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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