World-class events, iconic attractions and business 'suits' are keeping North East tourism afloat in recession-hit waters. Jez Davison reports.
THE global recession and sterling's mighty fall against the euro has given North East tourism bosses a timely boost.
With the weak pound encouraging British holidaymakers to stay at home, more money is being pumped into local shops, attractions, hotels and restaurants, while the business traveller, who accounts for a third of all visitor spending in the region, is another key target.
Overall, North East tourism is worth £3.9bn to the local economy and employs 60,775 people. And iconic attractions and major business events are attracting new visitors from all four corners of the globe.
According to the United Kingdom Tourism Survey (UKTS), more than four million people visited the North East during 2008 – a 10% lift on the previous year. Visitor spend rose by 7.1% to £697m, comfortably outperforming the UK average of -0.6%.
The data also showed that in the final quarter of 2008 the number of visitors coming to the region went up by almost 30% to more than one million people – outstripping the UK average of 11% – while average spend during the same period also increased 18%.
Upbeat tourism chiefs are confident that 2009 will reap similar results.
Stacy Hall, director of communications and tourism at One North East, says: “Results for the first part of 2009 are encouraging and show that, as a region, we are taking full advantage of the trend of more people opting for a UK holiday.
“It is essential we continue to invest in tourism and promote the region as a fantastic destination to visit, whether for a short or long break.”
The marketing drive – which included a London tube, taxi and TV campaign – appears to be working. In Northumberland, more than £500,000 worth of bookings were taken in the first three months of the year, while higher end hotels and established restaurants in Tees Valley have reported steady trade.
Meanwhile, the £7m Saltholme Wildlife Reserve and Discovery Park drew in 35,000 visitors in the first 100 days after opening in January.
But other statistics tell a much bleaker story.
Bed and breakfast occupancy rates in the North East averaged just 23% in the first quarter, while average spend per trip dropped to £173 in 2008 – a 3.1% decline on the previous year.
The twin challenge for tourism bosses is to get people to stay longer and spend more money in local shops, restaurants and attractions.
Julia Frater, head of area tourism partnership visitTeesvalley, said major events and key attractions were crucial to the area’s future plans.
She says: “We are hoping to host one big event each year, which will attract national and international audiences and then plan others to go around it to encourage people to stay longer.
“The Tall Ships Races [August 7-10 next year] is a good example with more than one million visitors expected and lots of events and activities organised for the week prior and after the event.”
But even she admits that a different approach needs to be taken for Tees Valley to compete with the more established tourism experience on offer in the Lake District or Cornwall.
“That’s why we’ve had to go with an events-led strategy,” she added.
It’s a smart move, judging by recent evidence. Last year, a crafts fair at Wynyard drew in around 9,000 visitors while Middlesbrough Music Live featured dozens of bands playing to an audience of more than 45,000.
In Tyne and Wear, around 160,000 music lovers rocked up to Sunderland’s Stadium of Light this month to see hit bands Take That and Oasis.
It was the first time the 12-year-old stadium had hosted a large-scale music event – which meant a logistical nightmare for club officials used to catering for around 40,000 on match days.
To maximise the spending power of thousands of extra fans, the club invested £50,000 in the fastest pint dispensing pump on the market, The Exac tap, which pours a pint in just three seconds and allows money to flow through the tills far quicker.
Other firms have been splashing the cash to attract new customers – with the money-spinning business executive, who generates around one third of overall visitor spend in the region, a primary target.
Darlington’s Aston Hotel – which has Darlington engineering firm Amec and British Gas on its client list – has invested just under £5m in conference facilities, refurbishments and extensions since opening in the summer of 2002.
Hotel bosses have managed to retain recession-hit customers by reducing rates for regular clients or upgrading them from standard to executive room at no extra cost.
Operations director John Deighan says: “Since January competition has grown because of the recession and we’ve had to trim rates for some customers. In this climate, you just have to work at it but we’re keeping our heads above water.”
Operating to “a four-star standard at three-star prices,” the hotel is aiming to boost orders from the weekend leisure customers.
Other hotels are investing to retain their regulars and attract new custom.
Earlier this year The Thistle Middlesbrough Hotel spent £1m on refurbishing bedrooms and widening its range of conferencing facilities.
Meanwhile, the luxury Rockcliffe Hall development in Hurworth has invested in a 7,800-yard 18-hole golf course – one of the longest in Europe – as well as a host of hi-spec conferencing facilities.
Due to open later this year, the hotel will include 12 luxury meeting rooms accommodating up to 20 people, while the Rockcliffe Suite will host up to 250 guests.
Wendy Benson, Rockcliffe Hall’s sales and marketing manager, said the hotel would benefit from increasing amounts of trade between local firms and their foreign counterparts.
“We expect to attract international as well as local and national business customers,” she says.
But that might prove difficult, with companies keeping a hawkish eye on cashflow and business class travel savagely curtailed.
Tourism chiefs hope to help corporate venues by promoting the North East as a world-class business destination.
And the task is being made easier through the willingness of regions to refer trade to one another.
Julia Frater says: “We’ll go to the Sunderland Air Show and Whitby Regatta and hand out leaflets about things that are happening in Tees Valley.
“There’s a lot of cross-selling between the rest of the North East and Yorkshire.”
Page 2: Venues