Welcome to Yorkshire could be brilliant. But change is needed.
We need a Yorkshire-wide organisation like Welcome to Yorkshire to promote the region. If we all work together in a true spirit of collaboration (something that was hard under Gary's imperious reign), unified by an agreed strategy, we can be really successful. There's a lot of willingness to do this, and many are looking to WTY to once again take a lead and develop collaborations as they did in their early days.
There are some good people working at WTY who must feel very frustrated by what's happened. There are others who I think are resisting change, preventing WTY from being as good as it can be. Communication is a key issue. There are a lot of businesses who would like to be/remain members of Welcome to Yorkshire but need to be reassured that change is coming, and to feel more nurtured and understood. I have received a lot of emails and messages from tourism businesses and responses to a brief survey I did. You can see their responses here. It makes for worrying reading, and yet everything could be made much better, quite quickly.
One of the comments made over and over again by the media, by council representatives, by businesses is that there has been too much focus on cycling tourism (not necessarily that cycling tourism should stop, just to also focus on other sectors). When I met with the WTY senior management team they said they wanted to demonstrate that WTY is 'not just about cycling'.
When Peter Dodd announced on 3rd April at Y19 that there is to be an industry consultation, that felt like a good move, promising a different way of working. I don't know when WTY last published a marketing strategy or business plan.
The way forward seemed clear. Consult the industry, find out what they want, conduct research so we truly understand our visitors, develop an action-oriented, Yorkshire-wide strategy that everyone can get behind, put the strategy into action, evaluate and publish results. Simples, as May and the Merkats would say. We're still waiting for the details of that consultation.
In the meantime something odd happened. WTY has something called the Private Sector Members Group (PSMG), which I think is a sort of steering group, presumably advising the Board on what businesses want. It's unclear how they communicate to the Board, how the PSMG members are recruited, how often they meet etc. No meeting minutes can be found on the WTY industry website. A member of the Board told me 3 weeks ago that the PSMG would be re-formed to make it more representative and accountable.
So it was rather odd that despite a general agreement that there would be more transparency, and that there would be an industry wide consultation, and assurance that the PSMG would be changed, the PSMG met on 10th April and came up with WTY's strategy! One of the PSMG wrote a letter to the Yorkshire Post, asserting that the PSMG had unanimously endorsed the central strategy of WTY as being to "use cycling to showcase Yorkshire to the world". This announcement seems even stranger given that one of the Membership Executives did a mailing to members on 12th April outlining some WTY activities but making no mention of the PSMG meeting or of cycling tourism being the WTY strategy!
Over the last few years in Yorkshire, bold campaigns have prevailed so it was easy to believe the stories of success. As Yorkshire’s self-confidence grew, so did both the public and media’s belief in Gary and Welcome to Yorkshire. Sweeping statements and headline statistics were taken at face value.
I was told by a WTY insider of how the Police gave their estimation for the size of the Tour de France crowd. Gary allegedly disagreed with the figure so it was 'adjusted'. Upwards obviously. And then rounded up. Similarly with the Tour de Yorkshire. This is all hearsay and may not be true.
The impressive figures were disconcerting for many businesses. Some of them privately told me they hadn't really benefitted from cycle race spectators. These 'confessions' were always hesitant. It's a bit like the Emperor's New Clothes - no one dare say they didn't get many visitors because the hype indicated everyone but them did so well. The individual business owners worried they were at fault and had done something wrong.
We really do need some meaningful research, not just to look at cycling tourism but to really understand our visitors.
Research and statistics aren’t the sexiest bit of tourism. Please bear with me for a moment – reading and acting on this will determine our future. We’re having this conversation now because we didn’t pay enough attention to detail and finances earlier.
In tourism marketing terms, what does ‘successful’ actually mean?
We talk about ‘putting Yorkshire on the map’, ‘Yorkshire as a brand’, ‘raising Yorkshire’s profile’. They’re all important. But we must dig deeper to see the effect of what we do.
We’re fortunate Yorkshire’s councils are willing to invest significant sums into tourism. But these are difficult times: schools, social care, housing all need more public funding. Now is a good time for local authorities to look at their return on investment in tourism.
Yorkshire is big. Some areas need more visitors. Some just want existing visitors to spend more. Some need visitors outside peak season. Some need visitors who love music, others who love nature. We need to consider what kind of visitors we want, and how to attract them.
The total economic value of tourism in Yorkshire is now £9 billion, up from £8 billion last year. A huge figure. Is it accurate? Not necessarily. It’s derived from data drawn from a variety of sources including VisitBritain who themselves say “small regional (e.g. Yorkshire) sample sizes are often very small, should be treated with extreme caution. These figures are not statistically robust at the regional level.” Factor in a possible error factor of 10% (given the way data is collated) and it’s not such a good picture. This sort of figure is a useful indicator, not the full picture.
We simply don’t know the answers to important questions. We don’t actually know how successful we are in Yorkshire tourism.
