An Indie Business Perspective on the UCI World Championships

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.

Positives

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%.

Some Norwegians found their way to us!

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.

Other Sectors

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.

Intangible Benefits

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.”

Fall out

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.

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25 Responses to An Indie Business Perspective on the UCI World Championships

  1. Good balanced post, Paul. I run an indie software business in Harrogate, so the event didn’t impact us either way – we’re a virtual team, so didn’t need to drive anywhere. If anything, the biggest impact on us was my distraction by interest in the event! That and some activities I tried to get involved in to support local businesses. If I reflect on those, then the Twitter ‘top 100 things to do in and around Harrogate’ thread I put about 7 or 8 hours into creating and similar into sharing had the most engagement, and largely by locals, which is the point of my reply to your post here.

    By contrast to great engagement on the ‘100 list’ I made, which had over 10,000 visits and almost 600 engagements in a week, when I created posts in different languages to promote supporting local businesses and using relevant localised hashtags, they had less engagement. I think that’s down to poor mobile signal in and around central routes when the crowds were at their busiest, or visitors enjoying the event in the moment, rather than trawling their phones for event-related social media activity.

    Having taken a couple of days out of running my own business to do what I could to help fellow local indies and seen what worked and didn’t for other businesses, I do think, on balance, that those who have suffered the most haven’t perhaps engaged the local audience.

    How many flyers did you get through your letterbox during the event from local businesses telling their story and attracting interest on what was going to be a quiet week? That probably costs less to do than buying and putting up bunting.

    Did you see any interesting local story feeds or videos on their Facebook or Twitter pages? I saw one nice vid from Starling and very little else.

    I didn’t see a single business record a quick timelapse video of getting from the finish line to their place of business. Pretty much any phone can do that nowadays.

    I saw very few businesses flyering around town or speaking to visitors around fan areas.

    I’m on, I would guess, around 50-70 local businesses’ email lists, yet received just one email during the week from one of them.

    You mention a couple of obvious ‘stars’ who did capitalise, like Starling and Cold Bath Brewing. They’d invested heavily, I imagine, and I don’t think that most small businesses, as you say, could risk that kind of investment.

    So what’s the alternative?

    For me, for all the almost complete lack of engagement on the ‘local’ story by visitors, let’s not forget that tens, even hundreds of thousands of people from the direct surrounding area and commutable towns came into Harrogate over the course of the 9 days who wouldn’t have traveled into town at all that week, poor weather or not. I think it’s on that audience that so many businesses failed to create their compelling stories to specifically ask for support / #shoplocal. The Harrogate Tea Rooms did a good job of that after going to social media to ask for support. Judging by their post-event comments, I think they did well out of the event, on balance. Their business didn’t need to have a cycling / sporting / hospitality context. Local people – in my experience – connect with local requests for help and support. Who are you going to support? The hairdresser / therapist / nail bar / consulting service who tells that story of vulnerability or fear or frustration, or the one that does nothing, and complains to themselves and friends privately.

    I got into a bit of trouble calling those who criticised results at the HdV event ‘entitled grumblers’ who likely spent more time grumbling than marketing. But I think, on calmer reflection, and judging by some of the discussion on the replies I had on that post, that actually, it’s a lack of marketing awareness, perhaps even a lack of confidence around marketing methods they wouldn’t normally use. How many other local businesses walked past your store front and were wowed by the creative use of the rainbow jersey colours in your imagery?

    I’m glad, on balance, it was a successful event for you. Would I want to be in your shoes, in the hospitality trade with so much riding on weekly / monthly cash flow demands to face? No, not a chance. And I think it’s that fear from others that’s created such split opinion. Thanks for all you and your team do.

    • Paul says:

      Hi Gareth. Thanks for reading and writing this reply. I need to go and make coffee right now so I can’t reply in detail, but I will do so later because I think you raise some great points! Regards Paul.

    • Paul says:

      Hi Gareth.

