Culture and Tourism: Realising the value, at Fountains Abbey

I attended the above event at the National Trust’s Fountains Abbey which was organised by Chrysalis Arts, Welcome to Yorkhire and Arts Council England.  It was a beautiful clear sunny day and, in the nature of conferences, we were stuck indoors, unfortunately.  However it’s probably just as well as, had we had been out enjoying the lovely scenery and architecture, we may not have got any work or networking done at all!

Once again you will note that I am straying away from the area of puppets.  Perhaps you are wondering why I attended at all and if I got any benefit from it.  While it is true that none of the other people (as far as I am aware) did puppet theatre, I am part of the wider picture of Culture and Tourism as a whole.  In the course of my work, I interact with a huge number of other businesses, not all of whom are arts organisations.

My being booked to do puppetry at Masquepony, for instance.  I may have been booked by M.I.A. and Lakes Alive people, but I am also connected to the people running the campsite at the racecourse in Cartmel, who are getting extra business at this time as a result of my work.  Equally, if they were not able to attract visitors to their campsite, the festival would not succeed and I would not have that job.  People who sell camping equipment will also benefit, as will people purveying food and drinks and other local shops in the area.

One of the things that was highlighted by Steven Feber was that while there were huge amounts of cultural and tourist attractions or activity in North Yorkshire, generally speaking people are operating in their own little bubbles and are not talking to each other or working together to improve the visitor experience of tourists in our area.  Culture adds value to a visitor experience and the aim, through co-operation and joined up thinking, would be to increase the length of time visitors spend in the area and thus the amount of money spent in our area as well.

Tom Freshwater, contemporary arts programme manager for the National Trust, said that there was a lot less interaction between the Trust sites in Yorkshire and contemporary art practice/installation than in the South of the country as things stand.  They are working on it and they aim to turn the visitor feedback forms from good to excellent for the sites in our area.

I was particularly interested to hear about this because I have been meaning to contact the Trust about doing performances at their sites for some time now.  Tom gave a number of case study examples of things that had been done in Trust properties elsewhere in the country.  These were very interesting and were real examples of value added by the introduction of contemporary art into existing spaces and sites.

For example:  Engaging the bikers who regularly visit the Tattershall Castle area, which is essentially just a shell of a building without any objects or interior furnishings to speak of, through an art installation and an alternative village fete aimed at bikers.

This event and the art installation work towards the aim of getting people to stay in places for longer periods of time and to spend more money while they are there.  This was done with the support of ACE as well.

We found out about the Railway Children theatre performane, championed by Welcome to Yorkshire, which was created by the York Theatre Royal and then restaged at Waterloo station in London.  It was used as publicity to persuade people to visit Yorkshire after seeing the show, through the cunning device of staging it in what they were calling the “Welcome to Yorkshire Theatre” within the station and publicising it in various other ways too.  Feedback sheets from the audience indicated that they would consider visiting Yorkshire after seeing the show – though the data for how many actual visits happened was unknown.

I also found out about a little known National Trail in a little known part of Yorkshire called the Yorkshire Wolds.  They were going to apply to ACE for a set of benches along the route, but instead they were encouraged to apply for benches and artworks along the trail and a set of “land art” pieces are being constructed as we speak.  After a while the artworks will appear to be part of the landscape as the earthworks are covered in grass.

There are also plans to create a Hockney trail, similar to the existing Turner trail, which has benches where you can sit and look at the locations from particular paintings side by side with a board showing a copy of the painting for comparison.  The idea being, that you could choose to visit some or all of the locations.  So clearly, the artwork is adding value or, indeed, creating the tourism and also encouraging people to stay longer in the area.  This also benefits cafes restaurants B&Bs campsites, outdoor supplies shops etc.

Lunch was devoted to networking, (we were banned from talking to people we already knew).  After that we were split into roughly geographical groupings to talk about what existing links and networks we have, and how we can create more or be more efficient at working together and co-operating.

Steven Feber had been keen to point out that the “Welcome to Yorkshire” website was less user friendly and flexible than it ought to be, but that perhaps the future lies in “apps” like “Stumbleupon” that create user generated recommendations based on people’s existing likes, dislikes and patterns of behaviour.  But this seemed to suggest that we needn’t bother trying to link up with each other and that we could leave it to the tourists themselves!  Quite a few people were on the technophobic side and seemed to think that paper based promotion and leaflets were enough.  My personal view is that the arts is a difficult business to make pay and we are in an economic down-turn too, so why not take all the advantages you can grab with both hands.  Paper may appeal to older people who are existing customers but why not make young people your customers too by reaching out in a medium they understand, (to say nothing of being better for the environment – how many leaflets are wasted every year I wonder?).  Also, the internet is a global medium, you can reach out to people from unimaginable distances as easily as the person next door.

Into the mix of the discussion someone said that the geography of the region made it hard for everyone to receive Broadband and that maybe that was part of the charm of the region and perhaps we don’t need Broadband at all!  It worries me if these are the kinds of people who are making decisions about connecting the region with the rest of the world, I feel sorry for all the businesses who will suffer from such narrow thinking.

No definite conclusions were reached by the end of the day but everyone had a lot to think about and I personally made lots of new connections with people that I particularly wanted to be connecting with.  So the event itself made a good start, despite the pessimism of some who implied that everyone knew each other anyway, (perhaps they only spoke to people they already knew and it was their own fault for not circulating).

One thing that did come out which I thought was interesting is that days like this and intermediary organisations like Welcome to Yorkshire, ACE, Chrysalis Arts etc. are vital in providing the opportunity and financial support for links and clusters to form and work together.  As Rick Faulkner pointed out, even something as simple as putting other people’s links on your site is not a “free” activity and takes time and expertise to achieve.  Let’s hope that money to help everyone along does not dry up altogether.  It was encouraging, (or is it disturbing?) to hear that as tax payers contributions to ACE go down, lottery money goes up!

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