For each part of Yorkshire, we need to know the answers to questions such as: Is there an increase in visitor numbers? Which geographic areas and sectors have witnessed increased spend? What do our visitors actually do? How do businesses in different areas perform off-peak? Have individual businesses noticed an upturn in their profits? Have communities flourished? Do visitors plan to return and recommend Yorkshire to others?
Full research is needed, to inform marketing activities by Welcome to Yorkshire and all the other organisations and businesses involved in tourism marketing, and help us calculate the real return on investment. Now is the perfect time to do this, as part of the broader discussions about the future of Yorkshire tourism.
We don’t need to ‘put Yorkshire on the map’. It’s on the map. Yorkshire is a strong brand. It has a high profile. Now’s the time to capitalise, to become more sophisticated and better-informed in our marketing.
Welcome to Yorkshire has prided itself on being a private company, and therefore not subject to Freedom of Information Requests. Some have said it is better that it is private because that prevents it from being too bureaucratic but surely if it receives a high level of public funding, there needs to be more scrutiny. If WTY is successful as a private company why don’t more businesses invest in it?
If businesses join and remain members of Welcome to Yorkshire, that is a very useful indicator. The reality is that there is considerable ‘churn’, with many members not remaining members and new ones joining. Membership levels are now lower than they once were. I know of a large number of businesses who have said they won’t re-join until WTY reassures them that the organisation can really be trusted. They do want to be part of an organisation like WTY but need to believe in it again, and to feel it is listening. I don't think this is a problem - it's a real opportunity.
Considering the very significant sums invested in Yorkshire, we really do need to know more before we can make important decisions about investment and to quantity what success actually means. We also need to benchmark ourselves against other destinations. How good is our return on investment?
Here’s just one example from our neighbour, Cumbria Tourism’s website. The two areas are of course very different – Yorkshire has a population of around 5 million while Cumbria has about half a million. The economic impact of their tourism industry rose by 6.4% in the last year for which figures are available, to £2.9 billion. WTY’s turnover is just over £4 million with about half coming from local councils. Cumbria Tourism’s income in the same period was about £780,000 with a small percentage from local councils.
On that basis, we might say Cumbria Tourism is very successful, particularly per capita. They have the advantage of much more research about their visitors so they can make more informed decisions about how they spend their income.
Imagine if we had the same public sector backing as we currently get, and had the market intelligence to make even better, more informed decisions?
We need to know more about what activities really work, to publish as much information as possible to help the industry and to celebrate achievements.
Surely local authorities need to know more about visitors to Yorkshire than a headline indicator figure, in order to justify their return on investment?
Take a simple example of the high-profile Welcome to Yorkshire gardens at RHS Chelsea. If WTY published the level of investment the gardens take, the huge number of column inches of publicity the promotion generates, and a graph showing annual increases in visitors to Yorkshire’s gardens, we'll know it’s worthwhile and can see how we can learn from that success in other areas.
Financial contributions from local councils
We are fortunate in Yorkshire that the public sector is committed to regional tourism and makes a very significant contribution. The local authorities will no doubt scrutinise the findings of the two forthcoming investigations and demand greater transparency and accountability in future.
Before they agree to this year’s financial contributions, it would be good for them to consult more with the businesses in their area so they have a better picture of industry needs.
Again, there is a need to build trust and demonstrate good governance. Service Level Agreements need to be more detailed, published, with publicly available evaluations.
I believe Service Level Agreements should specify that research is needed and to set targets based on the answers to some of the questions posed above.
A very good barometer for WTY’s ongoing success would be satisfaction levels of members, and membership income at each level. Could this be factored into future SLAs?
Future tourism strategy
How can local authorities work together and judge tourism success if there is no strategy or business plan for Welcome to Yorkshire’s work?
I can’t think of any other prominent destination in the UK which lacks a destination marketing strategy of some kind. It does not have to be complicated but we do need to know what are the priorities, what kind of visitors we need to target, how, when, and what kind of product development is necessary. We need a more strategic approach. Welcome to Yorkshire does not need to do everything itself. Yorkshire tourism is about more than ‘just’ Welcome to Yorkshire. An overarching strategy will help to reduce duplication and make better use of public and private investment so each organisation, business and partner can focus on their strengths.
Under Gary’s leadership Welcome to Yorkshire was not good at signposting to other activities. Hopefully now they’ll be able to rebuild relationships and show genuine support for others in the industry.
If they are truly ready to develop and improve, they will need to improve their industry communications, publish their strategy, undertake more research and publish campaign evaluations to build trust. If a small organisation like Cumbria Tourism can create a section of their website with more detailed research, WTY can surely do the same?
A brighter future?
As I said at the beginning, we have many opportunities to make Yorkshire tourism even better. Welcome to Yorkshire is free to move forward and become stronger and more transparent, to rebuild trust. Businesses want to collaborate. Once Welcome to Yorkshire has conducted its consultation and develop a strategy, and undertaken some more detailed research, we'll all be in a much better position to capitalise on previous success, to become more sophisticated and better-informed in our marketing. Imagine the power of everyone truly working together with a common goal, talking about what makes Yorkshire so special. Together we’re a powerful promotional force.
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.