Cultural Tourism - is it missing a link?

HTF Director Noël at the Bristol Bike FestAs new moves by DCMS to support our international inward tourism market finally come into play and increasing attention is given to the role of VisitEngland in generating our internal tourism sector, I was myself, last weekend, left wondering exactly how the domestic UK market packages its more local tourism offers. VisitEngland, Local Enterprise Partnerships and Destination Management Partnerships are all working on local relationships and offers, but what could we do in our historic towns, cities and communities to help forward this engagement and connection?

I pondered this as I rode the 6 hour solo event at the Bristol Bike Festival (it was raining, I had a flat tyre, and I wasn’t really ‘in the zone’, having curtailed my training by an earlier visit to A&E after a nasty knock on the head) finding myself with time to think while cruising around the course. The Bristol Bike Festival is in its 10th year and is enormously successful - over the first weekend in June it regularly attracts riders and spectators in the region of 1500 – 2000 people – and this is on reputation alone as one of the UK’s best alternative mountain bike events. The event is held at Ashton Court Estate (owned by the City of Bristol – the Mansion House and stables within the estate are Grade 1 Listed) – and the Council are a partner in the event in at least as much as the organisers hire the venue from them. While promotion of the event in mountain biking circles is very good indeed, it seemed to me there was a missed opportunity for wider promotion within the city itself, or by the local tourism partnership (although I understand it was probably on the Ashton Court website).

I asked staff on my team (who are Bristolians) if they had heard of the Fest – and they hadn’t; nor had any of my neighbours (some of whom are keen mountain bikers, also locals, and they actually ended up entering the event with me). I first heard of the event when I lived in Loughborough, and have been riding it for years - yet people who live down the road didn’t know about it. Why not?

One of the points I am getting to is this: - my best friend from Loughborough came up to be my support throughout the ride. The event starts Friday night but my ride was not until Sunday. My friend chose to come up on Thursday, purely because he knew of Bristol’s reputation as a cosmopolitan, cultural city, with a very strong tourism (and heritage) offer. I took time off work and we did the tourist thing. Which leads to my point regarding the visitor economy – we spent around £100 on fuel; I gave the local bike shop £200 of custom in terms of pre-race maintenance and race supplies; we spent £150 in local supermarkets; with other friends we spent £60 in cafes; and as a post-race treat we planned to spend Sunday evening at the rather lovely Clifton Lido and Spa, which would have included spa treatments, a sauna, and a meal, which would have come to another £150. At the Bike Fest itself we spent between the two of us easily £80 on food, tea, coffee and beer. Which comes to an amount in the region of £750 – money spent in one weekend, between two people, purely because of the Bike Fest. We would not have spent this otherwise. Now there were 1700 entrants this year – and many of them will have brought non-riding spectators and supporters – how many of them spent an amount approaching that? How many could have spent more had they ventured out into Bristol, during the course of the weekend, as we did? Nothing is to say they didn’t – but I saw little if any local advertising for the event; the goody bags contained information only about local bike shops (when there could have been package deals for tourist destinations and attractions perhaps) and the usual way of these events is to stay enclosed within the camp village for the duration.

It was just a thought – but these sporting events are nation-wide throughout the year, and very popular. In some areas the sporting and leisure offer is a main draw within the cultural offer (think of Afan in Wales, Coedy Brennan, and so on) – how hard would it be to begin to join these things up? The visitor economy is enterprise; it is retail; it is local. It should be a partnership.

To go back to where I started – my friend chose to come up early because of Bristol’s offer. It cost him less to do so because my accommodation, as a local, was free. We could also have spent money on B&Bs, otherwise. Had there been prior package incentives offered by the Council/the Bike Fest/Visit Bristol for other local events or attractions, we would have explored them, either then, or perhaps on a return visit (the Fest is repeated in October).  As it was, we chose our own offer.  We ‘did’ culture and heritage within this, because they are interests of mine – but how many more occasional, event-specific tourists could we attract to our cities? We are all trying to engage with DMPs and LEPs through tourism, but perhaps we are waiting to be told what the offers are, and then merely reacting to them - should more of us be proactive when we have ideas? Should we be creating our own offers and links and feeding them in to the appropriate places?  I shall certainly be taking this one to the Council, the Bike Festival organisers, as well as to Visit Bristol – for as good as the green/leisure offer is, it shouldn’t be in isolation from the cultural/heritage offer.  So what can we do as a Forum to improve the offer in our historic towns and cities? We’d love to hear your thoughts. But don’t wait, like me, until you have a bump on the head to explore your bright idea. Do get in touch with us now.

See what Brian Human writes on tourism