Over the past couple of months we’ve heard a lot about Welcome to Yorkshire’s finances. Nearly £1 million spent on unexplained expenses.
Almost £500,000 on investigations and other costs associated with the fallout of Gary Verity’s departure. A bail-out loan and further public sector funding totalling £1.5 million.
Jacqui Gedman, Chief Executive of Kirklees Council, is now offering strategic support to Welcome to Yorkshire. Peter Box has been appointed as new Chair of the Board. Jacqui strikes me as a no-nonsense ‘doer’, who will work out what needs to be done and get on with it. Peter is passionate about Yorkshire, delighted to have the chance to steer Welcome to Yorkshire to a more accountable future. Having been Leader of Wakefield Council for 21 years, he’s certainly got staying power. Together, Peter and Jacqui will be able to put the governance of Welcome to Yorkshire on a firmer footing.
Wakefield Council leader Peter Box quitting after 21 years - days after becoming Welcome to Yorkshire chair
The financial situation has drawn our attention away from Welcome to Yorkshire’s primary activity: marketing Yorkshire. It is this aspect of the business that will determine whether it survives. I work with tourism businesses across Yorkshire, running business support networks with over 1,000 members. This means I’m in daily contact with the people Welcome to Yorkshire seeks to serve. Their initial response to the recent scandals was shock and anger, more anger as more revelations came to light, incredulity that a respected organisation could be so badly run, then irritation at seeing so little change. In response to the latest revelations, they barely reacted. Why? Some say the organisation has been too out of touch for too long, with few activities that genuinely bring them business. Others say they don’t believe Welcome to Yorkshire will change. Some are still angry and disappointed, but focusing on their own business with no time to bother about an organisation they see as irrelevant. Welcome to Yorkshire’s membership has declined, to around a third of its peak.
In the 10 years since Welcome to Yorkshire was created, the world has changed. User-generated content powers the web. Visitors don’t look for official publications and information any more. They want peer to peer recommendations and reviews. Persuasion comes from many different sources. Take Screen Yorkshire. They don’t have a tourism marketing remit, yet thanks to them, international visitors are already flocking to Yorkshire to see locations used in Gentleman Jack, and Downton Abbey. Over the last week, visitors have dashed to Grassington to see filming for the new series of All Creatures Great and Small. That’s before the series has even aired. Actor Samuel West has been tweeting about how he’s fallen in love with Yorkshire. Official Secrets and the new Secret Garden film will attract more visitors.
Not all successful activity is as glossy or prominent. One of Yorkshire’s strengths is its people who proudly proclaim the benefits of their place. Many individual destinations create the whole. Today’s visitors are attracted just as much by the small scale and hidden gems as by major events and well-known sights.
While the Welcome to Yorkshire rumpus has been going on, countless organisations, businesses and individuals have been quietly getting on with promoting their area. They’re all contributing to the value of tourism in Yorkshire. Is there still a future for Welcome to Yorkshire? There could be. If WTY becomes much more strategic, more understanding of business needs, more willing to listen and collaborate. We need better off-peak marketing campaigns, and ways to attract staying visitors.
Umbrella promotion of Yorkshire is still needed. A slimmed down organisation would be less costly, and could be just as effective. Under Gary Verity’s leadership, industry collaborations diminished and the team was stretched trying to be all things to all people, fulfilling many different roles. That isn’t necessary. What’s needed is an organisation that acts as a catalyst, stimulating activity and ideas, cheering others on, actually delivering only some of the activity.
Welcome to Yorkshire is proud of its big, bold activities but until now they’ve had a big, bold price-tag attached. True creativity isn’t costly. With such a fantastic county to promote, it’s more than possible to find ways to undertake promotion and attract visitors without always flashing the cash.
Building good relationships, working in partnership with a broader range of businesses, and providing the right kind of ideas to spark articles by travel writers and influencers is key. It needs the right people behind the activity. It’s crucial that Welcome to Yorkshire recruits an excellent Chief Executive, someone from outside the organisation without any baggage.
They should already have a really good understanding of the tourism industry so they can hit the ground running. We really need an excellent communicator, who truly understands how today’s media works, who can talk to funders and businesses, and build confidence. And we need them now, before businesses forget why Welcome to Yorkshire is there.
Susan Briggs is director of The Tourism Network which is based in Masham.