Sarah Stewart tells Brian Nicholls some of the many ways in which our region’s tourism sector is countering the recent trend of London-centric funding and decision making
Sarah Stewart points out landmarks from the panoramic window of her ninth floor offices in Gateshead’s tower block Baltic Place East. The bridges, the law courts, the Sage, the Baltic – a rich blend of diverse and striking architecture and engineering on both sides of the River Tyne, and a view she loves to show first-time visitors to the North East.
“We call this our shop window,” she says proudly, knowing how much it can impress as she and her staff promote the region’s tourism. She hopes the entire experience down at ground level will win the hearts of up to 8,000 New Zealanders before long.
That’s how many may descend on Britain to see the All Blacks contest rugby’s World Cup in October 2015. “It’s the estimate we got from New Zealand travel agents we’ve already had here,” says the chief executive of NewcastleGateshead Initiative. “We spent a day and a half in Newcastle and Gateshead with them, then some more time in the wider region.”
“We’re now working with them as they seek to bring over the supporters. They’ll come for two or three weeks and we want them to spend as much of their time here as possible. We’ve got New Zealand, South Africa, Samoa, Tonga and Scotland playing in the North East. Brilliant – the best line-up of all in the group stages, we think. We’re confident this will be a sellout.”
She wants, as ever, to hit every foreign visitor with the North East’s greatest asset – its element of surprise. Even as she spoke, her team at the destination management and marketing body were preparing for a similar visit by tour operators who’ll marshal supporters of the other Southern Hemisphere Titans, South Africa. “We’ll do a lot of work with our neighbours in Scotland too,” Stewart adds.
Goals off the pitch will include securing a maximum return - NGI’s recognition that tourism bodies must think differently now. “It reflects the disappearance of the regional development agencies,” she explains.
“One North East was a key player both in organising and funding tourism. We can’t put the clocks back or hang on another year expecting the level of public sector support that came before.
“We’ve been identifying new and additional sources of funding. We’ve been working with VisitEngland to get Regional Growth Funding, and to identify other potential sources of central government support. There’s ERDF too – European – funding. We’ve been identifying how to benefit from that.
For all this you require match funding - very often from the private sector.”
NGI now works with over 170 private sector partners to find additional revenue streams that will back ongoing promotion and development of the visitor economy, whether in cash or kind. Are any partners there out of the goodness of their heart? “Absolutely not,” she asserts. “Our role is much wider than tourism and includes a wide range of organisations. We’ve key players like hotels, airports, ports and Nexus, also Northumberland and Newcastle Universities, Newcastle and Gateshead’s further education colleges, major firms of lawyers and architects.
“All have a stake in promoting everything great about Newcastle, Gateshead and the wider North East. You know, 30% of our partners are from the wider North East outside Newcastle and Gateshead. Alnwick Castle and Garden in the north and Rockcliffe Hall in the south, for example.
“We’re probably the only organisation that can count Newcastle United and Sunderland football clubs as partners. Other Sunderland partners include Sunderland University, the Empire theatre and the Glass Centre. It’s a much broader partnership than the name might suggest - I think because everyone recognises this is about changing images and perceptions.
“Getting a greater proportion of UK population and the world to think more positively about this region will give a much firmer base for ongoing economic development. The best way to change people’s thoughts and views? Get them to visit.
“Universities, colleges, law firms, solicitors and recruitment firms all have a vested interest in getting more people to come... to visit Northumberland’s coast or gaze at Durham Cathedral, and say: “Oh, I never thought it was like this.” Scales fall from people’s eyes. This new awareness benefits more than tourism alone.
Through the Regional Growth Fund, VisitEngland the nation’s national tourist board recently secured around £19m to support destinations round the country over three years. About £1.5m came to the North East, fuelling NGI and its partners Visit County Durham and Northumberland Tourism. Matching private funding has doubled the resource.
So NGI’s budget is £3.5 to £4m a year, to cover tourism, inward investment, festivals and other events. And North East tourism has continued to grow over the past three years - partly through the popularity of staycation during harsher times, but also because of a trend, even pre-recession, towards city breaks.
Some wonder why television adverts stress Scotland, Wales, Ireland and even Yorkshire but no longer the region of “passionate people, passionate places.” VisitEngland largely does TV campaigns for England now, and is promoting a “holiday at home” theme.
But, Stewart adds: “We also promote heavily on our own website and get more than 1m unique visitors a year. The Sunday Times last year named it one of the world’s 10 coolest travel websites. We were alongside India, Australia and New York. A lot of activity is digitally based now. Scotland, Ireland and Wales still get significant central government funding. That’s interesting but perhaps a topic for another day...”
This year big events include the Sage’s 10th anniversary. The millionth runner in the history of the Great North Run will also be identified. “It will be the first mass participation run in the world to have achieved a millionth runner,” she points out. “We’re going to beat New York’s marathon to it.”
The Body Worlds globally touring exhibition, at the International Centre for Life (May-November) is another big coup, she suggests, admitting: “It’s not everyone’s cup of tea – let’s put it that way. Imagine your body shown in all its glory and the workings. But it fits the Centre for Life’s remit and public education in science. It will attract many visitors.”
