Paul Rawlinson, owner of Baltzersen’s, writes his view on what has happened over the course of the UCI World Road Cycling Championships in Harrogate:
Put 10 business owners and 10 residents in a room and you’ll get a whole host of different opinions about how and where the UCI succeeded and failed. Many will be diametrically opposed.
I’ve steered clear of too much talk about the impact of the UCI World Championships on Harrogate, primarily because as it turned out it was a positive event for us in terms of our overall takings. As such my feelings are less raw than many.
In hindsight the whole thing feels like a bit of a mess. There were so many unknown questions that we didn’t have the answers to until it was too late.
First up I admire businesses like Cold Bath Brewery and Starling, who certainly made the most of the opportunity and capitalised on some great links into the cycling community. Most indie businesses don’t have the space, money or perhaps the vision to do this. The Yorkshire Hotel were also able to make themselves something of a hub for the UCI party, they were of course ideally located to do so and as part of a much larger group could carry the risk.
I enjoyed seeing the Stray being put to use during the Championships. The Fan Park was a popular area over the first weekend when the weather was good – my kids spent pretty much all day there. Weather will always be a factor in the UK and I do think that if a section of the stray could be converted in some way to offer a more weather-proof (underfoot) event area it would provide an amazing benefit for the town. I know opposition would be pretty vehement in some quarters but some of the Stray is seriously under-utilised.
A couple of communities came together to create their own marketing collateral. Cold Bath Road continue to lead the way in terms of pushing forward their area of town and did so with a stylish leaflet, and some of the indie bars got together and did something similar too. I have no doubt we’ll see more of this in the future and it bodes well for those businesses involved.
Once again the Harrogate International Festival team delivered a varied brief introducing some pops of colour around town and the stunning new sculpture in Valley Gardens, which will be there for years to come. They rarely let the town down and whilst they have plenty to be getting on with I hope that Harrogate BID lean on their expertise for delivering more arts projects and events work.
If Tom Harland from Stray FM isn’t up for some kind of award at the Harrogate Hospitality and Tourism Awards this year consider this the first early call for a nomination for ‘Unsung Hero’.
To Engage ….or not?
When you run a small indie business and you don’t know how an event is going to affect you it’s really difficult to plan. You want to keep costs down in case it doesn’t go as well as you think but you also feel the need to invest in marketing or other areas to try and make the most of it.
I have to admit that we didn’t totally engage with the UCI. We didn’t attend the meetings in the build up – they just never quite fitted in with my work schedule.
A cycling brand approached us looking for a place to watch the racing and have a private hire arrangement. We don’t have the available space for that and I’m glad we passed them on to another indie that suited their requirements.
We didn’t go out of our way to diversify our offer or put on bike focused events. We did invest in some decoration for the outside of the cafe (window stickers, flags, chalk spray paint) and we upgraded our menu board. We were hanging our hopes on making a good visual impact externally and persuading guests to step inside and try us out.
We arranged deliveries with our suppliers taking double deliveries from some so they wouldn’t need to come into town during the event. We had extra staff on the rota in case we were busy.
Things were quieter than usual during the build stage the week before the event and it was a slow first weekend. Things picked up in the week following and culminated in our busiest weekend on record by about 21%.
We came out the other side of the event in a positive way, but we don’t know exactly why. It could have been some of the things we did prior to the event to dress the cafe. I have a sneaking suspicion that we were given a big help by our local guests and other indies recommending us and sign-posting people our way (we’ve had quite a few people telling us they were doing that and it’s much appreciated). It could have just been we’re located on a relatively busy street and irrespective of who guests are and why they are here, one thing they are going to have to do in the course of spending 8-10 hours in town is eat a couple of times.
It could have been very different. Like many small indie businesses things are tight and when we have spare cash we tend to re-invest that money immediately rather than growing a significant contingency fund to fall back on. If I look at my own business and model dropping my takings in half for a 9 day period spanning two weekends we’d be in serious cash-flow trouble. It’s something that I should probably consider more carefully in the future.
I feel a lot of sympathy for business owners in other sectors. I see a lot of people saying that businesses should have planned better and been more proactive, but I know that if I owned a retail store I’d be struggling.
Marketing is challenging at the best of times and trying to focus in on visitors here for a very small time window, and affect their behaviour significantly enough to get them to take action is tough.
How does a butcher entice locals in when there is mass hysteria about road access/parking?
What does the stationery/lingerie/hardware shop sell to visitors who are here to watch a bike race?
With the best visual displays, savvy online marketing and printed media some shops were never going to be anything other than negatively affected. I understand why some decided to cut their losses and close for the duration – especially those that have staff because at least that way they could get their teams to use annual leave and mitigate the circumstances a little.
Consumer focused service providers (hairdressers, tailors, phone repairs, therapists etc) were also faced with a tough challenge. I hope that many of them will have been busier the week before the event and are now inundated with people catching up on appointments.
The benefit of the championships, in terms of profile building for Harrogate and Yorkshire, is something that is far too difficult and subtle to track. It may deliver a legacy of increased visitor numbers over an indeterminate number of years or might make little or no impression. What we do know is that we won’t realistically be able to directly attribute many visitors (and their related spend) in a quantitative way.
I feel Harrogate mirrors the wider country in the sense that the UK punches above its weight globally (or will until Brexit happens – excuse my politics) and our town does the same in terms of events. I hope this exposure helps the convention centre to attract more events in the future, they should have some good showreel footage to add into their marketing plans.
Lizzie Brewster from Harrogate International Festivals (HIF) wrote a great thread on Twitter about some of the other possible benefits outside of a business focus. I slightly paraphrase:
“Sports (and arts and culture) events can be a huge asset to local businesses, but their success should not be judged on financial income into every business across the town – that’s unfeasible.
“The benefits that can be observed are raised aspirations for children, creating the opportunity to be involved in a world wide event (look at the Harrogate High children). The demonstration of teamwork, sportsmanship, events work, co-operation across organisations and harnessing the opportunity.
“It is likely to improve health and fitness rates across the town and to decrease pollution and traffic as people get on their bikes. It will also bring long-term tourism into the town.
“These are just a few of the benefits, and surely should be considered just as important as income for local businesses.”
Like it or not businesses will have to come to terms with the reality that there will be no compensation. There simply isn’t a mechanism to determine losses and it’s not really the council’s job to get involved in that kind of activity. No guarantees were offered to businesses and as such there is no liability – although the ballot box could offer one route for those sufficiently irritated.
I hope the meeting at Hotel Du Vin provided some catharsis for those that attended. Many business owners are hurting, and it’s a pain that they feel was inflicted upon them rather than something of their own doing. I hope we can give them some time and space to vent, that the council will at least listen to their concerns and take some action around consultation and organisation of events in the future. Harrogate BID probably has a greater part to play in terms of being that link between businesses and the council – it just wasn’t quite in place early enough to have the effect required for such a big event.
I would suggest that Harrogate Borough Council must be seriously considering what kind of events they target in the future. In particular events that significantly impact travel around the town centre and that span multiple days and importantly weekends.
Hopefully it will soon be time to start bringing the volume of discussions about the championships down and directing them at people with the power to make changes in the future. I hope they can record the necessary actions that need to be taken for a town that despite the challenges they entail, wants to hold more events (of whatever kind) in the coming years.
Thanks for taking the time to read this blog, I’m sure you’ve read lots about the event already and have your own opinions on how it played out. Feel free to comment here or on social media, we’ll try to reply to you if we can.