Yorkshire’s councils are being asked to fund Welcome to Yorkshire, without necessarily having sufficient information to ensure good value for money.
I’m writing from the perspective of working with around 1000 Yorkshire tourism businesses and 30 years’ tourism marketing experience. I care passionately about Yorkshire tourism and want to help improve it.
It’s important we know exactly what we’re asking Welcome to Yorkshire to do, and how to measure their success.
We need a destination marketing organisation that promotes according to market needs, that has a strong strategic plan based on sound research, and the trust of the tourism industry it should represent. Some significant and far-ranging changes are necessary to make Welcome to Yorkshire into that organisation.
What should a successful destination marketing organisation (DMO) do?
Unlike DMOs in most other areas of the UK, Welcome to Yorkshire does not have a strategic destination marketing plan that has been developed in consultation with businesses and other stakeholders.
A destination marketing strategy is not a business plan. It is much more specific to the area and the needs of tourism businesses. It considers what areas needs to be promoted, how and when. It considers how the area should be positioned, the target markets and key messages to be used. It draws on visitor research and states how activities will be evaluated. This would usually be the basis on which to agree funding and collaboration with local authorities, marketing consortia, businesses and sponsors.
Welcome to Yorkshire does not excel in product knowledge and promotion of the whole of Yorkshire. Some areas are served much better than others.
There is a serious lack of visitor research for Yorkshire, so decisions are being made without any market intelligence. This means public money may be wasted.
Welcome to Yorkshire has promised reform, but progress has been painfully slow. Should councils continue to fund Welcome to Yorkshire on the promise of improvement? Surely at a time when public funding is under such pressure, payment should be on results?
Is Welcome to Yorkshire successful? How can success be measured?
Neither businesses nor local authorities have the research and campaign evaluation information they need in order to measure success.
No one actually knows how successful Welcome to Yorkshire has been. Local authorities are not currently able to conduct a thorough analysis to show their return on investment.
The Tour de France and Tour de Yorkshire are thought to have been successful.
Perceptions of Yorkshire within Yorkshire have certainly changed: there is an increased confidence and positivity. I can find no evidence of any research being undertaken or published looking at perceptions of Yorkshire from outside the region. We do not really know how perceptions have changed and therefore we do not know the effect of the cycle races on Yorkshire’s propensity to attract visitors.
A former Director of Welcome to Yorkshire has said of their events and activities, “from the beginning it was clear we could say any number and the media weren’t really counting”, and of the Tour De France went on to say, “questions still need to be answered about the true cost of the event and the true return.”
Some data on the economic impact of the cycling races is available. However, if any of the spectator figures were inflated, this research is not necessarily accurate.
A former economic development officer told me “there has been no robust research or evaluation of the economic impact of Welcome to Yorkshire activity and spending. Some of the numbers claimed for the economic impact of the Tour de Yorkshire are not credible and would not stand up to any serious scrutiny”.
We also need to remember that Welcome to Yorkshire is not just about cycling tourism. What of their other activities?
More data needed
Any effective marketing organisation needs to make decisions based on market intelligence, and to evaluate the impact of their activities. Local authorities need to see meaningful data in order to consider whether they are getting a good return on investment. Statistics covering web traffic and media responses are not sufficient to track visitor responses, visitor numbers and spend, and perceptions of Yorkshire.
Welcome to Yorkshire has not undertaken any robust primary visitor research since 2011. There has been very limited campaign evaluation, and no meaningful market intelligence to inform activities.
There is insufficient information available about target markets, actual visitors, campaign evaluation, how perceptions of Yorkshire may have changed, and propensity to visit.
We do not know what our visitors want, where they go, what they do.
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 only other available figure is for the total economic value of tourism in Yorkshire, said to now be £9 billion, up from £8 billion last year. This has been repeated again and again and yet it's not necessarily accurate. 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 must also remember that any increase in visitor spend is not just down to one organisation. Some local authorities undertake their own marketing, as do Yorkshire's tourism business, local area organisations, voluntary marketing consortia and other organisation such as Screen Yorkshire.
