This article was originally written for the Yorkshire Post.
Everyone is searching for ways to save money, make money and find a way forward out of financial uncertainty. I’m particularly worried about the tourism industry. We’re hoping for the best, not taking any action. Tourism is said to be worth £9 billion per year to the Yorkshire economy, yet there’s little discussion about how we can safeguard it, even increase its value.
The £9 billion figure is often quoted, yet no one asks the key questions. Is it a good figure for an area as large as Yorkshire? What would we need to do to increase it? Does it fully benefit Yorkshire residents? Should we be thinking about different kinds of tourism and developing new products?
My concerns started pre-Covid. They’ve since intensified. I think tourism is under-performing. After three decades, helping businesses and destinations across the UK increase their revenue, my experience tells me we’re missing a trick. Even in good years, accommodation occupancy levels as low as 50% are common. Many businesses close in the Winter, or barely survive. Many areas would welcome more visitors. There’s scope for improvement.
If Yorkshire tourism is such an important industry, shouldn't we take a more business-like approach? I find it incredible that there’s no overall strategy for the Yorkshire tourism industry, no published marketing plan, no collective vision. There are no concrete aims in terms of what we're trying to achieve, the markets we need to target, the type of tourism we might want, how we want Yorkshire to be seen, how we can generate more revenue.
What happened to that Yorkshire trait of supposedly being canny with our cash? We could be so much more effective - and save money. Welcome to Yorkshire recently asked for a further £1.4 million from Yorkshire councils. Some readily agreed, some were more dubious. I asked one of Welcome to Yorkshire’s most supportive council funders why they were ready to be so generous. The response was ‘to help it survive’. Survive to do what exactly? That’s less clear.
I’m not saying councils shouldn’t fund Welcome to Yorkshire. But there’s only so much money to go round. We need to be more specific about the role of Welcome to Yorkshire in a changed world, their activities, the costs, and funding options.
Welcome to Yorkshire has experience in big bold campaigns and publicity stunts. Great activities for getting people to take notice. But as any business owner knows, attention is one thing. Getting people to actually come to you and spend money is a lot harder. It requires precision marketing: the right messages about the right products tailored to the right people.
Yorkshire is a huge region, with incredible variety. Today’s visitors want to enjoy a sense of place so it’s important that each patch within Yorkshire has a chance to enhance their offering, talk about their strengths and promote them directly to the people who’re most interested. Visitors want local insights. Peer-peer marketing costs practically nothing and yet can be as effective as any well-funded official voice. Many individuals, businesses and organisations work hard to promote tourism to Yorkshire, fuelled by passion for their area. They may not have the same profile or budgets as Welcome to Yorkshire but they’re all part of an essential broader approach. The potential of that combined energy and enthusiasm for promoting Yorkshire is enormous. Creativity can offset tight budgets.
Businesses want to see well-informed leadership and a clear sense of direction. That’s harder when there’s no overall strategy. I work with hundreds of tourism businesses across Yorkshire. They say they feel left out of the dialogue that should be all about their needs, and their contribution to the economy. And then I tell them there isn’t a dialogue. There isn’t a plan. They’re shocked. Businesses want to know how we can increase off-peak tourism, develop new products, improve length of stay, generate more revenue. I talk to them directly, helping to show the way forward. But these topics are relevant to the whole of the Yorkshire tourism industry. The deeper detail of tourism revenue generation isn’t being openly discussed, despite its crucial importance to the Yorkshire economy.
There’s a role for an organisation like Welcome to Yorkshire that acts as a shop window and lobbies for the industry. It’s just one element in the multi-faceted jigsaw of Yorkshire tourism development and promotion. An overall plan for the region would mean that everyone understands the part they need to play. It would give each organisation a stronger sense of purpose and something by which they could be measured. Most importantly it will increase income for many struggling businesses.
What do I need to do to get councils to ask the right questions so their cash injection into Welcome to Yorkshire is actually an investment with a real return? I wrote to local authorities about this a year ago. No response. I can see a clear path to how we can increase that £9 billion revenue and make the industry work better for everyone. Time’s running out. Is anyone listening?
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.