Warnings over Harrogate conference industry as director steps down

THE director of the Harrogate International Centre (HIC) has stepped down after 18 months in the role, with business leaders warning his successor faces a major challenge to reaffirm the town’s conference industry as one of the most competitive in the country.

In a surprise move, Angus Houston has left his post at the HIC, which is owned and operated at arm’s length by Harrogate Borough Council, to seek a fresh challenge.

The HIC has been blighted by a downturn in trade in recent years as conference organisers have either cancelled or scaled back events owing to financial constraints.

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The venue - which is credited with generating up to £100m for the wider regional economy each year - has seen a drop in the number of events from 77 in 2010/11 to 64 in 2011/2012.

It is expected that just 54 events will be staged during 2012/13, while staff numbers have already had to be slashed in the last two years with its 100-strong workforce halved.

Last night, Sandra Doherty, president of the Harrogate Chamber of Trade and Commerce, said: “No events centre can continue to sustain continued losses and it will take somebody to realise the industry has changed dramatically in the past few years and refocus the HIC on a different market.

“For whoever is coming in, it is a massive challenge and one somebody can relish.”

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Following Mr Houston’s decision to step down, Harrogate Borough Council has put in place interim arrangements with Simon Kent named as acting director.

The council says in due course it will start the recruitment process for a new director.

Andrew Jones, the Conservative MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, said: “I would like to wish Angus Houston all the best for the future and thank him for his work over what was, and remains, a difficult economic climate in which the Harrogate International Centre is operating.”

In a statement released by the council, Mr Houston said: “I came to Harrogate to support HIC during a difficult trading period. Whilst the centre continues to trade in challenging economic circumstances, I believe that good progress has been made and that now is the right time to move to a fresh challenge.”