Cambridge BID: We'll promote city as region's premier destination
Ian Sandison, chairman of Cambridge BID, outlines what it will do if members vote to re-elect it for another five-year term.
In 2015, Cambridge had 7.4 million visitors – but only 850,000 of these stayed overnight. The majority see Cambridge as a day trip destination, and that’s a problem for many businesses and is something that really needs to change. High footfall, as most businesses will tell you, doesn’t necessarily mean cash in the till; it really doesn’t. And many BID businesses, located on the more peripheral streets, only ever see a small halo effect of the millions of visitors who visit King’s Parade.
But while businesses would like more customers, our city doesn’t necessarily need more visitors. So, part of our focus in the second term will be working closely with Visit Cambridge & Beyond to ensure we are deriving more value from the visitor economy by attracting visitors who want to dwell longer, socialise, spend leisure time, shop, do business and, most importantly, spend money in our city.
To this end, we will be promoting Cambridge as the premier heritage, cultural and shopping destination across the wider region – which could involve incorporating London, Norwich, Ipswich and Peterborough – through, in the first instance, innovative advertising campaigns and promotions. Cambridge recently came out top of the June 2017 Retail Vitality Index, over Westfield London, Knightsbridge, Chelsea, Bluewater, Richmond, Canary Wharf and Bath – and this will certainly be helpful.
We are also looking to expand the BID area geographically to connect the station locale to the historic core. The station area incorporates larger businesses such as the UK headquarters for Microsoft Research, a new office for Amazon as well as a significant professional services sector. This means there will also be a focus on attracting business visitors to our city – supporting the knowledge economy in Cambridge as the place to make contacts, spark new ideas and create new businesses. People do this in coffee bars and restaurants as well as in the night time economy – and Cambridge BID does a lot to support these businesses that facilitate this sort of activity.
We also want to focus on the people who choose to come into town ‘just to do stuff’, who are distinctly different from those who are ‘needing to shop’. These people are looking to experience what the city can bring them: sociability, relaxation and creativity via something they can’t get at work or at home. But, of course, if they are coming into the city to enjoy a nice meal and drink with a friend, they’ll invariably have a nose round the nearby shops afterwards. So, the cultural experience on offer in the high street can also present a positive knock-on benefit to the surrounding bricks and mortar retail stores.
Visitor experience is one key area we are keen to expand in a big way. I see huge scope for building on the success of what we have already achieved with some really bold and dynamic events to bring the city alive in a fresh and creative way.
One project we are looking at involves Wild In Art, the UK’s leading producer of mass participation public art events. This organisation has already been behind a number of grand-scale municipal art installations.
Last year, they were behind The Big Read Bookbench trail, which involved thousands of young people from more than 140 schools and community groups in the West Midlands decorating 175 book benches with designs inspired by their favourite novels, comics, poems and prose, and then showcasing them all round Birmingham.
Wild In Art has been behind other projects in Manchester and Lincoln this year – and what especially appeals to us is the way that their projects bring together the office, retail, resident and visitor communities.
We envisage something like The Big Read Bookbench project working very well in Cambridge as it is an educated, erudite city – and we are already in early-stage discussions with the company to deliver something similar, probably in 2020 since they take a long time to plan.
Last year, we set the vision for the night market. We communicated that vision to the right people, got the businesses behind it, and delivered it in partnership with the city council. The resounding success of the project led to it being shortlisted for the Night Time Economy Management Award at the ATCM Awards 2017, The Association of Town & City Management National Awards showcase. We have now successfully delivered three of these community-spirited events through the summer with one more to come – and will be looking to expand and build on their success next year too. They have been incredibly popular and well attended and I would love to do something monthly – although it may be challenging to do something in January when it is cold and damp.
The summer events, however, could be expanded to run in conjunction with other cultural festivals such as the Jazz Festival, the Folk Festival, the Science Festival and the Festival of Ideas. As well as showcasing their content in the market square, we would look to animate other public spaces in the city too, such as the station area, the Grafton quarter and even Quayside by the river, which is a deceptively large area.
Another thing we are considering is whether it would be feasible to close the top floor of one of the city centre car parks – say, Grafton East or Grafton West – and introduce a city centre food park there. Not all projects will work in every space but it’s important to be spreading the activity out and trying to animate as many public spaces as possible.
Come Christmas 2018 (our second term would start in April 2018), we would be looking to build on our popular Christmas Lights ‘Big Switch-On’ event by holding a similar event in the station area too. The ‘Switch-On’ weekend could be timed to start in the station area on a Friday when office workers are leaving work, thereby increasing after-work dwell time – and then we’d stagger a series of events over the weekend (as, in fact, already happens) building up to the main switch-on event on Sunday evening.
Dwell time is a key theme. Hotel capacity within the city is increasing so that more people can now stay longer in Cambridge. This year has seen the opening of both the Ibis and the upmarket Tamburlaine – and the iconic University Arms Hotel will open next spring. More and more of the colleges are, additionally, coming round to the idea of becoming professional B&B accommodation providers outside of term time. The new domus bursar at Sidney Sussex, for example – who now oversees their conference business – was previously employed as the head of hospitality at Covent Garden Opera House. Now that’s a very different background to what a college bursar would previously have had – but there’s been a complete change in mindset.
In attracting a more appropriate demographic to the city, it’s important also to provide a better immediate experience by enhancing the online and digital platform for Cambridge. The new Visit Cambridge & Beyond App enables visitors to buy tickets for punting or admission to certain colleges online. It’s the first step in digitising some of the experiences we have on offer. Working with Visit Cambridge, we intend to build on the functionality of the current online platform so that, as well as our pocket maps and digital guides being available for download, there will also be a choice of walking tours and cultural tours on offer. And we will also be working with other partners to digitally animate existing events such as the annual Cambridge Cocktail Weekend, which happens every August Bank Holiday.
The work that Connecting Cambridgeshire is doing in rolling out a free public wifi network in a growing range of city centre locations will also make it easier to access both the available information and enhance the digital experience.
We will also continue to be a strong voice for business: the city faces considerable challenges in the near term with congestion, air quality, skills and business costs all of concern. We will use the close links we have developed with the city council, the Greater Cambridge Partnership (formerly City Deal) and the new Combined Authority, led by the new elected mayor, to ensure the wishes of businesses that are driving the local economy are clearly heard.
Cambridge is a world-class city. There’s no doubt about that. Our role at Cambridge BID is to pay attention to the needs of all those who visit, live and work here, to ensure that this global city continues to charm and engage people in equal measure in the years ahead.
• Members in the Cambridge BID (Business Improvement District) area will vote in October on whether the organisation should be elected for a second five-year term.