Gary Verity, Welcome to Yorkshire

1 April 2014

In a few months, the 2014 Tour de France cycle race will depart from Leeds. At the end of last year, Lonely Planet declared Yorkshire as one of the top destinations in the world to visit. Does the rest of the UK have something to learn from the region’s marketing success?

"Yorkshire 2014 is not the Yorkshire of 1974,” says Welcome to Yorkshire’s chief executive Gary Verity. “Things have moved on.” The clichés about the north of England being all flat caps and whippets are now opposed by the gleaming new shopping arcades in Leeds, the winter gardens in Sheffield, and the fact that Hull is gearing up to become the European city of culture in 2017.

The region has also proclaimed itself the European capital of sculpture, with the opening of the Hepworth Wakefield art gallery and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, as well as Leeds’ Henry Moore Institute. 

And Yorkshire now has more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else in the UK outside London – it was already responsible for brewing one-third of the nation’s beer. 

In fact, Verity – who is a sheep farmer in his spare time – believes that Yorkshire has all the necessary ingredients to successfully attract visitors: shopping, culture, food and drink, national parks, coastline, castles and stately homes, sporting grounds for cricket and horse-racing, and good transport links to London and the Continent. He just doesn’t have much of a budget to shout about it.

“We can be as creative as the bank account allows,” he says. Welcome to Yorkshire has less than £2m a year to spend on marketing. “We get no government funding, so all the money is from the aggregation of membership fees, the support of corporate Yorkshire, and some support from forward-thinking local authorities.”

Does that mean the UK doesn’t take tourism as seriously as it should? “It takes it more seriously than it might have done in the past, especially because of London 2012,” he says. “But if you compare it with Australia, with a fraction of the UK’s population, we don’t take it anything like as seriously as we could.

You could argue that tourism is more important to the Australian economy, but that’s the chicken and the egg, isn’t it?”

Tourism is Yorkshire’s third-biggest sector, worth more than £7bn to the economy each year. “Probably the more significant stat is that 250,000 jobs rely on it,” says Verity. And although the region weathered the credit crunch relatively well – capturing more of the domestic travel market – the weather itself made 2012 a particularly tough year, he says.

Tour de force

Considering the importance of tourism to the region, and the lack of budget to push it, winning the Tour de France cycle race’s Grand Départ has been a profile-raising triumph for Welcome to Yorkshire. 

But even here, Verity had to put in the winning bid without government backing. “That’s now water under the bridge, but it certainly didn’t make our job any easier at the time,” he says. 

However, things have improved in terms of government support, Verity adds. “We have some good supporters in government now. This will be the biggest event to hit the north of England; the biggest event to ever happen in Yorkshire.”

And, as the third stage of the race runs between Cambridge and London to get the riders back to France, it’s not just Yorkshire that will benefit.

Verity is expecting the tourism legacy to be “very strong indeed”. Before he met Business Voice in Welcome to Yorkshire’s offices in the regenerated Holbeck area near Leeds railway station, he had been talking to an official from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. 

She had said that in all overseas surveys, perceptions of the UK fall down on how friendly it is and on its countryside. Two days of television coverage of the Yorkshire Peaks and Dales will go some way to addressing the latter concern.

In addition, cycling is popular in mainland Europe, Yorkshire’s largest target market – and  the race route will be permanently waymarked, so enthusiastic cyclists can follow it for years to come.

Business benefits

Verity adds that the Tour will also be great for business. Welcome to Yorkshire has already hosted more than 100 roadshows, talking to 10,000 businesses about what the opportunities are. “A lot of Yorkshire businesses are looking to engage, and in innovative and creative ways,” he says.

Headline support is coming from supermarket Asda, which is sponsoring the Tour Makers – a volunteer initiative that aims to repeat the success of the Games Makers at the London Olympics – and from Yorkshire Water, which is supporting the Yorkshire Festival – 100 days of art and culture leading up to the race. 

UK Trade & Investment is involved, too. “We are working closely with UKTI as well, to make sure businesses across the UK have the platform to make the most of this,” says Verity. 

There are other, less direct, gains to be had. Verity was keen to bid for the Tour in the first place because he knew it would make a difference to the region’s confidence – as happened in Manchester after the Commonwealth Games in 2002.

Positioning “Yorkshire as a modern and vibrant place to visit, live in or invest in” makes it easier for businesses to attract and retain staff, he says. “They will want to eat in the same pubs and restaurants, visit theme parks, walk in the national parks.

If those places are boarded-up, crumbling down, third-division, it’s not great. Businesses can see we are all in this together.”

He welcomes the corporate support that Welcome to Yorkshire gets as a result, but returns to his point about government funding. “I’ve always said the support to the sector should be on a match-funded basis,” he says, adding that joined-up thinking and working together would strengthen the outcome for the region. 

And he believes the visitor economy should be better valued as a route to rebuilding the UK’s economy as a whole and rebalancing it from south to north. “There are not many other sectors where you could join as a young person and be a general manager by the time you’re in your mid-20s,” he says. 

The visitor economy has certainly got Verity hooked. Before joining the organisation five years ago, his career had spanned 18 years with Royal Insurance and two years in Bradford & Bingley’s retail-property-services division, as well as stints as managing director of Prontaprint and Kall Kwik, and at Johnsons Cleaners. 

But ask him what his favourite part about Yorkshire is and he replies simply: “Home”.   
He also jokes that the people in Yorkshire are “generous of spirit – even if not in kind all the time”.

£7bn - Value of tourism in Yorkshire & Humber

0.25m -Tourism employees

£100m+ - Predicted value of Tour de France to Yorkshire

216m - Number of visits each year