AS recently as a decade ago there was a sneaking suspicion that beyond its wide borders the perception of Yorkshire was still one of flat caps, even flatter vowels and old men getting up to silly antics in the countryside.
As endearing as Last of the Summer Wine may have been it was hardly an accurate reflection of modern Yorkshire life. Nevertheless, countering this popular image was one of the challenges facing Clare Morrow when she became chairwoman of what was then the Yorkshire Tourist Board in 2008.
“The first time I visited the south of England the image of Yorkshire was very old fashioned, it wasn’t necessarily of a really exciting place. There was still this idea of cloth caps and the miners’ strike,” she says.
Morrow’s brief was to raise Yorkshire’s profile, boost tourism and change people’s perception of the county both at home and abroad. She’s certainly managed that.
During her seven-year tenure the Lonely Planet put Yorkshire third in its top 10 world regions, only behind destinations in India and Australia, Yorkshire’s so-called Sculpture Triangle garnered praise from The New York Times no less, and then there was the phenomenal success of last year’s Grand Départ.
But these kind of eye-catching stories belie the huge among of work that has gone on behind the scenes. One of Morrow’s first, and arguably most significant, decisions was to recruit Gary Verity as the new chief executive.
“I knew we needed someone who was a bit different. We both come from commercial backgrounds and I wanted somebody with big ambitions for Yorkshire. Gary’s driven by his passion for the county and he’s also very focused, especially when it came to the Tour de France. You could see how he was absolutely determined to deliver that, and he did.” So much so that it led to Verity being awarded a knighthood for his efforts.
Morrow was also involved in the key decision to rebrand the organisation from the drab-sounding Yorkshire Tourist Board to the snappier Welcome to Yorkshire. Critics might have dismissed it as a simple marketing ploy and in many respects it was, but it was also a very clever one.
“The Yorkshire Tourist Board sounded stuffy, like some kind of regional body rather than a call to action for consumers. We knew we needed to get a new message out and every time Welcome to Yorkshire was mentioned it was an invitation to people.”
In the past, Yorkshire perhaps lagged behind its rivals across the Pennines when it came to self-promotion, something she was keenly aware of. “There was always a sense that the North West, and in particular Manchester, was one step ahead of Yorkshire. Manchester had strong civic leadership and always seemed to have a more ballsy attitude. In Yorkshire we’re less likely to shout about ourselves, we tend to be more reserved.”
From the outset it was something that Morrow, a journalist by trade and a former Yorkshire Television executive, along with the rest of the Welcome to Yorkshire board set about changing. “We built relationships with regional, national and international journalists and we used every single opportunity we had to talk about what we were doing.”
Not that they were trying to reinvent Yorkshire. “It wasn’t about trying to get rid of all the great history and heritage we have, it was about subtly shifting the emphasis to show that Yorkshire is also an exciting contemporary place.”
There was a feeling that the county’s tourism industry had huge untapped potential. “It’s the third biggest sector in Yorkshire and is much bigger than a lot of people perhaps appreciate. But traditionally tourism was focused on accommodation providers rather what people did once they were here. It didn’t embrace culture and it didn’t embrace food and drink and that’s something we have tried to do,” she says.
After a series of high-profile promotional campaigns starting with “A long weekend in Yorkshire isn’t long enough”, the organisation’s work was credited with helping to increase the economic value of Yorkshire’s tourism industry from £6.3bn to over £7bn within the first two years of the rebrand.
You might think, given the mutual benefits tourism can bring, that convincing businesses to get involved would be straightforward. But Morrow says it wasn’t always the case. “The majority of tourism businesses are very small, most employ less than 10 people, so although it’s very big it’s also very fragmented.”
A lot of people set up B&Bs or cafes and restaurants as a second career and perhaps take more convincing that it’s worth their while climbing on board the tourism bandwagon. For many it wasn’t until they saw the wave of enthusiasm that washed over the county during the Grand Départ that the penny finally dropped. “That was a defining moment because suddenly they could see the benefits,” she says.
Welcome to Yorkshire led the bid to bring the Grand Départ here and the tourism agency was instrumental in delivering what Tour de France organisers described as “the grandest ever Grand Départ”, which saw four million spectators line the route and hundreds of communities come together to create a carnival atmosphere.
It allowed millions of people not just in this country, but all over the world to see Yorkshire in a fresh light, or perhaps even for the first time.
The Tour’s success was the crowning glory of Morrow’s time in charge. Something she happily acknowledges. “The Tour de France really caused great excitement. People saw beautiful countryside, they saw the passion of people, the quirky sense of humour and the real sense of community and that sent out a really strong message and showed this was a place that was worth a second look.
“In the past, Yorkshire has been a bit far removed from people’s consciousness, but that’s changing and the county’s profile is higher now than it has ever been – and it deserves to be, because we live in a fabulous part of the country.”
Now, after seven years, Morrow is stepping down – she was due to leave her post earlier but had her tenure extended so that she could help oversee the Grand Départ.
She believes its success has set down a marker for the future. “You can either stop at this point, in which case you just go backwards, or you can use it as a fantastic platform to jump off from,” she says.
“This is just the beginning. It has taken seven years to achieve something of a breakthrough and now the challenge is to find ways to keep Yorkshire’s profile as high as it can be over the next ten to fifteen years.”
That’s the challenge that awaits whoever fills her shoes.