Yorkshire tourism needs a buccaneer not a bureaucrat – David Behrens

There was no doubt in recent months that Welcome to Yorkshire had lost the plot to such an extent that it had signed its own death warrant. But will Tuesday’s decision to put it into administration and replace it with a grey, publicly-led organisation restore our region’s status as Britain’s premier destination? Or will it mire tourism forever in a morass of red tape?

Welcome to Yorkshire brought the Tour de France to the county in 2014.
Welcome to Yorkshire brought the Tour de France to the county in 2014.

If this new body is to be run by councils and not businesses, I fear the latter. Public servants might have written the book on administration and protocol, but they know little of the marketing techniques on which the holiday industry thrives.

Indeed, they can hardly bring themselves to speak the word, choosing instead to hide the official name for such institutions – Destination Marketing Organisations – behind one of the three-letter acronyms they use for almost everything. Thus, the body which in its glory days brought the Tour de France to Yorkshire will become an anonymous DMO.

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The Government published a review of such organisations last year, and the author, the former MP Nick de Bois, was forced to conclude that hardly anyone understood what they were.

James Mason, former chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire.

That rather defeats the first rule of marketing: you can’t expect people to listen to what you’re saying if they don’t know what you’re talking about.

It was not a criticism you could have levelled at the old Welcome to Yorkshire, for however unorthodox its bookkeeping and people management may have been, most of us came away feeling that it had done a good job. It had outperformed the sector in spades and its achievements were demonstrable. No-one has ever felt that way about a Town Hall quango.

Besides, in political terms Yorkshire is not the single entity that tourists have come to recognise but three distinct counties and several cities that sit apart from any of them. They compete with each other for funding; how can they establish a consensus on something as divisive as promoting one part of the region over another?

And there is a further, more insidious reason for not entrusting one of our most valuable regional assets to public administrators: we don’t trust them. How can we, when they spend £25,000 of our money on investigating Welcome to Yorkshire’s management and then tell us it is “not possible” to reveal what they discovered.

They attempt to justify this lack of transparency by implying that the sensitivity of a small number of individuals is more important than the public’s right to know what is being done in their name. It doesn’t wash here any more than it does at Sheffield City Hall, where officials are using the same rationale to keep Kate Josephs, their £190,000-a-year chief executive, on paid leave while they investigate her attendance at a Whitehall party. “There’s a rigid process we need to follow,” said the council leader, Terry Fox. Really? Which process is this? Certainly not one rigid enough for any private company worth its salt not to find a way around.

And that in a nutshell is the difference between private enterprise and public service: the former thrives on gut instinct; the latter on laid-down process. A tourism body belongs in the first camp – it needs a buccaneer as its figurehead, not a bureaucrat. Welcome to Yorkshire used to have exactly that set-up, and in shutting it down rather than attempting to reform it, our elected officials are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The one explanation they did make public – that the organisation “was becoming outdated in the modern digital age” – is a case of pot and kettle, coming as it does from officials whose job description has barely changed since the days of the parish beadle.

The way forward here is to find a charismatic leader from the hospitality sector who can inspire confidence and – crucially – who does not now see the job as a poison chalice. Such people are few and far between, but we have managed to lose two of them in the last few years – first Gary Verity and then his successor, the sports consultant and former Bradford City boss, James Mason.

A few years from now, when we’ve realised that DMO stands for Doesn’t Mean ’Owt, we may look back on their time as fondly as we recall Yorkshire cricket in the 1960s – a lost era whose like we may never see again. I’m not saying it was a perfect arrangement, but it was better than anyone else’s.

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