Given his previous jobs as a BBC sports journalist and chief operating officer at Bradford City, it is perhaps no surprise Welcome to Yorkshire’s chief executive James Mason views the tourism agency’s challenges in footballing terms.
“We have been in a relegation battle staring at the trapdoor,” says Mason, as he reflects on his first 12 months in charge of the organisation. “Year One was about just surviving, just staying up. What we want is to be challenging for promotion and the championship. We want Yorkshire to be the number one tourism destination for anyone in the UK to come to and we want to take on the world again.”
Mason became only the second chief executive in Welcome to Yorkshire’s history when he joined the agency in January 2020 from sports agency First Point USA, which helps promising athletes get scholarships to American universities.
He arrived at a point where the organisation was in a rolling crisis due to the long and painful fallout to the March 2019 resignation of Sir Gary Verity, who had established the company as a successor to the Yorkshire Tourist Board in 2009.
Sir Gary helped bring the Tour de France to Yorkshire in 2014 and was awarded a knighthood the following year for his work in promoting the region, while also establishing the annual Tour de Yorkshire cycling race.
But he resigned on health grounds amidst allegations about his behaviour towards employees and expenses claims. Subsequent inquiries found his behaviour towards staff had “fallen short” of expected standards while he repaid over £25,000 in expenses claims found to have been “not incurred wholly for the benefit” of Welcome to Yorkshire.
Investigators were also unable to determine whether almost £1m of other expense claims by Sir Gary and other senior managers had been “reasonable and proportionate” due to a lack of clear spending policies. A West Yorkshire Police investigation was also launched but it was eventually confirmed in June 2020 that no further action would be taken.
Welcome to Yorkshire – which receives millions of pounds in funding from the public sector, largely through local authorities – took out a £500,000 loan from North Yorkshire County Council to prevent it running out of money and being unable to pay staff in September 2019 and prior to Mason’s appointment, new chairman Peter Box said the organisation had previously been operating with a “spend now, worry about it later culture”.
When Mason arrived in the role, one of his first key pledges was to reduce the non-profit organisation’s reliance on public sector funding, which made up around half of its income. But those plans were dramatically thrown off course by the impact of Covid and in June 2020, Peter Box wrote to local councils asking for an additional £1.4m in “emergency funding” to keep the organisation going.
The plea came after £1m of expected business rates funding was withdrawn because of the effects of the pandemic on local councils and £400,000 of income was lost through Welcome to Yorkshire suspending its usual membership fees to businesses.
Several councils refused to pay the share of the money they had been asked for but the majority did, with £1.16m ultimately handed over. The efforts to persuade local authorities to provide further support came as Welcome to Yorkshire embarked on cost-saving measures and redundancies that halved staff numbers, while also trying to maintain support to regional tourism businesses as they faced unprecedented challenges.
“I have got to thank all the local authority leaders and chief executives that supported Welcome to Yorkshire and believed we were an organisation that deserved support,” Mason says.
“Without those organisations we would have folded. I understand and sympathise with the decision-makers who had to decide whether or not to support Welcome to Yorkshire because of the recent past. What happened hurt a lot of people, it disappointed a lot of people. We were asking them to make decisions not on the history but to give us an opportunity.
“We have been fire-fighting. We have had to reduce the wage bill by £1m, we have had to look at cutting costs in every corner of the business.”
The organisation’s latest financial accounts had been due to be published by the end of September but were delayed as decisions were awaited on whether councils would support the funding plea. Mason says the accounts will be published “very soon” and should show that while challenges remain, “we have a real grip on everything going on in the business”.
But he says that in common with other tourism agencies and hospitality businesses, the future is dependent on what happens with Covid. “We are in the same boat as any other business – we can only survive for so long without being able to do what we do normally.”
The pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the 2020 Tour de Yorkshire, while the 2021 race has also been called off. In its place, the agency has launched Walkshire in a bid to promote Yorkshire as “walking capital of the world” in a campaign that has won national coverage and been featured on the front page of the BBC website – the world’s most visited news site.
“Thanks to the staff, we have kept ourselves relevant and kept the word Yorkshire on people’s lips,” Mason reflects. “It has taken a lot out of me and a lot of it has been done from my back bedroom with two kids at home and my wife also working. The challenge when I started was enormous on Day One, became gargantuan on Day 90 thanks to Covid and has been uphill ever since.”
He says it has been frustrating he has been unable to fully “be the chief executive I was brought into be” and come up with more new commercial ideas to reshape the business due to the impact of Covid but hopes the coming year can be more positive.
“The hardest thing has been losing good people along the way, we have had to make changes. We also lost members who prior to me joining had decided they didn’t want to be part of Welcome to Yorkshire’s journey any more. That has been difficult but understandable.
“What has been incredibly difficult is seeing the stress and strain on many good people in the business living under a cloud and also many people in the industry worried about whether they can continue trading. But what I have been blown over by is the support of the staff and seeing staff come out of their shells and showing a sense of pride and excitement again in being part of Welcome to Yorkshire. I’d also like to thank the members who have stuck with us.
“I’m just immensely proud we have got through a year that a lot of people didn’t think we would. I firmly believe there is a real future for Welcome to Yorkshire.
“I still think we are on a journey. But I think we are gaining respect again and people are prepared to see the changes we have made internally and externally.”
Yorkshire ‘in good position to benefit after Covid’
James Mason says one of his key ambitions is to make the organisation less about promoting Welcome to Yorkshire itself and more providing a voice for the region and a conduit for the region’s hospitality businesses to tell their stories – particularly as things hopefully open back up later in the year following the Covid vaccination programme.
“If we can get through this, we will be in a great position to benefit from domestic tourism and when international trade comes back.
“The impact of things like All Creatures Great and Small, The Yorkshire Vet, The Yorkshire Shepherdess and some of our own marketing has put us in a really strong position. I think we can be optimistic about the future of Yorkshire tourism.”
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