How Welcome to Yorkshire must regroup after scandals – Susan Briggs

JAMES Mason’s resignation from Welcome to Yorkshire earlier this week prompted a flurry of questions.

What next for Welcome to Yorkshire after chief executive James Mason resigned this week amid new acrimony?
What next for Welcome to Yorkshire after chief executive James Mason resigned this week amid new acrimony?

Were allegations of an internal complaint about the outgoing chief executive’s conduct true? Can Welcome to Yorkshire overcome yet more turmoil and move on from its reputation as a troubled organisation?

While such questions are important – more so after Halifax Piece Hall boss Nicky Chance-Thompson and others resigned as board members in the wake of the latest turmoil – they’re also a distraction from the real purpose of Welcome to Yorkshire.

Former Wakefield Council leader Peter Box is the current chair of Welcome to Yorkshire. His role in the departure of chief executive James Mason has been open to conjecture.

More upheaval will hurt the industry the agency was set up to serve. Tourism is a perishable product: every day a bed, ticket or meal is unsold, the opportunity to recoup that income is lost. Businesses can’t just keep waiting for better times.

In a recent BBC interview James Mason suggested that one of Welcome to Yorkshire’s greatest achievements over the last two years is that it is ‘still here’. In this case survival isn’t enough. We need WTY to lead from the front.

Halifax Piece Hall boss Nicky Chance-Thompson is among those to have resigned from Welcome to Yorkshire's board this week.

Any good destination organisation needs to be outward-looking, focused on the needs of businesses and visitors.

It’s not about the organisation. It’s about helping new visitors to find places that will delight them so they spread the word to others. It’s about giving businesses a boost with off-peak bookings or lobbying in their interests.

It’s about reducing the impact of visitors on fragile environments by suggesting alternatives. It’s about truly understanding the path from sustainable to regenerative tourism. It’s about creating value for host communities and benefiting their local facilities, without overcrowding them.

Looking to the future, what does WTY – or a replacement organisation – need to do to really benefit the Yorkshire tourism economy? Some of our competitors ably demonstrate the way forward.

Welcome to Yorkshire has been fighting for its future since the resignation of former chief executive Sir Gary Verity amid a series of scandals.

It starts with clear leadership. Competing destinations have selected boards full of tourism and hospitality stalwarts, headed by high-profile chairs with impressive industry credentials. Cumbria has Jim Walker who has led award-winning tourism businesses. Cornwall has Jill Stein, part of the famous Padstow duo (with Rick Stein) who created a world-renowned business.

They both understand first-hand the needs of tourism businesses. Welcome to Yorkshire’s chair is Peter Box, previous leader of Wakefield Council. It’s a different world.

Industry trust is key. Welcome to Yorkshire is now mainly funded by local councils which may not be a sustainable solution. If Welcome to Yorkshire can offer the services businesses value, private sector income will follow. Businesses will trust an organisation that demonstrates understanding of their needs, more so if it provides tangible evidence of success – bookings and bums on seats.

Other destination marketing and management organisations publish long-term visitor strategies and marketing plans. Everyone in the area knows who they’re targeting, why, how and when. The value of this is that businesses can easily join forces with the destination organisation, invest in their activity and collaborate with a sense of shared purpose. It becomes much easier to attract funding. This is what we need from Welcome to Yorkshire too.

Plenty of ideas have bounced out of Welcome to Yorkshire over the last couple of years. Walkshire was an inspired campaign name. Other activities didn’t always stick: a song for Yorkshire, an app, and a Giftcard for Yorkshire. Progress updates on these are sparse – some initiatives seem to have been quietly dropped. They may have worked better if they were part of an overall strategy with clearer targets. It’s not always clear exactly who Welcome to Yorkshire wants to target, how it is extending the season or spreading the benefits of tourism across Yorkshire.

The organisation was originally set up to increase the value of tourism to Yorkshire. When James Mason joined, succeeding Sir Gary Verity, it changed to ‘promoting the county as a place to Visit, Live, Work & Study’. I never understood this: fewer staff, lower budgets and a remit four times as big?

Yorkshire is undoubtedly a fantastic place to live, work and study, but others may be better placed to promote these aspects. Far better surely to focus on doing one thing well? Tourism.

Much has been made of various individuals’ love for Yorkshire, their energy, passion and commitment. All excellent attributes but surely the basic prerequisites for a job promoting this fantastic region?

Destination marketing also relies on a whole team of people working behind the scenes. It’s essential they have a deep understanding of destination marketing and visitor management, with in-depth product knowledge and intimate understanding of visitors and their needs.

Over the past few months an exodus of around nine experienced staff, on top of previous redundancies, has reduced the skills pool and made the challenge more difficult. New staff need time to develop. Many of our competitors have more experienced teams.

This might be the end for WTY, despite some committed and passionate staff. Or it could be the start of something better? If there is an industry leader at the helm, with a team of experienced staff who really know Yorkshire well. If there is a clear marketing strategy that the industry can get behind. If they can build a strong sense of shared purpose and show the real value of tourism. If they can show the way forward and offer practical leadership to reduce the impact of visitors on the environment. If they can use data to inform decisions and demonstrate the success of campaigns. If the focus can be moved from the organisation to visitors, businesses, and host communities. If.

* Susan Briggs is director of The Tourism Network. She lives in Masham.

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