamGB looked like they might have been discounted in return for a slot for her dad).
Danny came up with a lasting impression that had an emotional chords as well as being the perfect image for the world's media. The handing over of the batons to the younger generation: tick. Representing each country with a petal: tick. Not following the crowd by choosing a celebrity athlete to light the cauldron: tick. Doing something completely different: tick. Figuratively bringing all the countries together to create a strong lasting impression: tick.
Lesson 3: Be brave about target markets - don't try to please everyone.
Danny Boyle's extravaganza will have left some confused, whereas Brits and those who "get" Britain (and are keenest to visit one day) raved about it. He bravely showed off our history, culture and the quirky bits in between. Some of the worldwide audience won't have had a clue what it was all about but that doesn't matter. There were two audiences who really needed to feel inspired and excited.
1. The Brits: we need to feel proud of "our" Olympics. We needed a confidence boost, and a chance to feel proud of our nation. Look through the twitter opening ceremony timeline and you'll certainly see the strength of that pride.
2. Potential visitors to Britain: to remind anyone who is vaguely interested in our history, culture, quirkiness, music, countryside that we're here and ready to welcome them.
People who were bemused or disinterested by the opening ceremony are unlikely to come to visit. They're going to watch the Olympics on TV. We need to focus on the people who'll pay - potential visitors.
We can learn (or remember) three lessons from Danny Boyles' opening ceremony
1. Find your USP, show it off. If you can make people smile, all the better
2. Be welcoming, but be memorable as well. What lasting impression can you create? How will you get your visitors/guests to talk about you after their visit?
3. Be clear about your target markets. Target them, not everyone. Be brave.
And finally, notice how it's quickly become his ceremony, not LOCOGs, not the sponsors, not the governments. One man led, dared and succeeded. The Olympics are all about teams and yet individuals will always shine out above others.
So what are you going to do?