Report back on March 17th meeting with James Berresford

Chapel en le Frith Golf Club Friday January 27th 2017
tourism_homeWe don’t often have everyone talking at once at the High Peak Business Club, but at its March meeting on tourism everyone had an opinion, especially when it came to parking in Buxton. The two members present who are also borough councillors (we know who they are) looked a little stunned.

Our speaker James Berresford is the recently retired head of VisitEngland, the government’s body charged with encouraging and developing the visitor economy. Tourism is currently worth £126.9 billion to Britain and is the UK’s 7th largest export industry. Even so, we are only 8th in the world, with France at the top. They must be doing something right.

We have to aim for the high end, he told us firmly. Foreign visitors spend 75% of their money in London; we have to do more to attract much people up north. And home-grown tourists, who hand over £40bn on day trips in England, and another £20bn on overnight stays, are now much more demanding. They’re looking for a great experience. “People aspire to a standard of comfort and service unthinkable 30 years ago. Grim B&Bs where you had to be in for a grotty “tea” at five pm are a thing of the past, or should be.” (We all groaned: “Blackpool.”)

VisitEngland developed a score system based on visitor feedback, including answers to “Would you go again?” and “Would you recommend it?” We didn’t come out of it too brilliantly, not compared with (say) Cornwall.Some places are doing well. Cities like Liverpool have transformed themselves into interesting destinations. The National Trust has moved dramatically, with costumed guides and special events (Chatsworth too): “They really understand how to tell a story,” he said. Anyone serious about tourism also has to think how to look after families with children: “It’s no accident that Legoland is in the Trafford centre. They get it.”

Change is being driven by the customer, who will not put up with second best anymore; the comfort level must be at least as good as at home. “We’ve all bought into this glossy life style,” he pointed out, though “granny chic” (hand made bedspreads, home grown eggs etc) is successful in the Lake District. Demography, technology and economic trends are all shifting. The baby boomers will go to a punk rock weekend now. You have to provide for same sex couples. And of course the internet is everywhere; you must have a website, and it must be reliable and fast. Nobody will wait any more!

Even during the recession, spending on recreation and leisure held up (in fact in the UK we spend a higher % of household income enjoying ourselves than on food). But the customer learned to look for a deal, a habit that has continued; value seeking became the norm and has stayed like that. And it’s all become last minute. Many people look online to see what’s on this weekend and where they can book a room. If there are none in Buxton, they’ll go to Budapest instead  – though the drop in the £ means there are more bookings this year at home, fewer abroad. An opportunity! Grab it!!

The psychology is fundamental. “People visit places – these places have to excel.” They don’t vist “England” but the Lake District, London, etc. It really helps if all the attractions in a neighbourhood work together; eg Castleton is about the caves, AND the restaurants, AND the shops. And how to get there and where to park. If there is one bad experience, that’ll affect the reputation of the whole place

Which brought us to Buxton. James Berresford’s new role is Chairman of the Buxton Crescent and Spa Heritage Trust. The Crescent Hotel will open in early 2019 (that’s slipped since Trevor Osborne spoke to us). It’ll be an 80 bed 5* spa hotel, with 6 boutique shops, a natural thermal water “world class” spa and the Pump Room Visitor Experience. To give an idea of the potential, the thermal spa in Bath attracts 280,000 visitors a year and brings in £12.7millions to the local economy. “The challenge is for the rest of Buxton to step up to the plate,” James said, with feeling, and they should involve the rest of the Peak District too.

Beautiful scenery is not enough. The visitor will ask what there is to do if it rains? “Buxton has the potential,” he insisted, and he must think so or he wouldn’t have taken the job.

So we argued… about parking, about transport, about whether the Pavilion gardens are attractive or tatty, about Spring Gardens and charity shops and litter, and what the council should be doing. But in the end, said James, “you have to start somewhere.” We shall see.