Special Report: Visit Norfolk Tourism Conference hears that it is time to invest in future and sing out the county’s great story

Visit Norfolk end of season conference. From left: Peter Waters, Andy Wood, Andrew Hird and Matthew Jones. Photo: Bill Smith

Visit Norfolk end of season conference. From left: Peter Waters, Andy Wood, Andrew Hird and Matthew Jones. Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Archant © 2013

It had the air of an end-of-term report: your performance is good but you can certainly do better.

Visit Norfolk brand manager Pete Waters set the tone in his opening address at the city's John Innes Conference Centre.

First came the good news when he told the audience that Norfolk had the best tourism offering in the UK - 'from the Brecks and the Broads to Norwich and north Norfolk which, these days, with its growth in boutique hotels and gastro pubs, is more like the Cotswolds on the coast than Chelsea on Sea'.

But he warned that despite Norfolk's impressive £2.78bn annual tourism economy it was no time for the industry to rest on its laurels.

There was a need for the county's various tourism bodies and businesses to improve their partnership working under the umbrella of Visit Norfolk to more effectively sell what was a 'fabulous product' and strive to extend the holiday season.

'Norfolk needs to be more top of mind', said Mr Waters, who cleverly reinforced the point by inviting the 'competition' – in the shape of Malcolm Bell, head of tourism at Visit Cornwall – to speak at the conference.

Mr Waters described how in its relative infancy, Visit Norfolk had already made strides by revamping its website and launching a £50,000 autumn advertising campaign to coincide with the date of the conference.

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'There's Nowhere Like Norfolk' was first being targeted on the on-demand TV platform ITV Player, with a poster campaign at London railways stations to follow. It was hoped that Norfolk's first advertising campaign on national television could generate upwards of £1m of fresh business.

Hoseasons managing director Simon Altham provided the proof that Norfolk needed to shout out louder about what it had to offer in the shape of a freshly-commissioned YouGov survey.

As reported in yesterday's EDP, the poll revealed that Norfolk ranked only fifth in a league table of people's favourite UK holiday destinations and also lagged behind when it came to ranking counties for their local food, historic buildings and beaches.

Norwich might be a fine city but it came only fifth in the league table of small cities regarded as best for shopping.

The theme of Mr Altham's address was Investing for the Future and he warned against any complacency in a fast-moving tourism landscape.

He said it had been a great season for tourism businesses in general with Hoseasons enjoying a record summer and the 'halo effect' of strong bookings spreading throughout the local economy from restaurants to visitor attractions.

However, he said even in such a good summer, there had been losers as well as winners – and the question needed to be asked: Why?

'Outside the main season, many businesses have reported trading to be challenging and there have also been grumbles about customers not spending,' he said.

His blunt message to business owners who complained about having to offer discounts was that this was the reality of an age where people waited late to book and searched for the best value. And in the world of TripAdvisor, giving a speedy and very public outlet to dissatisfied customers, investment was essential.

Praising the new £1m adventure play area at Pensthorpe and £1.4m investment at the Norfolk Showground, he stressed that investment did not necessarily involve spending a lot of money.

Investment in training was important; even small touches such as new soft furnishings and crockery could give accommodation a 'loved and cared for' impression.

He highlighted the industry's intense competition and warned that market leaders were already cutting the cost of overseas holidays for next year.

Tom Blofeld, founder of Bewilderwood treehouse adventure park in Horning, said he believed the principles which had driven his own success story could be applied more widely.

'Norfolk desperately needs more quality tourism and that is what I stand for,' he said.

Bewilderwood had built its own magical story into every aspect of the park – even the sale of brand-name food and drink was not allowed to spoil the illusion – and Norfolk needed to work on its own story to pitch to holidaymakers.

He said it was vital to always 'expand the brand, improve the brand' and Bewilderwood was looking to extend the park this winter and introduce a new train. He was also poised to complete the deal that would see a new Bewilderwood open at Tatton Park in Cheshire.

Mr Blofeld said Norfolk's tourism businesses should be encouraged by the fact that the industry was driven by the quality of the landscape and 'we have a landscape to jump up and down about and show off'.

Malcolm Bell, head of Visit Cornwall, highlighted the hard work that had gone into reaching the enviable position where the county was first on the lips of people when it came to UK holiday destinations.

That had not always been the case and Cornwall had lost its way in the late 1980s when the focus had been on 'trying to compete on price rather than being authentic'.

Good PR was vital, spreading the word that your destination was 'different but authentic'.

He spoke of his unrelenting quest to ensure people 'hear, see and read about Cornwall everywhere'.

They had reached the enviable position where 97pc of their 4.5m annual visitors say they would recommend Cornwall to family and friends.

Andrew Hird, acting chairman of Visit Norfolk, said the challenges facing the tourism industry were framed by the shrinking pot of available public funding.

But he asked: 'Should we not be helping to promote the tourism industry ourselves when it is worth £2.78bn and directly employs 52,000 people?

'If necessity is the mother of invention then we need to get very inventive and that is what Visit Norfolk is about.'

Andy Wood, chairman of the New Anglia local enterprise partnership, reiterated the point that in the current economic climate, advances in tourism would inevitably be led by the private sector. He said the LEP had already pumped £200,000 into the tourism sector across Norfolk and Suffolk but its role was one of an economic enabler.

He said: 'I think the government is on to something about mobilising the private sector. Growth does not take place in ivory towers, it takes place locally, led by hard-working people with a determination to succeed.

'We have a massive opportunity if we believe in ourselves. We have great culture, great heritage, great food and drink; we need to bring it together and tell the story in a compelling way.'