What does Gary Verity's departure mean for Yorkshire tourism? What should happen next? Below I've tried to cover some of the key issues, and at the end will suggest what I think needs to happen next.
Update Note: I have created a tourism industry survey here if you'd like to give your views confidentially. I'm adding some info on twitter as more comes to light. I have emailed the Chair Welcome to Yorkshire, Ron McMullin and asked him to meet with me, as I have many comments from tourism businesses to pass on. He hasn't answered yet.
The Welcome to Yorkshire press release says that 'concerns have been raised in relation to Gary's behaviour towards staff and his expenses'. These have been known about for some time. At various times I have also raised concerns about the way that Welcome to Yorkshire (WTY) is managed, by its lack of transparency over how significant sums of public money are spent and how decisions are made. The Sunday Times article digs deeper into more of the details. As David Collins infers, this wasn't an isolated incident. There's an updated Yorkshire Post article based on this blog here.
Before I start I want to be very clear: this isn’t a criticism of WTY staff. There are many committed, hard-working and talented staff at WTY. WTY has a strong digital presence, has undertaken high profile campaigns and generated significant press coverage.
There are many organisations involved in Yorkshire tourism. Gary's cult personality dominated for quite some time and discussion was muted.
It’s now time for a more open, honest discussion about tourism in Yorkshire, involving Yorkshire tourism businesses, local authorities and anyone who is interested in making sure communities benefit from the visitor economy. It feels like too many conversations happen behind closed doors, and we could all be so much more productive if we collaborate.
Tourism is a major employer. Yorkshire is already a strong destination. Could we make it even stronger? Could it benefit more people, more directly? What do we need to do collectively? Is every sector of the tourism industry benefiting as much as it could?
Many businesses are facing uncertainty. Public funding is diminishing. Is every available penny being spent as effectively as possible? Recent events cast doubt on this. We need more transparency - to see who pays what, and how money is spent.
The tourism industry isn’t just about a small group of businesses. Through the multiplier effect, it has the capacity to affect many people. We - businesses, communities, local authorities, WTY - all have a shared stake in the success of the Yorkshire visitor economy.
Now feels like a good time to take stock of where we are, and what we need to do. Many different organisations, businesses and individuals develop and promote tourism in Yorkshire.
At the heart of this activity is Welcome to Yorkshire (WTY), the county's official destination management organisation. This year it will celebrate 10 years since it was created.
It’s had some triumphs, notably putting Yorkshire on the cycling map. There have been some bumpy moments along the way, such as £750,000 losses from unsold cycling merchandise.
Yorkshire feels more confident than ever before. But we must guard against arrogance.
No matter how good any organisation or activity is, periodic reviews are important. After 10 years, and now with Gary's departure surely it's time for a proper review?
We might decide all is well, feel good about what’s happening and decide to carry on as before. We might decide to make some tweaks. Perhaps more significant changes are needed? We won’t know until we talk about it.
Welcome to Yorkshire Income
Not many people realise that Welcome to Yorkshire is a private company limited by guarantee. This means that they’re under no obligation to publish information which might be in the public interest, given the level of funding they receive from the taxpayer.
Welcome to Yorkshire’s annual turnover to March 2018 was £4,065,002. Income comes from a variety of sources:
Contributions across Yorkshire vary. In some areas funding comes from a local authority and businesses. In the case of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and North York Moors National Park the picture is different. Welcome to Yorkshire is funded by the two National Parks, the local authorities, North Yorkshire County Council and local businesses. This means that there are effectively four levels of funding in some areas, two in others.
One example of the kind of level of funding that WTY receives from local authorities etc from Leeds City Region:
Welcome to Yorkshire (subscriptions & grant agreement): £830,000
Tour de Yorkshire: £400,000.
At a time when public funding on essential services is being squeezed, it is fair to ask whether these contributions are good value for money. I put in Freedom of Information Requests to several Yorkshire local authorities. The response did not make me feel comfortable that they are scrutinising WTY's accounts in any detail.
