This article was originally written as an 'Opinion' piece for the Yorkshire Post, published on 14th January. There is a separate interview with James Mason here.
Welcome to Yorkshire will enter a new phase this month when James Mason starts as CEO. I’m looking forward to more open discussions about the future of Yorkshire tourism. The industry affects many of us, directly and indirectly. Around 11% of all UK jobs are in tourism. In some parts of Yorkshire around a third of the population are employed as a result of the visitor economy.
There’s an alarming aspect of the industry that’s rarely mentioned, a guilty secret we need to bring out into the open and resolve: Yorkshire's tourism industry is underperforming. Occupancy levels in some Yorkshire accommodation are as low as 40%. Many attractions and cafes close entirely in the Winter months. Even during the peak months, every day that passes with an empty bed in a B&B or hotel, an unoccupied restaurant table, an unsold visitor attraction ticket means lost income that can never be re-gained.
Over the last ten years, Welcome to Yorkshire has made its name in cycling tourism and big bold promotions. Its branding has been strong, as have some of the creative ideas, particularly in the early years. Now it’s time to be much more strategic. In order to generate income and actually get ‘heads in beds, bums on seats’ there have to be clearer calls to action, and more direct collaborations. The tourism industry need more campaigns to attract off-peak visitors and focus on different sectors.
One of the most popular responses to any question about Yorkshire’s strengths is its ‘diversity’. We know the region has an awe-inspiring variety of landscapes, towns and cities, incredible heritage buildings, arts, music and other cultural offerings. Yet our recent contribution to tourism has focused around cycling, limiting perceptions. Over the last year I’ve spoken to countless heritage, arts and cultural organisations that feel rather neglected.
If Yorkshire’s tourism industry is to perform to its full potential, James Mason and his Welcome to Yorkshire team will have to grapple with some important questions that haven’t been openly discussed for years.
Is it just about promotions and growth in visitor numbers? Tourism isn’t always a ‘good thing’? In the light of all the debate about climate change and over-tourism, we need to consider the kind of visitors we want to attract, when, and where. It’s not a straight-forward question. On a bank holiday in May, Malham residents question how many visitors they can truly welcome, particularly when they park on both sides of narrow roads restricting access for ambulances and tractors. On a wet Wednesday in November, every visitor is doubly welcome. Day trippers account for the vast majority of visitors, but contribute far less income than staying visitors. Welcome to Yorkshire needs to deal with that challenge.
International visitors have been an important target. They tend to spend more time and money when they’re in Yorkshire than domestic visitors, but at what cost to the environment? The North York Moors National Park has recently taken the brave and laudable step of focusing its promotional activity on UK and near European visitors who can reach us by land and ferry. Australians may still come to explore Captain Cook’s connections in Whitby but NYMNP won’t be responsible for encouraging long haul flights.
There’s a tricky balancing act to be performed, raising the profile of the urban alongside the rural, supporting small businesses as well as the blockbuster attractions, including all sectors, without portraying bland ‘something for everyone’ messages.
Welcome to Yorkshire needs to find new income sources to reduce its reliance on the public purse. They have around 30 staff whereas similar organisations in other areas of the country employ a handful of staff. There are some difficult decisions ahead. Large attractions and hotels can afford to pay Welcome to Yorkshire for their promotional efforts, and yet they already have their own established marketing teams. Smaller businesses don’t have the budgets to invest but they do need the promotion.
Some businesses are ready to pay large sums to be associated with the Yorkshire brand. Yet it raises the question: how do you convince a small business that they won’t be forgotten and their contribution is as valid as a bigger membership fee?
Until now the focus has been on leisure tourism. Business tourism and conferences are big earners, particularly for city locations. Should Welcome to Yorkshire be looking at those opportunities in future? How does the tourism promotion role tie-in with that of inward investment?
It’s definitely time for a more open and inclusive discussion about all these questions. James Mason has a big job ahead of him but he’s not alone. Across Yorkshire there are individuals and organisations standing ready to collaborate and find ways to generate income from tourism. Welcome to Yorkshire isn’t an expert in every aspect of the industry and will fail if it tries to be all things to all people, particularly with a reduced budget. An early task must be to identify what they really need to do, and what others can do better, and build the right partnerships – quickly.
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.