What’s East German propaganda got to do with the cult of Gary Verity and the future of the Yorkshire Post? You might have to bear with me a while to find out...
In 1984 I was living and working as a translator in Magdeburg in East Germany. I talk about that time a lot because it had such a profound impact on how I think. A newspaper was posted through my letter box every day - Neues Deutschland. I never ordered it, never paid for it and couldn't find out how to stop it arriving. I listlessly flicked through it, unimpressed with the endless graphs of incredibly successful grain harvests which contrasted with the reality of the local bakery that never seemed to have enough bread. Reading it was an interesting lesson in German socialist propaganda but little else.
When I arrived at the translating and interpreting agency where I worked, there was another literary treat in store for me each day - the only English paper that East German government allowed into free circulation: the left-wing Morning Star. It was the time of the Miners' Strikes so the front pages were always full of the bravery of the strikers, stubborn Thatcher and police brutality. I'd never seen the paper in England, and the style of 'reporting' quickly led me to assume the Morning Star was as full of lies as Neues Deutschland.
I remember asking an East German 'friend' (later found out she was a member of the Stasi secret police asked to watch over me) why she believed the East German newspapers told the truth. She answered with a question: "why do you think your newspapers (presumably not the Morning Star) tell the truth?". That point stayed with me. How do we ever know the truth unless we keep asking questions, and comparing the answers?
A while later I went off to live in France and study Nazi propaganda and the underground press of the French resistance. It was fascinating to see the same stories portrayed in two very different ways. I met many former French resistance fighters, people who'd endured terrible torture and labour camps. They all told me that their motivation was always freedom and truth: the two things they'd fought for and which they still prized above all possessions. They said that they knew the moment the French stopped asking questions and accepted the German occupation, life as they'd known it would be over. Another powerful experience. You can perhaps understand my obsession with asking questions and wanting the 'truth' to be out in the open.
Fast forward several decades to Yorkshire and the cult of Gary Verity. This is going to sound overly dramatic and extreme: on more than one occasion I compared the way no-one asked questions and everyone seemed to believe everything he said to the East German propaganda machine. Remember the grain harvests and the empty bakeries? Compare them to (inflated) spectator numbers for the Tour de France and the tourism businesses who daren't admit their business hadn't benefitted. I did ask a lot of questions, but it felt like I was in the minority. However, those questions led to a certain amount of knowledge.
When I started to ask a member of the Welcome to Yorkshire board how they were going to deal with the "Gary situation", I was nervous. I didn't know the outcome. Ultimately, what was it to do with me? Apart from fairness, truth and taxpayers' money. When I spoke to David Collins at the Sunday Times and he asked for a quote, I was even more nervous. What would happen to me if I spoke out publicly? It was a very small thing compared to those I'd interviewed in France. How could I refuse when I believed so passionately in the need to ask questions of public figures and demand accountability? The extent of the staff bullying and expenses 'inaccuracies' would not have come to light without questions being asked.
Since Gary resigned, I've spoken to a lot of journalists and I've kept asking a lot of questions. I've recognised the power of social media and a blog. In today's world we are very fortunate to be able to control our own channels of communication. That's incredibly powerful and yet very few people use that opportunity. The Chair of the Welcome to Yorkshire board has resigned, and two in-depth investigations are now underway. Several local authorities have suspended their payments. I don't think that would have all happened had it not been for journalists, myself and others asking questions and prompting.
Have we learnt anything from this experience? I'm not sure yet, but I do hope more people will ask more questions. In a free country, what's the worst that can happen if we do so?
I've been fascinated by the different approaches of the many journalists I've spoken to.
Some journalists asked questions, genuinely listened to the answers, fact-checked, and then came back to ask more questions. Some were meticulous in checking quotes and trying to see the bigger picture even if their own article could only cover one small area of the story. Some were not so pro-active. At least one missed out on a story by not reacting when they had the chance. I may not be a fan of Murdoch's might but I don't think many other newspapers would have had the resources or been able to give their journalists the time they gave to David Collins to research and then break the initial Gary Verity story. He spent an age researching and then writing the story.