Normally if a local authority wishes to commission a service, they have to go to tender and elicit submissions from at least 3 organisations. WTY seems exempt from this process even though it is a private sector company.
How do local authorities decide what to invest? What evaluation do they ask for? How does WTY decide which campaigns are going to be most effective? What industry input is there?
I’ve seen a couple of service level agreements between local authorities and Welcome to Yorkshire – the level of detail did not seem proportionate to the level of funding. Is that still the case?
Welcome to Yorkshire’s board of directors
Welcome to Yorkshire has a board of 12 directors, including Gary Verity. Two directors already resigned last week, so there is now only one woman on the board. This is by no means representative of the huge number of very capable women working in the tourism industry.
Given that WTY has the responsibility of managing a turnover of over £4million for the benefit of the Yorkshire visitor economy, one would expect to see a significant number of experienced tourism professionals on the board.
It is usual practice in most destination management organisations to ensure there are representatives from each sector of the visitor economy. I’m sure the board members have many skills and management attributes but some more practical experience of the tourism industry and marketing might be useful - the majority of current board members are public sector representatives. The only board member with any significant, practical experience of the tourism industry is Sir Thomas Ingilby of Ripley Castle - he initiated the expenses and bullying inquiry in 2017 leading to a written warning to Gary.
Salaries and staff
There is a line in the WTY annual accounts that states: The highest paid director during the year (to March 2018) received gross remuneration of £243,453. Is this highest paid director Gary Verity? VIsitScotland’s Chief Executive is paid £149,000 per annum, and is responsible for tourism in an entire country. Is it right that the ‘highest paid director’s pay is so much greater than that of the Prime Minister’s pay of around £153,907?
It's clear that WTY staff have not been properly supported and their working environment has not been a happy place. This needs to change.
Welcome to Yorkshire Membership
I helped WTY to set up their membership scheme several years ago. This seemed to work well for a while, with thousands of happy members. I’m now increasingly asked if it’s worthwhile joining WTY?
Is the membership scheme still fit for purpose, representing good value for money? With a large membership, how can an organisation ensure everyone benefits from promotional activities? Or is it better for members to see their fees as paying into a central promotional pot for the common good?
Perhaps now is a good time to review the membership scheme and see how it can be improved?
Welcome to Yorkshire Governance, Strategy & Planning
Given the level of public funding, is the Welcome to Yorkshire board transparent enough in all its dealings and activity? Would it be useful for board minutes to be published on the WTY website, to give confidence in the board’s transparency?
I've asked to see Welcome to Yorkshire’s three-year strategic plan so we can all build on each other’s activity and combine success. This has never materialised. Gary didn't like strategies and paperwork. Perhaps now it's time to actually create a collaborative marketing strategy for Yorkshire, that everyone can get on board with. I have written dozens of these for destinations around the country and have recently offered to do this for WTY and Yorkshire at no cost. Whoever does it, it needs to be consultative and collaborative, involving tourism businesses and communities.
Managing and marketing?
Welcome to Yorkshire calls itself a destination management organisation but its main focus has been on marketing. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but we do need to think about destination management and consider other industry issues such as employment. Who should work on these?
Promoting all sectors?
Cycling tourism has become a major part of WTY activity. Some sectors now feel they’re in the shade of cycling’s success. Looking at online responses to Gary's departure, particularly on twitter, the only real sounds of regret come from people (generally not from within the industry) who praise Gary for bringing TDF/TDY to Yorkshire. This clearly had a major impact. Two notes of caution though: 1) I have not seen evidence that every statistic quoted by Gary was 100% accurate, and 2) Gary did not bring any of the cycling to Yorkshire alone. It was his audacious idea and he certainly pushed hard to make it happen. But it was a team effort (those under-valued WTY staff again) and took millions of pounds of public money to make it happen.