      You make some really good points here and there likely there should be some businesses examining what they do and don’t create for social media – I had a quick look and many businesses that I know suffered barely have Facebook accounts. You clearly spend a lot of time in the digital space but I have to say that I think your point about small businesses lacking expertise/confidence with that is bang on. We like to think we’re a relatively forward-thinking business, we spend a fair amount monthly on marketing including using a (amazing) freelancer to help us, but even we could/should probably do better.

      I do also think that businesses, like residents/HBC/Yorkshire 2019/NYCC, weren’t absolutely sure what was going to happen. Were they going to be flooded with visitors so needed to focus on delivery, or should it be survival mode and dropping margins/increasing marketing spend to attract customers. The answers feel fairly obvious now, but I think a lot of places will have been surprised or at least unprepared in terms of having contingency plans in place either way.

      Those businesses that did see visitors as a result of your posts will be really grateful for the work you put in creating them.

      If you ever fancy a coffee to discuss a bit more I’d always be willing to have a chat – making digital work for local bricks and mortar businesses is something I find very interesting. I know a good place to meet!

      Thanks again for reading and engaging so deeply on the topic. It clearly shows that you care and want local businesses to do well.

      Regards

      Paul

  2. Steve says:

    Stationery with an “e” paul.unless it’s on wheels.
    Apart from that a well balanced piece.

  3. Jeremy Horsell says:

    Rawlinson for Mayor! Or MP? Or come to think of it, PM!! A breath of carefully considered fresh air. Light where there has been so much heat (again). Thank you Paul

  4. Thanks Paul for your blog. It is a very interesting read and I think you have summed things up really well with a balanced and accurate description of how many local businesses were affected. I personally thought it was great event and my business was affected to some extent just by people not being able to get into town but on the whole felt it was a great week. I really hope that over the next few weeks business will pick up for all those people who lost out and lessons can be learnt by the organisers from the mistakes made this time.

    • Paul says:

      Thanks for reading Christine. Glad to hear you were able to take a bit of time off and make the most of it. We’re also hoping for a busy October – but then that’s nothing new! Speak soon, we’re really looking forward to next week’s announcements!

  5. John M Hall MBE says:

    A very nice and thoughtful analysis of last weeks situation well done for publishing it.

  6. Debbie Nice says:

    Well said Paul, a balanced review of the event. I live outside Harrogate and spent 4 days in the town for the event. We spent money in local cafes rather than the fanzone and had a great time.
    I do have sympathy for businesses affected negatively, times are tough enough just now… I look forward to some good work to repair the muddy stray.
    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts
    Debbie

    • Paul says:

      Thanks for reading Debs. All those local businesses you visited will appreciate it. It is a tough time for retailers and I have no doubt this will have added to the pressure for some. Hopefully things pick up right away and we have a busy build up to Christmas. It might have afforded a few businesses a it more time to plan those seasonal activities.

  7. Matthew Handy says:

    What has frustrated me about the whole thing is my feeling that there is a lack of empathy for those people who lost out, both residents and businesses. If they express a view on social media, they’re condemned as moaners. UCI has been our very own mini-Brexit.

    I have a friend who is a mobile hairdresser. Her bookings were down 75% during the UCI week. What exactly are people expecting her to do to mitigate the loss? Not every business in Harrogate is a café or a hotel. Sure, some of her clients will have moved their appointments to subsequent weeks. But there are only so many hours she can work — she has a life and a family. She can’t go from 40 hours every week (say) to 10 hours one week, 70 hours the next.

    I asked my Deliveroo rider how he’d fared. Again a huge drop in income during the event. Not at all his fault. The riders couldn’t get to the restaurants or the houses to deliver. So Deliveroo just cut them off.

    I lost some money because my clients couldn’t get to me. In some cases I was able to connect with them online instead. I did what I could to mitigate my loss. But there was still a loss.

    The thing that really shocked me about your post, though, was the idea that the Stray is under-utilised. It’s not a concert venue with low occupancy rates. We have plenty of purpose built spaces for events in Harrogate.

    The Stray is — was — the visually stunning heart of Harrogate. It lifts the soul to walk across it, or sit on a bench and just enjoy it. It’s the lungs of the town. (I’m mixing my metaphors. Sorry.) People walk across it, run around it, play on it, picnic on it, lie on it, walk their dogs on it. It’s not supposed to be “useful”. No, I take that back. It already is useful. These things I’ve listed are useful.