What do we need to know?
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?
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?
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.
Another important way to judge success
Another indicator of Welcome to Yorkshire’s success would be its ability to attract and retain members. If private sector businesses experience an upturn, they will wish to be members of Welcome to Yorkshire. The reality is that there is considerable ‘churn’, with many members not renewing their membership. Membership levels are now much lower than previously. 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.
Funding and representation across Yorkshire
Welcome to Yorkshire is funded by local authorities, private sponsorship and business membership. There are some anomalies in this situation. In some areas there may be only one or two layers of funding e.g. a local authority and business. In others such as within the two National Parks, Welcome to Yorkshire receives four layers of funding from the same area:
Despite these layers of public sector funding, a business that is not a member of Welcome to Yorkshire will not be promoted by Welcome to Yorkshire. So local authorities and other bodies are effectively diverting their funds to promote some businesses more than others. Some areas are paying much more for promotion than others.
What should councils ask for?
It would be reasonable for local authorities to fund Welcome to Yorkshire based on results. Criteria could include such aspects as: an increase in visitor spend (based on robust primary research), changes in perceptions of Yorkshire, achieving specific strategic objectives such as an increase in off-peak visitors in a specific area, membership growth...
Comments on the two investigations into Welcome to Yorkshire
The reports for the two investigations into Welcome to Yorkshire have now been published. Concerns still remain, particularly given the high level of public funding for WTY.
The findings of this report are very worrying. BDO were originally asked to investigate six years of accountants but have focused on only three.
The key conclusion is that there are £900,000 of unexplained expenses, much of which was spent on hotels, food and drink, and entertaining. BDO comment that they were unable to decide whether this was a reasonable level for the work WTY was doing. In my professional opinion this level of spending was inappropriate, particularly at a time when there is such pressure on the public purse for essential services. There is little rationale for such spending, and no research or evaluation of the impact of the spending.
The board say they had no knowledge of this activity and expenditure. They were not acting as critical friends and asking questions, as one would expect a board to do. I believe the previous Chair of WTY, Ron McMillan worked at PriceWaterhouseCoopers for 38 years. Yet he did not notice this spending?
The Chair of the board has said that the board will be replaced. Until this has happened, it is difficult to see whether WTY is genuinely capable of change.
When a board of directors send in their accounts to Companies House they confirm that: "...each director has taken all the steps that they ought to have taken as a director to make themselves aware of any relevant audit information and to establish that the company's auditor is aware of that information". Under Company Law directors must not approve the financial statements unless they are satisfied that they give a true and fair view of the state of affairs of the company.
I find it curious that the BDO report does not comment on the fact that previous company audits and accountants - KPMG - didn't pick up that significant expenses were paid out without any receipts?
The Finance Director has remained in post – the same person who managed WTY’s accounts over the previous few years. There have been no comments about any disciplinary process.
Why did Peter Dodds, Commercial Director never act as a brake on the excessive spending?
Gary Verity was clearly at fault for his activities. Did he act entirely alone in order to spend so lavishly?
Both reports make recommendations about future activities, but the fact that so many people who were part of this culture remain in post is a concern.
It seems inappropriate for local authorities to continue to fund such an organisation with so little accountability, and industry support until there is meaningful change.
Some of the people who were involved in giving evidence to this enquiry have said they feel very let down by the lack of detail in this report. There is a sense that the report is incomplete. Some sentences within the report sound like they were written by members of WTY staff or board members. This report has instilled little confidence or sense of closure.
However, it does contain some good recommendations and some of these are already being implemented in terms of HR and management.
When so many essential services are being cut, it’s every penny of public spending needs to be accounted for, and to deliver best value for money. It’s important we know exactly what we’re asking Welcome to Yorkshire to do, and can measure their success.
If you'd like to talk about this, please get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org
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.