Yorkshire undoubtedly now has a great reputation for cycling tourism, and this is likely to continue. Time now to make sure other sectors are also promoted and supported. Many destination management organisations have a policy of acting as a catalyst for the development of certain sectors. Once those sectors are better established and becoming more commercially viable, they move on to support other sectors. Using this principle, would it now make sense to create a separate body for the promotion of cycling, so cycling doesn't risk overshadowing all Yorkshire tourism activity?
Cycling generates significant income for Yorkshire. Until now cycling tourism has been underwritten by the public sector. As public funds diminish, is it time for the private sector and the many beneficiaries of cycling tourism to pay for more of its promotion?
How could other sectors such as heritage, arts and culture be better supported and promoted?
Not just Welcome to Yorkshire
The Yorkshire visitor economy has grown significantly. Unfortunately I can't tell you with any certainty how much it's grown by because it's proved very difficult to obtain any credible full visitor research reports. Headline figures have been bandied about but many of us in the industry really want to see the full reports and research methodology before we can confirm their credibility. Gary got rid fo the WTY research department some years ago. This wasn't a good move. Research can be expensive but it is needed in order to make appropriate informed decisions.
We must applaud Welcome to Yorkshire (that's the organisation and staff team, not an individual) for any growth inYorkshire tourism. The county is certainly much more confident and aspirational.
It's important to recognise there are also many other factors and organisations involved in Yorkshire's tourism success.
We have some fantastic attractions and accommodation, who all promote themselves and Yorkshire.
Cities like Leeds have been regenerated, with an accompanying boost in visitor numbers.
Organisations like the North York Moors National Park undertake carefully planned and orchestrated marketing activity, supporting local businesses to thrive.
Professional staff in local authorities such as Calderdale have undertaken brave and innovative campaigns for their area. In Richmondshire dedicated staff are creating strong tourism industry relationships and developing local pride through social media.
VisitYork is dynamic and forward-thinking, very keen to collaborate with its neighbours.
Regional publications like the Yorkshire Post and Dalesman offer coverage designed to encourage Yorkshire exploration. Local publications extoll the virtues of their area.
Artists, makers and writers inspired by Yorkshire show its beauty every day. Visitors buy and take home their works of art which become talked-about ambassadors for our county.
One-person businesses strive every day to improve their businesses and develop their marketing skills.
Hundreds of people like myself, write daily blogs, promoting different aspects of Yorkshire. I promote the Yorkshire Dales every day with £0 budget and work with hundreds of small businesses to help them promote their areas of Yorkshire and develop their business.
Every little helps …
Tourism is a large industry, made up of thousands of small, medium and large business. Many players have a combined impact.
Imagine the impact if we were to all truly join together. What could we collectively achieve if we were to talk properly about our aspirations for Yorkshire and how to achieve them?
What should happen next?
I think Gary's departure will make it easier for the Board of Welcome to Yorkshire to review their activities, easier to support staff, and much easier for everyone working in tourism to have a proper open discussion about what's needed now.
1. I think the Chair of the WTY board Ron McMillan should resign immediately. He has had a lifetime of experience in financial management so it's just too ironic if he didn't see what was happening under his nose. In the WTY statement, he said 'business as usual'. That just can't be - it's far too complacent an attitude.
2. I think the Board of WTY needs re-constituting so it is much more representative of the industry at large (this isn't me angling for a place - there are plenty of others who'd be keener).
3. WTY needs to properly review its activities and come up with a full strategy for the future of tourism - and the whole industry (not just members) must be consulted on it.
4. WTY staff should be properly supported and valued.
5. We should avoid dissecting the scurrilous details of Gary's deeds but also ensure justice.
6. A replacement for Gary is needed. An external candidate would be healthiest.
7. We should create a separate body for cycling tourism so it can continue to grow, without overshadowing other sectors.
8. We should ask for far more transparency and discussion about how public money is spent.
9. We should learn from this experience and not be afraid to ask more questions, and demand more answers.
10. We should continue to be proud of Yorkshire, believe in Yorkshire tourism and promote Yorkshire businesses.
I meet a lot of tourism businesses in the course of my work. Normally, when I speak to owners and managers of large and small businesses they’ll ask to pick my brain on marketing topics. Over the last year, this has changed.
