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Sustainable tourism in Cambridge: How today’s decisions will impact the city tomorrow

Opinion | Philip Greer, who combines his role as commercial director of the University Arms and Parker’s Tavern with a seat on the Cambridge BID board, considers the future of tourism in the city.

University Arms view of library seating. Picture: Chris Roberts
University Arms view of library seating. Picture: Chris Roberts

As Cambridge’s oldest hotel, the University Arms has been part of the city landscape since 1834.

We’ve witnessed many changes over this time, though few as dramatic as those experienced during these past four years. Following an extensive refurbishment, we were proud to reopen our doors in August 2018.

We had no idea that we would be forced to close them again less than two years later, when the first lockdown was announced in March 2020.

There followed a boom in domestic tourism during the summer of 2020, then an extraordinary run of peaks and troughs during 2021 as the hotel opened and closed in response to Covid restrictions.

The silver lining amid such turmoil is that, as a city, we now have a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine how we want to engage with our global visitors over the years ahead. Cambridge will always be a destination that people from around the world want to visit and explore, and it’s no secret that the city’s popularity brings tourism-related opportunities and challenges in equal measure.

Welcoming international guests

As a hotel, we’ve always had a warm welcome for visitors from other nations. Back in 2019, international travellers represented 70 per cent of our business. We enjoyed particularly strong links with the US market (28 per cent) and China (22 per cent).

Covid turned this upside-down: by 2021 there were no Chinese tourists, US visitors made up only 19 per cent of our guests and the domestic market accounted for 60 per cent of our turnover.

We are slowly rebuilding our international market. So far this year, domestic visitors make up 50 per cent of turnover, with US guests at 33 per cent and other international tourists at 17 per cent. We estimate that it will take another two to three years before the figures return to pre-Covid levels. Other hotels paint a similar picture.

Making responsible decisions

University Arms Treatment rooms. Picture: Chris Roberts
University Arms Treatment rooms. Picture: Chris Roberts

As a city, the decisions we take (or don’t take) during this time of rebuilding will decide the future of tourism in Cambridge.

Over the next couple of years, the city could choose to take steps that prioritise overnight stays, for example. As a hotelier you would expect me to say this, but it’s important to note that city breaks don’t just benefit hotels: they boost the local economy more broadly, supporting retailers, restaurants and venues too.

And if we want to avoid the problems of over-tourism in the future, arguably now is the time to consider measures that would dissuade, for instance, the return of quick coach visits that see dozens of tourists spill out on to The Backs only to be collected an hour later.

The weekend of July 2-3 is another example that shows how the city would benefit from some form of tourism oversight.

It was graduation weekend for the University of Cambridge, and hotels were busy looking after the parents and families of graduating students. However, the Big Weekend festival was also scheduled for the same dates, which was such a shame when the city could have taken the opportunity to support tourism and manage visitor numbers across two great weekends!

University Arms. Picture: Chris Roberts
University Arms. Picture: Chris Roberts

Some simple, joined-up decisions could help to align events and tourist activities so that they promote a sustainable approach to tourism. But, at the moment, no one person or organisation has this brief.

Historically, tourism has been unwanted and largely ignored, with the result that it has grown without many checks and balances in place.

However, this is beginning to change. During the pandemic, Cambridge BID took over responsibility for the Visit Cambridge brand, in association with Cambridge City Council, Fitzwilliam Museum Enterprises and King’s College.

The remit for this new partnership includes the development of a Destination Management Plan (DMP) for the city, which will hopefully lead the way in creating a more strategic approach. We also have an agenda to stimulate leisure and business tourism.

Managing overnight stays

University Arms Terrace suite balcony. Picture: Chris Roberts
University Arms Terrace suite balcony. Picture: Chris Roberts

Over the past few years there has been, and continues to be, a huge increase in the supply of hotel beds in the city – including plans for a Premier Inn at The Grafton and aparthotel above the Park Street car park.

We enjoy a broad range of accommodation types in and around Cambridge, from these budget options right through to our own high-end, luxury offer. This diversity is important, because we want to provide something for everyone, but it is only sustainable if overall demand for hotel beds grows too.

If we can’t fill the available hotel rooms, because nobody thought about whether or not we needed so many, then we risk dragging room rates down towards the lower end of the price bracket.

University Arms exterior. Picture: Chris Roberts
University Arms exterior. Picture: Chris Roberts

While this will benefit visitors – who wouldn’t want to pay as little as possible for their short break? – it could reduce the number of higher-end hotels in the city over time.

This issue is further highlighted because the corporate business market is not yet bouncing back to pre-pandemic levels.

This may be partly due to the types of businesses that dominate in Cambridge: tech businesses are using more of a hybrid model with fewer office visits; the pharma sector is so close to Covid research that decisions around risk may be impacting travel, perhaps more so than in other industries. We’re also seeing very short lead times for conference and event bookings, as people still lack the confidence to book months in advance.

Looking ahead

Philip Greer, director of sales and marketing at the University Arms Hotel and Parker’s Tavern on Parker’s Piece
Philip Greer, director of sales and marketing at the University Arms Hotel and Parker’s Tavern on Parker’s Piece

As we approach autumn and winter, we are actively recruiting to fill new roles at the hotel. We hope that demand for our new treatment rooms will stay strong among both domestic and international visitors, though we also anticipate that cost-of-living challenges may translate into reduced budgets for weddings and special Birthday dinners.

More broadly, Cambridge BID will continue to support Cambridge businesses by promoting reasons to visit the city, such as late-night shopping and the Christmas lights switch-on.

A greater focus on measuring and monitoring visitor data will help to inform and influence future decision-making, as we try to encourage a sustainable return to tourism for everyone’s benefit.

Cambridge BID board members are committed to viewing the city as a whole and creating a world-class experience for all who visit, live and work here.

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