Maker Faire, an inspirational inventors’ show, also returns to the same venue in April, drawing big crowds and highlighting the North East.
Newcastle was recently voted one of the five favourite UK destinations for holidays by Guardian readers. “Ensuring we continue to feature in important media coverage helps get those responses,” Stewart says.
Other attractions like Eat Food Festival, the Juice Festival, the Winter Festival embracing the enchanted parks at Saltwell Park in Gateshead, and the carnival and two firework displays on New Year’s Eve all contribute. “The Eat Food Festival,” she adds, “proves we’re not just about stotties and sausage rolls. Our quality of produce and restaurants is great.”
To an observation that, compared with Scotland and Germany, potential inward investors may not always be greeted on arrival, Stewart wonders how many people turn up unexpectedly with an inward investment in their pocket.
A lot of work would have gone on beforehand, she reckons. “For example, we’ve a team proactively pursuing at the moment 86 inward investment enquiries. It’s not a matter of waiting for someone to turn up on the doorstep. The vast majority, we’ve generated.
“We’ve an extensive programme of visits, contacts, and soft landings. In India now we’re generating interest in life sciences. We’ve an agent there targeting sectors, visiting exhibitions, approaching companies. An NGI rep spent three weeks there meeting firms. When there’s sufficient interest we’ll put a visit together.”
In terms of regional coverage, North and South Tyneside’s and Sunderland’s local authorities have their own tourism teams, and Sunderland events, including its international air show - Europe’s biggest freebie of its kind - are organised by Sunderland Live, a Sunderland council spinout. But NGI promotes the like of the air show on its website too.
Stewart explains: “With the demise of One North East tourism organisations across the region agreed we shouldn’t lose regional co-ordination. So we work together in a Northern Tourism Alliance – not a consumer-facing body, but one working collectively behind the scenes.”
It includes the like of Visit Durham, Northumbria Tourism, Hadrian’s Wall Trust, the North East Hotels Association, and representatives of councils that don’t have their own tourist bodies. What, no Teesside, with its Mima gallery of modern art, Captain Cook’s heritage and Saltburn’s renaissance as a resort?
Stewart clarifies: “Until recently we’ve had visitors from Tees Valley. Sadly, while Visit Tees Valley did exist, tourism isn’t a priority now in Tees Valley Unlimited’s programme as a LEP.
We think it a great shame. But funding can only be stretched so many ways, and we do tend to keep contact with places that might wish, like Darlington and Hartlepool. And we continue to invite representatives from Tees Valley to participate in the alliance.”
Sarah Stewart sits on both the main board of VisitEngland and the northern area council of Arts Council England. Does the Arts Council’s current favouring of London over the regions in financial support harm arts and culture standards vital to a North East appeal?
“The Arts Council debate is part of a wider debate as to how much of our country is Londoncentric in decision making and funding allocations,” she replies. “I don’t think anyone can deny London does get clearly a large proportion of Arts Council funding. It partly reflects arts and cultural bodies being largely based in London, and how the sector is organised, so attracting lots of funding.
“But I think the Arts Council also recognises the argument being put. In the allocation of Arts Council funding through lottery moneys it has, the split has been much more favourable to the regions than to London. Also Newcastle and Gateshead, and some other parts of the North East, have done extremely well out of council funding within the past decade – through the Sage, the Baltic and other key cultural institutions.
“Funding for other purposes continues. But we’re keen to maintain pressure for equitable allocation of funding, while ensuring we also have quality projects and investments for the Arts Council to support.”
Meanwhile some regular patrons of the Sage consider top artists and performers have been scarcer there. Stewart says: “Arguments around the London Olympics sucking in funding have been well rehearsed. We’re now entering an era where lottery type funding will be more freely distributed among the other sectors - something we’ll actually promote in support.
“Our arts and cultural offer across the North East has been vital towards changing perceptions of the region. It’s important to the quality of life for residents and potential residents, and for students who come to study and, ideally, stay afterwards. It gives visitors reason to come.
“And we still have hooks to haul in the crowds. Our football clubs are hosting major stadium concerts – Sunderland, for example, whose shows are always sellouts boosting the visitor economy, and Newcastle United, holding a concert for the first time in many years – Kings of Leon in May.”
Despite disappointment that a major extension of the Sage to permit the largest of national conferences will not now happen for the foreseeable future, Sarah Stewart insists it’s important to focus on what does exist.
Last year there were 14 international conferences at the Sage and also at Newcastle and Northumbria Universities. Hotels are hosting many major events, and the drive is on to attract major conferences up to 2018.
Information for a visitor survey presently being finalised suggests positive responses: about elements of pleasant surprise, warmth of the welcome, variety in things to do, beauty of the landscape.
The lack of urban multilingual signage – which would otherwise put foreign visitors immediately at ease – doesn’t seem to evoke criticism. Maybe those warm responses on the street to any tourist’s query make up for that.
When attendees at national conferences are asked how likely it is they may revisit the area with friends and family, positive response is up to 80% against an average elsewhere of 50 to 60%. Nearly 90% say: “I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen.”
Those unsuspecting Kiwis and Springboks could be in for a surprise.