Everyone’s still interested in marketing, but they have a more urgent question to answer: how to get more staff?
There have been days when I’ve almost become convinced I’d make my fortune running a tourism and hospitality job agency. Until I remember that to do that you need a) vacancies and b) people…
Permanent staff, temporary staff, full-time, part-time, senior staff, skilled and unskilled labour – they’re all in serious demand in Yorkshire at the moment.
We could debate the reasons for this but that’s not necessarily going to change anything. And we need change - fast. I know of numerous businesses that have closed for lack of staff. Imagine that – visitors and customers wanting to spend their money in our area, but unable to do so because there’s no one there.
Who is going to do something about this?
I’m not sure anyone within any kind of official body is addressing this issue immediately. There’s talk of the odd strategy or piece of research. None of it feels particularly grounded or likely to have any results this year.
Who could do something about this? Are there any proactive, strategic, and practical ‘official’ bodies out there who are dealing with this? I haven’t found any.
I really do think the only answer is DIY, although not alone. Collaboration between businesses is essential. I’m not sure that it will be easy to find solutions but some ideas are already being discussed. We’re meeting soon to take them further.
Some possible practical solutions?
Each individual business currently advertises their own vacancies. This will no doubt need to continue but when it comes to raising awareness of the range of opportunities offered by a career in tourism, a more collaborative approach might be more time and cost-effective. Maybe a collaborative online vacancy board might help. The media traditionally treats tourism as a low-income-only industry. It might not be the highest paying industry but it's more economically rewarding than farming, and some manufacturing.
There are other non-financial rewards for those working in the industry, particularly if they like meeting people or spending time in beautiful places. A combined PR & social media campaign to raise awareness of Yorkshire as a good place to live and work is needed.
We also need to be better at demonstrating the opportunities to progress within the industry. These have never been so good - show your ability as a waiter, be reliable and you could be managing a restaurant in no time.
We need to use stories of success to build more success. Many young people just don’t realise the opportunities available to them through tourism. Their school careers advisors may have dismissed the industry as low-pay-long-hours. Few recognise the rapid promotion prospects. One multi-award-winning hotel owner recently told me how the local girl originally recruited as a waitress is now their general manager – all achieved within a few years.
Many tourism staff move around quite frequently, seeking career progression and assuming they have to move in search of blight lights and city living to get better jobs, even if that isn’t their preference. That may not be necessary. We’re looking at how we might create a more collaborative training and recruitment 'labour pool' to retain staff within the area, but still give them career progression. Individual businesses may not be able to offer this on their own, but by joining forces they can.
Many older people retire here and want to meet new people. They may have taken early retirement from quite stressful jobs but they're not really ready to retreat from the world and not be productive in some way. I know several who are less worried about how much they earn - they just want to feel useful and part of a community. They're even happy to work weekends. When I suggest working in hospitality and tourism, they're always surprised. They thought they wouldn't be welcome, and that such jobs were only for younger people. We've got some work to do to change that. Many would be delighted to be given the opportunity to keep active and meet a wide range of people.
Of course there are practical issues to consider. Availability of public transport and local accommodation are also necessary. We’re looking at those, and considering some very simple ground-up solutions.
All of these possible angles are strategic, and yet rooted in practicality. We could start to implement them pretty quickly and at low cost. Informal collaborations may prove easier to develop than complex structural arrangements.
These ideas may not work, but surely its better to try them immediately than to wait until more doors close
I've worked in tourism marketing for over 30 years, developing strategies & practical solutions for accommodation, attractions, activity providers, food & drink businesses. These are some of the tourism industry issues I'm concerned about. I'm writing here about Yorkshire but most of the issues are relevant elsewhere.