Other journalists picked up the story and gradually found their niches and their own angles. It was interesting to speak to them all, and see which bits of the story they were ready to run with. Helen Pidd focused on the angle of the £14.9 of public funds paid to Welcome to Yorkshire. The Yorkshire Post really got into their groove and covered the story from several angles, coming back to it again and again as different layers were uncovered. I had long conversations with several of their journalists, who really sought to understand the broader context. I have confidence they'll continue to ask important questions.
When reading any story, it's worth trying to understand the motivations of different journalists. Some are genuinely interested in a given story, some are just going through the motions. Many do seem to be really driven by an opportunity to dig down and uncover the 'truth'. It's been really uplifting to speak to some journalists who have managed to cling to their initial motivation for becoming journalists, to get to the nub of the matter. I think some are genuinely still driven by the benefits of the freedom of speech. I hope so.
This morning I was intrigued when James Mitchinson asked a simple question on twitter "I am always looking to improve as an editor and so The Yorkshire Post. Good editors put the views of their readers first, so: Q: What would you like The Yorkshire Post to be - online - such that you’d be prepared to back our journalism with your own hard-earned money?"
I couldn't help joining in with my views but I was most interested by other people's responses. Not just the contents that they suggested but also their response to the fact that a newspaper editor had asked such questions. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, a media/new/researcher and Director of Reuters Institute who encouraged his many followers to take note of the comments. Others have commented on the novelty of this approach: a newspaper asking readers what they'd like. Is it really so rare? At a time when newspapers really have to fight for their future?
Again, I'm fascinated. Asking questions is the most fundamental way we can know more about our market, whoever we are. I've already gone on about the need for more market research within Yorkshire tourism. Asking questions is fundamental for all of us who seek to serve any market. If we don't ask, how will we know? And if we don't keep asking questions, and comparing answers, how will we be able to piece together the truth.
I feel increasingly passionate about the need for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. As history has shown, it's easy to take things for granted, for things to change, little by little and for freedom to be taken away from us.
But sometimes freedom isn't taken from us - we give it away, by not asking questions.
We need the media to keep asking questions, to survive and we need to keep asking questions of the media and prompting them to dig deeper. We mustn't take the freedom of our press for granted. A recent German survey of all the world's media found the UK ranks at just no 33rd in the world. Room for improvement still...
If you drive around Yorkshire, along the route of the Tour de Yorkshire you'll notice bunting and flags galore as communities get ready for the Tour de Yorkshire next weekend. Many are excitedly planning their celebrations and where they'll watch the cycling races. This isn't the only opportunity they'll have: in September Yorkshire will also welcome the UCI Road World Championships.
Much has been written about Yorkshire's success in attracting cycling tourism. It has undoubtedly put Yorkshire on the map as far as cycling is concerned and generated hours of broadcast coverage and thousands of column inches within print and online media. The cycle races have brought communities together, and given much pleasure to amateur cyclists and spectators.
Some work has been carried out to assess the economic value of cycling tourism. It does bring financial benefits.
However, it's not a panacea. It's not the the only thing Yorkshire should be known for. It doesn't benefit everyone. Not every tourism business is pleased with Welcome to Yorkshire's focus on cycling.
Not enough debate
The cycle races are mainly funded by Yorkshire's councils, by tax payers like you and me. It's right that we should openly debate the value of cycling tourism and the extent to which this should be a continued focus.
With so many calls on the public purse, are cycling races the best way to spend precious resources?
Whatever the benefits of cycling tourism, here are some questions we should all be asking before deciding how great a focus to place on cycling in future.
What are the true costs?
Local authorities pay a fee to Welcome to Yorkshire for ASO (the organising company) and have to dedicate much staff time to the logistics of the races. One council tourism officer told me for at least four months before a cycle race she has to work full time on race logistics, leaving her usual job undone. Then there are the additional costs of road re-surfacing, signage, policing, barriers, portaloos etc.
Overall economic impact figures are published for the TDY but what are the overall costs of putting on the cycle races? How much does it cost Welcome to Yorkshire, each local authority (staging fees, staff time, all internal and external costs), the police etc? What is the total cost? Does anyone know?
