The Strategy and Communications Manager introduced and presented a mandate in respect of local tourism and the Council’s Tourist Information Centre (TIC). The mandate addressed the following areas:
· Risks, Assumptions and Issues
· Dependencies, Constraints and Opportunities
· Internal Stakeholders
· Next Steps
The Executive Advisory Board (EAB) was advised that the TIC was located in Guildford House, High Street, Guildford. Pre-Covid, the service had opened on Mondays to Saturdays plus Sundays from the beginning of May until the end of September. However, the TIC was currently operating reduced hours and this was under review. The TIC provided the following services:
· Information and advice to visitors to the Borough.
· Promotion of Guildford to encourage visitors to the Borough.
· Shop offering a mix of souvenirs and local products.
(A Box Office providing ticketing services for local events had been discontinued.)
The most common requests received by the TIC were for bus timetables and maps and the most frequently asked questions included ‘what’s on’, where to eat and the location of particular shops. Many of the functions performed by the TIC aligned with the responsibilities of Experience Guildford in the town centre area.
As part of Phase B of the Future Guildford transformation programme, the tourism and heritage marketing functions and associated budgets transferred to the Strategy and Communications Team which became responsible for leading an online visitor economy and marketing function. Therefore a new approach would need to be developed, including:
· Closer collaboration with Visit Surrey and other partners, such as Experience Guildford and Surrey Hills Enterprises.
· An improved online offering to replace Visit Guildford (which was now unstable and unsupported).
· Utilising expertise from the University’s Centre for Digital Transformation in the Visitor Economy.
· Increased targeted promotional campaigns.
As it was facing a substantial projected budget deficit over the next four years, the Council needed to identify savings across its discretionary services. Therefore, this mandate considered options for changes to the future delivery of visitor information services that would also secure financial savings as part of the Council’s Savings Strategy. The strategic Options available to the Council to deliver a solution were:
(a) Do Nothing - Continue with the current TIC and service in-situ at Guildford House.
(b) Do Something (1) - Move the TIC and staff to another location.
(c) Do Something (2) - Remove the physical TIC and provide an alternative digital and online communications and marketing service, incorporating increased targeted promotional campaigns. This would be accompanied by a review of future strategy / approach and required resources.
(d) Do Most - Close the TIC and end the visitor service offered by GBC.
When the Executive / Management Team Liaison Group considered the mandate at its meeting on 16 February 2022, it expressed in principle support for Option (c) and requested that opportunities be considered for the continued provision of visitor information at Guildford House and other town centre locations in consultation with Experience Guildford.
The Lead Councillor for Environment gave a brief overview of the mandate and highlighted two key areas in the field of tourism, namely, the move to an online digital internet age and the closer collaboration and resource sharing between smaller tourism companies.
The EAB’s views in respect of the Options were sought and the following points arose from related questions, comments and discussion for forwarding to the Executive:
1. Whilst the proposed move to online digital tourism services was acknowledged, it was felt that some alternative provision should remain to cater for those members of society, usually older people, who did not necessarily utilise the internet. This alternative provision, which could consist of information leaflets and town maps available at appropriate locations such as transport gateways or the Museum, should be fully accessible for all including braille and easy read versions. The provision of improved signposting to attractions or location plans dispensing tourists maps and guides delivering a reduced service employing fewer staff.
2. The contracting out of the TIC to an organisation such as Experience Guildford or Visit Surrey was suggested as a further possible future option for delivery of the tourism service. However, it may be necessary for the Council to provide a financial subsidy to support such an approach.
3. Whilst some queries and concerns were raised regarding the location of the TIC and the future use and accessibility of Guildford House, the EAB was advised that the purpose of this mandate was to focus on modernising the tourism service, promoting Guildford in collaboration with partners and meeting the requirements of the Savings Strategy. The future use of Guildford House would be addressed as part of a separate Heritage mandate which included the Museum and other heritage assets. Although the process in pursuing the Heritage mandate had temporarily stalled for various reasons, work was now continuing and options were being formulated. However, councillors expressed a preference for the two mandates to be combined in the interests of comprehensive, joined up, holistic working.
4. The need for a holistic approach to consider all heritage assets in the town centre and services provided from them to investigate how best to deliver value for money facilities and savings was highlighted.
5. There was a national trend of falling visitor numbers to TICs owing to the internet and Covid. Although the exact visitor numbers to the local TIC were currently unavailable, it was felt that they could be obtained as a door counter mechanism was in operation at Guildford House.
6. The savings in the region of £70,000 - £80,000 identified in Option (c) were annual savings of a rough order of magnitude. Any redundancy costs arising from the loss of the physical presence in the TIC would be one-off costs although re-deployment would be pursued prior to any redundancies being made.
7. There was a view that the mandate did not contain sufficient information or data concerning visitor numbers, service running costs, anticipated savings or costs relating to an alternative provision to enable the EAB to offer any meaningful advice in this regard.
8. With regard to the utilisation of expertise from the University’s Centre for Digital Transformation in the Visitor Economy, the need to work more closely with partners such as the University, Experience Guildford and Visit Surrey had been recognised and contact with key partners had been made to discuss the establishment of a Visitor Economy Forum to consider the approach to supporting the visitor economy in the future. Although Experience Guildford and Visit Surrey had been consulted in respect of the mandate, responses had not been received in time for reporting to this meeting.
9. Apparently, some other district and borough councils had closed their TICs in order to achieve budget savings, however, closure could have a negative impact on their local economies. Others had adopted a modernised digital approach or contracted their TICs to a company or organisation, such as a Business Improvement District (BID), and offered some financial support. BIDs usually consisted of approximately 400 businesses who were keen to improve customer footfall and support any initiatives that would assist with achieving that. Reference was made to the tourism provision at Winchester although it was not thought to be funded by the local council.
10. There was a cost attached to the provision of online tourism services as they required frequent updating. Consideration would need to be given to the allocation of responsibility for providing and updating information.
11. To demonstrate the importance of retaining and promoting tourism to the Borough, in 2019 the South-East Tourism Board had estimated that tourism in Guildford was worth approximately £300 million. Although local authorities often provided tourism services, they rarely received any income to do so as it was retained by businesses. However, there was a possibility of seeking financial contributions from some of the key financially secure outlets in Guildford which benefited from the service.
By way of summary and conclusion, the EAB agreed that:
i. The mandate currently contained insufficient information and data to enable the EAB to express support for a particular Option(s).
ii. The Tourism and TIC and the Heritage mandates should be combined to facilitate a holistic approach to pursuing related service changes and savings.
iii. In the event that the tourism service was reduced or the TIC closed, consideration should be given to alternative forms of service provision, particularly for visitors unable to access online services. This could include exploration of the possibility of unstaffed delivery of information such as distribution of leaflets, guides and maps; improved signposting; and promotional video screens at transport hubs or other key sites around the town centre.
iv. Information was sought in respect of the operation of the tourism service in Winchester to establish whether there was any good financial and / or operational practice which could be pursued for adoption in Guildford.