Worcestershire County Council have undertaken the development of a tourism strategy to aid economic recovery and growth by undertaking research to understand and develop its tourism offer. Developing a branding strategy also underpins this work in order to promote what Worcestershire is known for more widely and to attract new visitors to the county and make the visitor economy a success.
Worcestershire as a county council effectively inherited the role of Destination Management Organisation (DMO) after the Chamber of Commerce ceased being the DMO in April 2020.
The county has six local authorities, each with significantly differing capacity and funding to support the visitor economy. This ranges from a dedicated and established tourism unit with experience and a track-record in delivery, through to a function within a wider economic development delivery unit. This presented a challenge to Worcestershire CC in terms of local engagement and on-the-ground capacity.
Overlaid with the above but not necessarily 100 per cent aligning with it was a vastly different tourism ‘offer’ across the wider county geography. This presented additional challenges as some council’s naturally had greater rationale for supporting the visitor economy when the offer was richer within their own local geography.
To address these challenges, the county council, aimed to develop a strategy to:
- develop its offer so that people know what Worcestershire is known for
- strengthen the partnerships in the county and with surrounding areas in order to maximise and adapt its visitor offer
- provide the right support to the visitor economy so that it can prosper and grow, including how the service is funded in the longer term.
This would cover the four key areas below:
- Worcestershire’s tourism position and strategy - understanding, developing and promoting its offer
- working with the visitor economy regarding the support required
- working in a partnership environment
- the sustainability and funding of the service.
Matthews Associates were commissioned as part of the Local Government Association to carry out research to develop Worcestershire’s tourism offer aligned to the four key areas listed above.
Phase one: Worcestershire’s tourism position and strategy – understanding, developing and promoting its offer
The initial phase of finding a solution was to greater understand the wider strategic touristic offer (as opposed to a granular listing) across Worcestershire. To this end desk-based research was undertaken, which comprised of a comprehensive desktop study of the published strategies, plans and policies across both county and district and borough partners. This was supported by a consumer survey and they conducted a series of structured interviews with both public sector and private sector partners, stakeholders and leading Worcestershire tourism businesses. The findings were overlayed with best practice from other areas acknowledged by the national tourist board Visit England.
This gave Worcestershire County Council and the six authorities a snapshot of the county offer by understanding its tourism position and strategy and translating that understanding into developing and promoting its offer. The findings helped identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing them going forward. This work would help inform future market engagement activity, focusing resources and avoiding duplication.
Phase two: Working with the visitor economy regarding the support required
The second phase was to look at the function, form and activities of the wider county DMO in terms of how best with limited resources could they support the sector and six partner authorities. It was important to take into account that the recommendations would present challenges for some of the six authorities as for some they would consider the DMO to be encroaching on their local function and for some the recommendations were too ambitious for their capacity. As a result, it was agreed that the report was to identify the ‘art of the possible’ for all the partners.
Phase three: Working in a partnership environment
The third phase was to look at scenarios for partnership working between the county and local authorities, these were developed after consultation with each of the partners. The research highlighted the limitations of a single county geography and the findings of the Visit England report on DMOs. This section was carefully crafted so as not to disincentivise the local authority partners but to focus on where active collaboration could bring benefits to the wider partnership utilising the county support available.
Phase four: The sustainability and funding of the service
The final and most challenging phase was to identify funding opportunities for the DMO, which in the current economic climate were limited. They identified a number of options for the DMO to investigate and follow-up, but understood and highlighted that there was no ’silver bullet’ for DMO funding and across the UK as most were under significant financial pressures.
The report was published in February 2022 and although the long-term impact of the project and report is yet to be established, a number of recommendations were made which are being taken forward by WCC. Furthermore, feedback from the businesses that were engaged with was positive to the fact that the DMO was undertaking the project and there was a willingness to participate with DMO activity going forward.
Recommendations that are being taken forward
- Invest in a new destination website which will have better functionality, the opportunity for commercialised elements, full booking functionality, a focus on accessibility both on the site and searchable functionality for those with additional needs and will become a one stop shop for visitors and trade. The aim is for this to be in place by September.
- Create a tourism partnership board with membership drawn from a number of sub-sector groups – this is underway, and the first meeting is due to be held in September.
- Invest in updating a Worcestershire library of images – this is also underway but whilst balancing this against ensuring the images represent the entire county and includes various demographics.
- Organise a Tourism Awards ceremony and review the outcomes and continue to organise through to 2023 if successful. This has been a huge success and 100 applications were received with 35 shortlisted finalists and 13 winners on the night. The event was well received by the sector and three local businesses are in the national awards for the first time. The programme/event will be delivered again for 2022/23.
- Establish closer partnership working – Worcestershire County Council are starting to look at building closer working relationships outside of the county including working with adjacent counties, Herefordshire, and Gloucestershire. They recognise that capacity for all officers across the three counties is an issue, but they are coming together to host an area of the Royal Three Counties Show together in June to showcase the wider region.
- Consider a hybrid private and public funding model – The model will be to look at how their social media and web assets can be commercialised going forward.
- They have also created an annual marketing and campaigns plan. This will help them to become proactive, work with partners and to prevent them from being drawn in different directions. Their summer campaign “Make Worcestershire Part of your Story” launched in May 2022 with amazing feedback from businesses, visitors, residents and politicians.
Overall, it has been noted that there is potential for efficiency savings in terms of officer capacity in identifying and reducing overlap and duplication between the county and local authority roles. Some recommendations were made about possible income generation and securing financial support from the wider sector especially on specific areas such as marketing and sector promotion. This recommendation has been taken forward with the printed local guide generating income and the Tourism Awards covering its own costs with sponsors and ticket sales.
The project was also a catalyst to bring together the county and the six authorities through a common project and collective engagement.
The two-tier geography within Worcestershire presents a challenge, both from a visitor economy offer and from the degree of local capacity and support from the districts and boroughs. The role of the county DMO is critical in pulling together the wider county offer, providing strategic support and engaging with national tourism bodies. Yet local sector support activity is still needed, although overlap and duplication must be avoided especially during times of such fiscal constraint for the public sector. Partnership and collaboration between the DMO and local authorities is absolutely key to achieving successful outcomes going forward.