If so economically important, why is cycling tourism still funded by taxpayers?
If cycling tourism is so economically important to Yorkshire, with financial benefits for businesses, why is it still necessary for it to be mainly funded from the public purse? What efforts are being made to ensure longer term financial sustainability for cycling tourism, so it is less reliant on income from taxpayers?
The organising company behind the Tour de Yorkshire is Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), part of the Group Editions Philippe Amaury in France. Marie Odile Amaury (widow of founder Philippe Amaury) owns a majority of this company. Is the Tour de Yorkshire profitable for ASO? If so, is it right that Yorkshire taxpayers are effectively funding a french business?
Local authorities fund the cycle races to bring visitors, profile and economic benefits to Yorkshire, but in so doing they're creating a platform for sponsored teams to race and promote themselves. This year petrochemical company, INEOS will use the TDY to launch their team. Opponents of fracking have already said they plan to protest at INEOS's participation, presumably increasing policing costs.
What is the displacement effect?
The TDY takes place on a bank holiday, when most attractions, accommodation and other tourism-related businesses would be busy anyway. What is the incremental benefit of staging a cycle race at this time? How much money would be generated without a cycle race on a bank holiday?
What is the displacement effect of staging a race during a bank holiday? Some visitor attractions, pubs and retailers find their income is much reduced during TDY weekend because attention is focused elsewhere. Even when the race goes past the front door of an attraction, visitors do not go in during that weekend. They tell me this every year but have never dared speak publicly because the hype over TDY has made them feel they were somehow in the wrong.
How many regular visitors avoid Yorkshire because of the cycle race? Accommodation businesses tell me some of their regulars don't book if the TDY is coming through their area because they have heard about road closures, don’t like cycling or fear crowds. Accommodation providers normally take 2 or 3 night bookings over the bank holidays. Many cycling spectators only want to book 1 night so some providers lose income. We don't know enough about the displacement effect of cycle races.
How can we leverage screen time?
Many will say the benefit of TDY is the TV coverage showing beautiful areas. This is true, but appeals to a relatively minority audience – people interested in cycling. Other types of visitor do not see this coverage, and it is fleeting. Just because we switch on TV to watch our beautiful county as the backdrop to the races, it doesn't mean everyone else does. This isn't 'money can't buy coverage' - we've paid for it through the race costs.
Similar or greater PR effects could be gained from encouraging other TV programmes and films in the area, programmes which have a broader audience. What other efforts should we be putting into attracting filming within Yorkshire, for longer term, broader impact?
What do tourism businesses really want?
What do tourism businesses want to happen? How keen are they to have more cycling tourism? Welcome to Yorkshire has a limited staff and they cannot do everything. They have become known for their expertise in cycling tourism but critics such as North Yorkshire Councillor Dr. John Blackie accuse the organisation of being a "one trick pony". Recent feedback from a consultation survey I conducted showed the strength of feeling from businesses about Welcome to Yorkshire's focus on cycling tourism - full details can be seen here.
Time to talk about other tourism sectors?
Cycling tourism brings benefits and pleasure for many. Cycling tourism has led to the creation of some new businesses such as Stage 1 in Hawes and the Yorkshire Cycle Hub in the North York Moors, and development of some existing businesses such as Dales Bike Centre. The Swale Trail capitalises on interest in tourism and attracts more family cyclists, and encourages visits to local pubs and cafes.
But it is also time to talk about other aspects of tourism we need to promote in Yorkshire, and to debate how public funding is used in future. Yorkshire councils have been generous in their funding of cycle races.
We may agree that cycling tourism is a "good thing", but it should not be Yorkshire's only claim to fame.
What other tourism sectors could we support to bring year-round visitors and spread the benefits of tourism across Yorkshire? Without a Yorkshire-wide tourism strategy (which Welcome to Yorkshire has not had for some time), we can't maximise the promotion of all our assets.
Some of the problems at Welcome to Yorkshire were masked by adulation of Gary Verity and awe at what cycling tourism has achieved.
Now is the time for proper, open debate and for all tourism businesses to feel part of Yorkshire's tourism success, not just those that welcome two wheeled-visitors.
