‘Momentous’ step forward hailed as Royal Hall takeover backed

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THE chief executive of Harrogate International Centre (HIC) has hailed a “momentous” step forward this week in bolstering the town’s status as a visitor destination and renewing focus on the revival of its faltering conference industry.

Harrogate Borough Council’s cabinet has given unanimous backing to Harrogate Theatre’s bid to take over the running of the town’s Royal Hall from the HIC while also reaffirming its focus on bringing in new business to the conference centre, where the latest financial forecasts have predicted a loss of nearly £1.6m over the next 12 months.

The deal to take over the Royal Hall – which comes at a cost of £200,000 to the taxpayer – will not be sustainable in its present form beyond 2013.

But Angus Houston, the chief executive of the HIC, told the Yorkshire Post the new joined-up approach to promoting both the venue and the town as a key visitor destination is critical in propelling the spa town’s economy forward.

“This is absolutely the right way forward,” said Mr Houston, who described Wednesday night’s cabinet meeting as momentous.

“Harrogate has such a strength in both its business and leisure tourism that there is such a natural relationship between the two.

“The joined up approach is absolutely critical to propelling us forward. We are not a large metropolitan council and do not have that budget.

“It is about working together.”

The HIC, which is owned and operated at arm’s length by Harrogate Borough Council, has been blighted by a downturn in trade in recent years as conference organisers have either cancelled or scaled back events owing to financial constraints.

It had been forecast to register a £600,000 loss in the current financial year, but it is thought this figure will now reach £941,000. It is expected a £1.56m loss will be recorded during the next 12 months.

The venue – which is credited with generating up to £100m for the wider regional economy each year – has seen a drop in the number of events from 77 in 2010/11 to 64 in 2011/2012.

It is expected that just 54 events will be staged during 2012/13, despite recently securing several important new contracts including a major new conference when 1,000 delegates will attend an event in the autumn organised by the British Oncology Pharmacy Association.

Staff numbers have already had to be slashed in the last two years after a 100-strong workforce has been halved and there are fears more posts could be lost. Money-saving plans to outsource departments including front of house, security and cleaning are also currently being considered.

A wide-ranging marketing campaign will now be staged in the coming financial year in a bid to attract major events to the HIC.

“In the glory days there was Harrogate, London and Scotland,” Mr Houston said. “Harrogate was here before many others.

“We have got to make ourselves sharper and more competitive and that is what we are doing and is proved by the businesses we are winning.

“But one of its best assets is the destination itself.

“The visitor experience here is second to none.

“The support for HIC from Harrogate Council is unfaltering – there is an absolute determination that we are going to take HIC forward.”

Coun Don Mackenzie, the leader of Harrogate Borough Council, said: “From a political point of view we have given renewed impetus and renewed focus on the core business for HIC.

“The market for conference and exhibition venues is at the moment especially very competitive and we have more venues chasing less business.

“We have got to fight hard to retain our core conferences and exhibitions and bring new ones in.”