Gill Haigh has landed her “dream job”, she says. The new Managing Director of Cumbria Tourism, who began work on Monday, is optimistic about the sector’s prospects, and why wouldn’t she be?
Visitor numbers increased last year, as did accommodation occupancy rates, buoyed by the weak pound which encouraged overseas visitors and persuaded more Brits to take ‘staycations’.
Gill said: “I’m starting from a strong position. The visitor economy is really important to Cumbria. It’s worth £2.72bn a year and supports 63,000 jobs. It’s a significant part of the overall economy.
“Last year saw another increase in the number of people coming, to 45m, but that success doesn’t mean we don’t have to try harder.
“One of the things we can do is encourage returning visitors to stay longer, explore more and increase their spend. To do that we need to understand what people want from their visitor experience.
“It’s also about identifying new markets – emerging international markets such as China – and younger people. I’d like us to target younger visitors.
“Our traditional visitors aren’t going away but there is increasing competition from other destinations. Visitors have a lot more choice.
“It’s about enticing people to come to Cumbria to stay and explore, make repeat visits and recommend the area to their friends.
“We need to find ways to elongate the summer season. Things like the winter campaign last year, which was inspired, and had a reach of 24m people.”
Cumbria Tourism has been criticised for funnelling its efforts into promoting the Lake District at the expense of areas outside the national park.
Gill is determined to change that.
Visitors in the future are going to have different demands. We can’t rest on our laurels. We have to and will continue to evolve.
She said: “The Lake District is what we call our attack brand but it’s then about how Cumbria Tourism plays its role alongside local authorities, to make sure people are aware of the hidden treasures around the county.
“Carlisle has a lot to offer visitors, Morecambe Bay is a beautiful natural environment so different from the National Park, as is the west coast and North Pennines.”
She sees the recent inscription of the Lake District as a World Heritage Site as an opportunity for the whole county.
“We have already had significant visitor interest on the back of World Heritage site inscription,” she said. “We can now say that we have two World Heritage Sites in Cumbria – the Lake District and Hadrian’s Wall.”
Gill, who lives in Kirkby Lonsdale with her husband and two children, succeeds Ian Stephens who left this summer after 15 years as MD.
She joins Cumbria Tourism from the University of Cumbria, where she was Director of Marketing and Recruitment, and has previously worked for Lancaster City Council and the National Farmers’ Union, having started her 25-year career in communications as a journalist on the Lancaster Guardian.
Her marketing background should stand her in good stead, although local authority spending cuts have reduced Cumbria Tourism’s budget.
It is now dependent on its members, tourism businesses, for 95% of its £800,000 annual budget. While Gill would like more, she believes this reliance on the membership ensures Cumbria Tourism remains focused.
She said: “I think the fact that we are 95% funded by our members is a real accolade. It demonstrates that they have confidence in what we’re doing.
“We are the voice of the tourism sector. We have 2,500 members and a very important part of our role is about leading and representing, and being plugged in to the requirements and needs of the sector.
“A significant part of my job is going out and listening to our members, and talking to local authorities and other partners. It’s about being joined up.”
She points out that Cumbria Tourism has a “long and successful record” as a destination marketing organisation.
Despite a small budget in marketing terms, its website has attracted 19m views and it has an impressive 250,000 followers on social media.
One of the first items in the new MD’s in-tray is Brexit.
There is the uncertainty surrounding the status of migrant workers. What message is that sending out to people thinking of coming to work here?
A high proportion of the estimated 10,000 EU migrant workers in Cumbria are employed in the hospitality industry.
She said: “We are very concerned about Brexit and the effect it might have on the supply of EU workers. They play a really important role.
“We’ve already made representations to Lord Ashton of Hyde in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and we’re asking our members to identify the scale of this issue to support our lobbying.
“Then there is the uncertainty surrounding the status of migrant workers. What message is that sending out to people thinking of coming to work here?”
She will also be lobbying for infrastructure improvements.
Her wish list includes enhancing public transport to make it as “effective as it can be” and improving the digital infrastructure to ensure that all visitors have access to a high-speed broadband and a reliable mobile phone signal.
She is eagerly anticipating the start of scheduled passenger flights from Carlisle Airport, which are due to begin next year.
She said: “The airport is something Cumbria Tourism is extremely supportive of. It will create a whole new opportunity for the sector.”
Looking long term, she argues that tourism businesses will have to continually up their game to meet changing expectations.
She said: “Visitors in the future are going to have different demands. We can’t rest on our laurels. We have to and will continue to evolve. Expectations around the quality of the visitor experience and customer service are rising.”
Rob Johnston, Chief Executive of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, welcomed Gill’s appointment.
He said: “Tourism is a key sector for Cumbria but it faces major challenges. We’re encouraged that Gill has identified these and has a strategy in place.
“We look forward to working with her, particularly in ensuring that tourism businesses right across the county can seize the opportunities available.”© Cumbria Chamber of Commerce