    It is heartbreaking to look at West Park Stray right now. It’s been trashed. Sure, it will recover, but we’ve been without it for — what? — three weeks now. How much longer till it’s back to what it was? Weeks? Months? Come to Harrogate, people of the world, and see our marvellous mud bath! Have a cake at Baltzersen’s while you’re here! Hmm.

    There are winners and losers. Society would be a happier places if the winners took some time to recognise the losers. As someone who lost money and was inconvenienced by the event, it would have been nice for the organisers to reach out — even if only to say “We’re sorry you’re going to be impacted”. It would have been even nicer if they’d said, “We hope this voucher for a free slice of cake will make you feel a little happier about the event.”

    Instead, all I’ve seen is “Shut up moaners / Get a life / If you lost money it’s your own fault for being rubbish at business.”

    Oh, while I’ve got you, can you please talk to the people at Mama Doreen’s and try to persuade them to be at least a little dog-friendly? I love Baltzersen’s but it would be nice to have other places to go. I tried to engage them on the subject, but they weren’t interested. I even suggested “dog friendly Wednesdays” or some such. As you surely know, dog owners are pretty loyal, pretty well-behaved people. I bet you’ve had more trouble from your human customers than your canine ones.

    • Paul says:

      Hi Matthew, thanks for taking the time to read and reply.

      As I said in the post there were some businesses that were always going to lose out, you could also put workers in the gig economy in that bracket too. You make a good point about that simple message that could have been sent out to residents and businesses to say ‘Thanks for your patience whilst the event is on, we appreciate some of you are going to be incovenienced’

      I think we just have a difference of opinion on the Stray. We are fortunate to have other areas of Stray that can be used whilst West Park is recovering, I accept it has been temporarily damaged which is unfortunate (the weather felt unseasonally bad to me at least) and it isn’t a great look. I do think there would be space to form some area that could be used for outdoor events and still leave the vast majority untouched. I’m not aware of any outdoor area specifically designed to host events in Harrogate and I think we could use one. The area opposite the Yorkshire Hotel in particular would be the place that seems best located.

      I’m afraid from the dog friendly point of view all businesses need to either make a decision for or against. We’ve know we’ve lost guests as a result of our dog friendly stance but we also know we have lots of guest that visit us regularly because they feel like all members fo their family or welcome. It’s a decision for Mama Doreens to make. I think there are quite a lot of venues in town that are pro-dog, perhaps ask on Facebook if you have that for some recommendations – you may be surprised.

      I hope you are able to serve your clients this week and perhaps catch up a little on work that has been missed.

      Regards

      Paul

  8. Hi Paul

    A great synopsis of the UCI event and the impact on the town. I like your idea of creating a weatherproof area on the Stray for events if it can be done in an aesthetic way.

    I launched a paper cut print featuring Harrogate, a cyclist, the town’ buildings, the Cherry Blossom on the Stray to commemorate not just the UCI but other notable anniversaries such as RHS Harlow Carr’s 75th Anniversary, which has been very well received. I was also commissioned to create a Stainless Steel sculpture by British Cycling for the President of UCI. British Cycling took over the North Bar as you probably know at the end of my street. All in all a positive experience for myself and my Dove Tree Art Gallery.

    • Paul says:

      Hi Anita,

      It sounds like the period has been great for your business and that you took steps to incorporate a few notable events in that papercut piece for this year which has worked out. I hope things continue to look up in the run up to Christmas.

      Speak soon.

      Regards

      Paul

  9. Rachel Gregory says:

    Great piece and good points raised by Gareth w/f marketing and lack of!!
    One thing I take from it as well is how many locals are totally reliant on their cars. Who opted not to come into town by foot or bus or train or – cycle! The weather also played a part. How quiet would town have been normally during a week of driving rain?

    • Paul says:

      Thanks for reading Rachel. I know that if we’d had the kind of weather we had that Sunday on a normal weekend it would have resulted in a pretty poor result for Baltzersen’s, so actually the impact of the UCI on the final weekend was very significant for us.

