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The big changes in Cambridge's £2 billion tourism industry

Emma Thornton of Visit Cambridge, in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Emma Thornton of Visit Cambridge, in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Visit Cambridge and Beyond CEO's call to arms

It’s too easy for the lucky souls who call this area home to forget just how fortunate we are to live here. And we need to explain to visitors to the region that it simply can’t be fully appreciated in just a day.

That’s the message from Emma Thornton, the chief executive of Visit Cambridge and Beyond (VCB), a new destination management organisation launched in February this year.

She led the transformation of Cambridge City Council’s tourism service into a business-led partnership, promoting Cambridge and the surrounding area as a visitor destination and developing a model which reduced the cost of tourism to the council from £450,000 in 2007 to £95,000 in 2015/16.

“Since the 2008 recession, local authorities have had to reduce their budgets significantly and look closely at their priorities,” Emma said.

“Through adversity came an opportunity; visitors aren’t interested in geographical or political boundaries, they just want to come to a destination and hopefully have a really positive experience. So our key strategic objective is about developing a narrative about why people should stay longer and explore further.

“I often spend leisure time here because it’s a great city. We’re very lucky and we take it for granted all too often. We are very fortunate that we have a vibrant visitor economy but the real challenge is that we are perceived as a day-trip destination.

“Our name is Visit Cambridge and Beyond but our brand is ‘Cambridge, Take Your Time’ and that was very deliberate. The ‘Take Your Time’ slogan is a call to arms and aims to convey that if you’re coming to the city with the perception that you can just do it in a day, we’re telling you that you can’t. If you really want to explore the area you need a minimum of three days, and probably a week. “

Emma said that although there is so much to do in Cambridge alone, the key to getting people to stay longer is highlighting all there is to do in the surrounding areas; the city then benefits from longer stays and the surrounding attractions get footfall too. VCB is built on this win-win structure and mindset.

“It’s an exciting time,” Emma said. “The strength of the model is that the governance structure brings together representation from across the visitor economy and across the area to develop a shared vision and strategy to deliver on this.”

The VCB board includes representation from across the Cambridge tourism spectrum including local authorities, Cambridge BID, Cambridge University, independent retailers and hotels as well as interests outside of Cambridge.

Emma says the launch of VCB is the result of an evolution that has been several years in the making, and the focus moving forward is partnership working based on best practices nationally.

Emma said: “Tourism is a discretionary service and previously the focus was very much on management rather than promotion.”

One example of this is the city centre walking tours, initially developed with managing the movement of visitors around the city in mind, avoiding large numbers congregating in popular areas such as King’s Parade. Income from the tours is now an important part of the new business model.

“Our model is quite exceptional as we are almost totally reliant on earned income,” reveals Emma. “The level of public subsidy we receive is about four per cent.”

“We are now a not-for-profit organisation and moving forward any profits generated will be reinvested into delivering improved tourism services.”

As well as walking tours and bus tours, VCB earns income on third party ticket sales for punting operators, bus tours, coach tours and other partners as well as delivering a business membership scheme for retailers, restaurants, bars, hotels, bed & breakfast providers and attractions.

VCB is also teaming up with Conference Cambridge to develop a comprehensive service for businesses looking for venues in Cambridge and the surrounding area.

Emma said: “We are committed to working closely with other business networks and partnerships in Cambridge and the surrounding area to make the area a great place to live, work and invest, and to improve the promotion of the areas around Cambridge in order to encourage visitors to stay longer and explore further.”

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