Canterbury – finding creative ways to promote the visitor economy
Canterbury City Council has created a visitor information service and that has led to the district becoming the second destination in England that has introduced a mobile visitor information site specifically designed to be accessed through hand-held devices.
Key lessons for other councils
- A change in policy can provide a focus for creativity but the driver for the change in culture is the people.
- In the face of budget cuts, local authorities need to apply lateral thinking and develop a commercial focus to problem solving – that may mean involving different partners and finding a way of getting that commercial viewpoint if it is not available in-house
- A challenge is to have a framework policy that is relevant across the district but which can be customised to meet the needs of different destinations
- District councils must run partnerships within the authority to deliver change locally in parallel with partnerships across a wider area: this is to ensure that local change sits in a wider framework with shared values and objectives.
Canterbury City Council area has a population of 140,000 residents – in the city of Canterbury, Whitstable, Herne Bay and the rural hinterland. This is boosted by around 30,000 students living in Canterbury during term times.
Canterbury is the lead destination ‘brand'. The historic city attracts four million day visitors, many of them from France and Belgium as well as from elsewhere in the UK. Visitors are attracted by the history of the city and increasingly by the quality of the shopping experience. The re-opening of the New Marlowe Theatre in the city centre in 2012, following a £26 million rebuild, will provide an opportunity to reinforce the broader cultural offer. The city attracts 405,000 overnight visitors. Together these visitors account for £214.6 million spend and account for 4,192 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs.
Herne Bay is changing from a traditional holiday resort, attracting older couples, to a day-trip family destination with a growing younger, watersports market. Whitstable has experienced organic growth over the last 10 years and is now a trendy day visitor destination. It is renowned for its restaurants, craft shops and galleries, delicatessens and fashion shops and for its maritime history.
Who is involved?
The portfolio-holder for the Regeneration and Economic Development department is also the leader of the council. The portfolio-holder for tourism is on the executive. This helps to reinforce the profile of tourism within the local authority.
The Local Economy and Tourism team has around 10 active, mature partnerships. Many of these have supporting memoranda of understanding (MoU) and action plans. These include:
This is the local economic partnership. It brings the private and public sector together to promote and actively develop the interests and prosperity of all the people of Canterbury. It operates through enhancing business opportunities and activity. It works in partnership with regional, local and county government, educational institutions and business interests.
Canterbury City Partnership (CCP)
This is the city's town centre management organisation. It has representation from all sectors including tourism on its board which, with member contributions and match funding from the council, markets and promotes the city, holds events and supports the businesses in the city.
Canterbury as a district council recognises the importance of connecting to county and regional partnerships. It plays a part in delivering a high profile for tourism in the county by taking a lead role in important partnerships.
For example, a lead officer in Canterbury City Council sits on the East Kent Local Strategic partnership (LSP) Visitor Economy sub-group. The business champion for the group is a Kent ambassador and chair of Visit Kent.
A lead officer also sits on the Kent Economic Board and chairs the Kent Economic Development Officer group. This ensures that tourism and the visitor economy retain a high profile within broader economic development.
The problems and how we tackled them
The area is made up of three distinct destinations – the city of Canterbury, Herne Bay and Whitstable.
In 2008, the council took the opportunity when renewing their Economic strategy to incorporate tourism policy. It created a new Local Economy and Tourism strategy 2008-2012. The two services were also brought together in one place for the first time along with town centre management.
This was a first step in addressing the challenges of:
- raising the profile of tourism and the visitor economy
- fostering a better understanding of its potential to help deliver economic benefit to the local authority area.
This change kick-started a new way of working. The visitor economy is now regarded as a key sector in the economic development of the district. The resources of the local economy team are properly linked into tourism including providing business support.
The tourism and local economy managers work very closely together especially in the areas of marketing, events, conferencing, town centre initiatives. They operate in the city and on the coast, combining resources wherever possible to obtain best value.
This joined-up way of working has delivered creative solutions for delivering a visitor information service. This has led to the district becoming the second destination in England to introduce a mobile visitor information site. It is specifically designed to be accessed using hand-held devices.
Tourism now sits in the Chief Executive-Regeneration and Economic Development department. This leaves no doubt about the council's commitment and support for tourism. This department also includes town centre management. This combination of services in one department facilitates a joined-up approach to destination development, destination marketing and destination management.
The recent efficiency review saw the relocation of two coastal visitor information centres (VICs) in Herne Bay and Whitstable. They were moved into the council's divisional offices where the face-to-face service is now provided by the council's customer contact team. This delivers well for local people but alternative information points were also needed for visitors. The tourism team came up with creative solutions to design a new service to provide visitor information using:
- 'touch screen' information points and information kiosks in strategic location
- partner information points in areas of high visitor footfall, for example, museums, the chamber of commerce building
- a mobile information trailer to deliver visitor information in situ, that is, at events and festivals.
In addition, the council has instigated three significant visitor information projects.
In Herne Bay, the old VIC building, The Bandstand, has been re-let to a commercial operator. He has invested significant capital into the building to turn it into a contemporary coffee and ice-cream bar with wi-fi access.
The council has been given a large area in the building for information racks and is currently considering installing an information kiosk. This is a win-win situation. Visitors looking for information generate footfall to the coffee bar and the council achieves a ‘free' information outlet in a key location. The coffee bar owner is considering offering a ticket sales service as well, which will reinforce its dual role.
The council is re-modelling the Canterbury VIC to become a retail-led operation that also provides information. Face-to-face bookings will go and be replaced by an online service. Information and retail desks will be kept separate in recognition of the different needs of shoppers and people looking for information.
The council has redesigned the consumer website ‘Visit Canterbury' to make it more functional, reduce the need for printed literature and encourage online transactions. It also better reflects the evolving visitor experience and visitor markets for each of the three destinations in the district.
Running parallel with this the council is introducing a mobile site specifically designed to be accessed via hand held devices such as iPhone and Blackberry. The majority of hand held devices now provide internet access but conventional websites do not translate well and are hard to use. Canterbury will have a separate URL for mobile access with software recognition that overcomes this. It will be only the second destination in England to offer this to visitors.
Outcomes and impact
A shift in policy priorities and organisational structure means that tourism is perceived as an innovative and modernising part of the local economy. The idea-driven culture within the district council team in turn drives innovation and delivers action. It is the shift in culture that has delivered significant change.
Canterbury has changed its policy and delivery structures for tourism and that process has stimulated a change in culture towards a creative team approach.
20 October 2015