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 wrote the post below some time ago, and then updated it with links to the various online articles about Gary Verity, Welcome to Yorkshire and public spending. Here's an update covering my meeting with Welcome to Yorkshire today, results of the industry consultation I've carried out, and some thoughts on next steps.
Board of Welcome to Yorkshire:
Apart from a meeting with Sir Thomas and some WTY staff, I haven't had any contact with any other board members. I tried to contact Ron McMillan to no avail. My personal view: I can't imagine he'll remain as Chair of the board indefinitely, even if he has said he won't resign immediately. It seems right to expect the board to be re-constituted and to become more accountable (e.g. minutes on the website). I hope they use a similar process for recruitment of board members to Cumbria Tourism. As I write this, the board have announced a review but haven't yet announced what form this will take. I, and many others believe that it's essential for an independent forensic auditor to look at all WTY's accounts over at least a five year period. Many believe any review should not just focus on Gary Verity's activities but beyond.
There have been widespread calls for a criminal (and possibly HMRC) investigation. I am aware of several people who have reported the issues to West Yorkshire Police. I believe some MPs have spoken of the need for a criminal investigation. I agree that there appear to be grounds for a criminal investigation.
Tourism industry consultation:
Over the past week or so, over 120 (stopped counting) tourism businesses and organisations have sent their thoughts and comments to me either by email, phone or through the online survey. I've tried to summarise these briefly below. I've used 'some', 'many', and 'majority' which are clearly not scientific but intended to give a flavour of the frequency of each comment. This was not a comprehensive consultation but is intended to give an indication of the information I've been sent.
Much outrage and disgust at Gary Verity's activities, and at the Board of WTY for not taking action earlier, not being more accountable.
Support for WTY staff, who are considered hard-working and victims in this unfortunate situation. Much sympathy for bullying victims.
Acknowledgement and some praise for Gary's achievement in bringing the TDF/TDY to Yorkshire and for 'putting Yorkshire on the map'. Fewer accolades about other specific activities.
Vast majority called for greater and deeper investigation into activities. Many called for reviews of WTY activity in general.
Many comments from small - medium businesses for a clearer idea of WTY's activities and their impact on tourism businesses.
Many businesses expressed concerns about renewing membership subscriptions before they have heard about tangible changes.
The majority of businesses made comments relating to trust, and re-building trust.
There were numerous suggestions for improvements relating to membership and marketing activities, doing more for grass roots businesses, need for less expensive promotional opportunities.
Positive comments about WTY activities including the team, putting Yorkshire on the map, being more modern and dynamic than YTB, and This is Y magazine.
Many commented that the salary for the CEO was considered too high for the tourism industry.
Most frequently mentioned words (apart from cycling): accountability, transparency, independent investigation arrogance.
A large number of responses commented on the TDF/TDY and cycling tourism. A minority were overwhelmingly in favour of these activities and hoped they would continue.
Some commented that they were dubious about the actual positive benefits, not having experienced them directly (despite some being on a cycling race route), some said the timing was wrong, a few attractions said they had a negative effect on their visitor numbers.
The vast majority said they felt that cycling tourism has overtaken all other WTY activities and that it dominated too much.
There were many calls for cycling tourism activity to continue, but as a separate or arms-length agency from WTY.
Public sector funding:
Most businesses were amazed by the level of public sector investment in Yorkshire tourism. Most called for more transparency and accountability. This morning (2nd April) there are press accounts that council heads have called for an 'urgent meeting'.
Some simple steps towards greater accountability & transparency:
1. Consult with industry/taxpayers before drawing up Service Level Agreements
2. Publish Service Level Agreements - in an obvious place
3. Conduct meaningful research
4. Publish all evaluations
5. Learn & repeat.
It may be that existing service level agreements are all absolutely watertight, with good targets for visitor spend and numbers - more information needs to be published. There is also a need for more strategic activity - until WTY publishes a consultative marketing strategy/action plan, this is not possible.
Original post: 17th March
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, more Yorkshire Post articles here and here, the initial Guardian article and Helen Pidd's second article.
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'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.
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