Sir Gary Verity’s scandal-hit departure as Welcome to Yorkshire boss loomed large over the agency’s tenth anniversary conference. Chris Burn reports.
It was supposed to be a huge celebration, a show “even more spectacular than ever before” marking a decade of achievements exactly 10 years to the day since Gary Verity launched Welcome to Yorkshire as the replacement for the Yorkshire Tourist Board backed with £30m of public money from regional development agency Yorkshire Forward.
But after his recent resignation following concerns being raised about inappropriate expenses claims totalling tens of thousands of pounds and allegations of bullying, the tourism agency’s anniversary conference at the Royal Armouries in Leeds took on a very different tone.
As the face of the private company which receives around half of its funding from taxpayers, Sir Gary had been anticipated to take a leading role at the conference as in previous years. It would have been an opportunity to reflect on the lasting impact of bringing the Tour de France to Yorkshire in 2014 and then establishing the Tour de Yorkshire, as well as new analysis suggesting tourism is now worth £9bn a year to the region’s economy – almost 50 per cent more than when Welcome to Yorkshire was formed in 2009.
But instead, there was a major question mark whether his recent own Grand Depart would even be mentioned on stage in front of around 1,000 delegates, largely made of Welcome to Yorkshire members working in the tourism industry.
Verity’s presence was still noticeable – with his face on billboards for the event on the way from the car park and in the venue toilets, as well as a message from him in the brochures encouraging industry guests to sign up as members (with annual prices starting from £247 and going up to £715).
Copies of The Yorkshire Post carrying a front page advert for Welcome to Yorkshire adorned each seat in the venue, but inside that same day’s paper was the news of police demanding a meeting over two independent inquiries the agency has ordered into the expenses and behavioural issues.
It comes after local council leaders asked for their own meeting to demand assurances on how Welcome to Yorkshire spends its money - a request made more complex by the fact that the council leaders of North Yorkshire, East Riding, Harrogate and Hull are among Welcome to Yorkshire’s board members. Hours after the event, Sheffield Council leader Julie Dore said its £50,000 annual funding to Welcome to Yorkshire would be suspended while the investigations take place.
The show began with a violinist playing an upbeat version of Coldplay’s Rule the World. In the circumstances, and with the song’s lyrics including lines like ‘I used to rule the world/Seas would rise when I gave the word’ and ‘Listen as the crowd would sing/Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!’, it was perhaps for the best it was an instrumental version.
But almost immediately, show host Rob Walker addressed the elephant in the room. “It is hard to believe ten years ago in this very room on this very stage, Welcome to Yorkshire’s journey began,” he said. “None of us could have predicted what an amazing journey it would be and this is just the first chapter. But recent events also mean this is a moment of reflection and review.”
He then welcomed on the stage Welcome to Yorkshire commercial director Peter Dodd, who had worked closely alongside Verity.
Dodd said: “We are all here to celebrate what this county has achieved in the past ten years and its very exciting future. But there is no denying for us at Welcome to Yorkshire the last month has been an incredibly challenging time and we have had to face up to some very sobering issues. Two independent investigations are now being carried out into the expenses and behaviour during Sir Gary Verity’s tenure as chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire. As part of both of those investigations, our policies, procedures and governance will be reviewed and recommendations for improvements will be made. There is no doubt that lessons will be learnt. Nobody can deny the impact that Gary has had on Yorkshire. But no one person can ever claim to have delivered that on their own. It takes teamwork, collaboration, partnerships and a shared vision.”
He announced a consultation would be launched with members on the tourism agency’s future strategy before asking Welcome to Yorkshire employees to come up to the front of the stage, describing them as a group of people “who every day go above and beyond for this county”.
“They might not be in the spotlight, in front of the TV cameras or in the headlines but I want to thank them for their dedication and hard work,” he said, as they received a sustained round of applause.
The show then continued along its more usual lines, with guest interviews and announcements.
But what would have been the headline moments in previous years – such as the news that Turner Prize-winning artist Damien Hirst is to have his sculptures displayed in his home city of Leeds this summer and autumn and a Pride of Yorkshire award being presented to Sheffield pensioner Tony Foulds for inspiring the recent flypast to remember an American WWII crew who died in a crash in the city – were undoubtedly overshadowed by the Verity issue.
When cricketers Tim Bresnan and Ryan Sidebottom shared some light-hearted stories – largely involving drinking – as they appeared to promote The Ashes and Cricket World Cup coming to Leeds this summer, Bresnan quipped: “We had to lighten the mood at some point.”
It was then the turn of Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme, who went on stage to reflect on the success of that event, the subsequent creation of the Tour de Yorkshire and the forthcoming hosting of the UCI Road World Championships.
Unprompted, Prudhomme took the opportunity to praise his close friend Verity, describing him as “the man who brought together our ‘Ooh La La’ and ‘Ee Bah Gum’, the man who made me love Yorkshire, mon ami Gary Verity”. It was a description that won some applause, albeit noticeably more muted than other announcements and comments had received.
Verity famously said he came up with the idea of bringing the Tour de France to Yorkshire while shaving and the lasting impact of that event was highlighted by Andrew Stokes from Visit England revealing 81 tour operators in Europe are now offering Yorkshire-based cycling holidays to people in Germany and Holland.
But after the event, questions inevitably focused on Sir Gary and what comes next. Board member Keith Stewart confirmed there will soon be a meeting with West Yorkshire Police, parallel to the independent investigations.
“If there is anything that is thrown up from the investigations that we think are police matters, we will obviously pass them to the police,” he said. “We have nothing to hide.”
Susan Briggs, director of The Tourism Network, which advises hundreds of small businesses and tourism bodies, has been among those to criticise the organisation’s handling of the Verity issues and was among those in attendance yesterday.
She said the future remains uncertain. “My over-riding feeling is this is a huge opportunity to look at themselves and what is needed to come up with a brilliant strategy which is collaborative and move forward.
“The question is whether they will.”
Guests offer support for embattled agency
Guests at the event said their opinion of Welcome to Yorkshire has not been changed by recent events.
Phil Rees, a retired accountant from Otley who has attended every annual conference, said he was a “little disappointed” with the allegations about Sir Gary but said his confidence in the wider organisation had not been shaken.
“The reviews are the right thing to do to ensure nothing like this happens again. But it is just one man and it is a good organisation,” he said.
Rachel McWatt, from Screen Yorkshire, said: “It is disappointing obviously but I think the main thing now is to support the staff at Welcome to Yorkshire and we will continue working with them in future. Gary was the person in front of the cameras but there has been an incredible team there.”
Tony Holmes, from Oxenhope, which was on the Tour de France and Tour de Yorkshire routes, said Welcome to Yorkshire has contributed to a major increase in cycling in the county.
“I think it is a great organisation, I’m very supportive of it.”