  10. Mark Edwards says:

    Thank you for a reasoned and balanced discourse. I do hope that BID can make a positive contribution to event organisation in the future. It is now up to us as Harrogate residents to continue to support all the Indies in town. That is what makes Harrogate a unique venue to visit.

  11. Bernard Hopkins says:

    I work for the District Council and would prefer not to use my real name.

    I appreciate some people won’t like my insistence on anonymity, but I don’t feel able to offer a personal and honest view otherwise.

    This was an excellent piece, Paul and I think it was a well-balanced analysis of the impact of the UCI championships on Harrogate.

    I am entirely sympathetic to businesses that have lost revenue. They are not “moaners”.

    Despite the ‘hype’ and the positive messages, there were always going to be some businesses that would see no benefit from a cycling event whatsoever.

    That said, I do think there has been some in-trenched negativity.

    It’s quite clear some businesses chose not to engage with the event from the day it was announced and have refused to be budged from their ‘the UCI championships = Armageddon for Harrogate’ position.

    If I may correct one thing though please Paul.

    HBC did not “target” the UCI championships. It didn’t even bid to host it.

    The bid was submitted by Welcome to Yorkshire, British Cycling and UK Sport in conjunction with The Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Harrogate Council and North Yorkshire County Council’s roles were as ‘organisational partners’.

    That’s government speak for ‘both authorities need to make it happen’. The police too.

    I know some people accuse the council of having sloping shoulders, and perhaps, sometimes it does, but in this case, I think it’s necessary to make it clear that HBC was not the organisation banging on the door of UCI HQ saying ‘we want your championships in Harrogate’.

    May I also take the opportunity to quash any rumours that the Council has been paid to host the UCI event. A figure of £20m is floating around on social media. It is complete and utter nonsense.

    In fact, the championships has cost the Council money.

    Believe me, there was never universal excitement within HBC at the prospect of the championships coming to town.

    Personally, I enjoyed it, despite the awful weather and I thought Harrogate town centre had a really nice vibe with people from across the world enjoying themselves.

    OK, so they probably didn’t buy jewellery, stationery or new clothes when they were here it, but many of the people who’d travelled to spectate who I spoke to, said they were inclined to make a second or third visit in future.

    I may have stuck my neck out and promised guaranteed good weather though.

    In terms of the future, Harrogate will never see an event on the size and scale of the UCI championships ever again. I suspect this will be welcomed with loud cheers in some circles.

    That’s because Harrogate Council can no longer ask for permission to temporarily suspend the sections of the Stray Act that would enable a large event to go ahead.

    That bridge is well and truly burned.

    And, here’s where I need to give credit to my employer.

    It consulted on the use of the Stray a few years back. The ridiculous rumours of plans for Burger Kings or tarmac and car parks circulated almost as quickly as the consultation survey document, but we had our say and the overwhelming response from people was ‘no, we don’t want anything that eases or dilutes the Stray Act’.

    I can tell you from the inside that HBC accepts that result and respects it.

    The UCI championships was our last opportunity to welcome the world with a large sporting spectacular.

    So, any rumours of a bid to bring the 2032 Olympics to the District are most definitely not true!

    • Paul says:

      Hi There.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to post with some additional perspective.

      I have to admit that I certainly did not realise that this could be a situation where Welcome to Yorkshire/UK Sport etc would be calling the shots and telling Harrogate that we were hosting rather than it being an offer. It changes the dynamic a little.

      I am sure that plenty of people in the council tried their best to make the event as successful as possible. I have been supportive of the council in previous blogs on other subjects and I would maintain that most people in local government are doing their best in very trying circumstances. You come across in your comments as someone that cares for the town (and it’s people and businesses) a lot, and I appreciate that honesty and the bit of good humour you’ve tried to leave in there too.

      One of the more disappointing things for me personally is that you suggest the council have taken a very rigid stance on the Stray consultation of a few years ago. It is only my opinion but I think that was very badly handled. Organisations like the Stray Defence Association got completely out of hand and were not at all held to account for some of the outrageous claims they made around that period. I’d like to see this re-visited by future councils.

      I hope things got back to some normality for you this week.

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