Chris Brown looks down at the freight ships in the Mersey and says he knows all about the power of the European Capital of Culture award. As a hotelier in his native Glasgow, he experienced first-hand what the title can do.
Before Scotland's largest city won the accolade in 1990, Glaswegians knew they lived in a great city, but few outside agreed. It was perceived as grim, grimy and violent. "In those days, if you saw an international visitor, it was because they were lost," Brown quips.
Today Glasgow is "the coolest city in the UK", according to the latest issue of National Geographic Traveller. In 1989 it attracted some 320,000 overseas visitors and the following year this leapt to 450,000, a situation which prevails to the present day.
The increase in domestic tourism was more dramatic, with about 2.7 million tourists visiting annually compared with 1.6 million in 1989. Tourism chiefs put the increased interest down to the huge injection of cash, confidence and positive publicity that the City of Culture award (as it was then called) generated for Glasgow.
In 1999, Brown checked out of his hotel career to become director of operations for the Merseyside Partnership, a body responsible for marketing Liverpool. He recognised that Liverpool shared a similar history to Glasgow, and was determined to improve its image. As the home of the Beatles, the Grand National, and one of the most famous football clubs in the world, the city is internationally famous, but at home negative stereotypes have dogged its reputation.
Undoubtedly Liverpool has had it tough. Huge job losses contributed to a population drop from more than a million in the 1960s to 460,000 today. The Militant council during the Thatcher era left it isolated, as large banks refused to lend money to local businesses. History has left its mark, and at 6%, Liverpool's unemployment levels are twice the national average.
Consequently it qualifies for Objective One European Union funding. The effects of some £670m granted since 1993 are starting to show. Objective One money was used to entice Crowne Plaza and Marriott in 1998, and help kick-start a hotel investment boom.
About £15m of European money also helped the John Lennon International Airport to become the fastest-growing airport in Europe. Last year it handled 2.8 million passengers, a 26% increase on 2001, and 3.2 million are forecast this year. Population decline has now stabilised, says the city council, and city-centre living is rising fast.
As Stephen Roberts, general manager of the Crowne Plaza, puts it: "When the opportunity to come to Liverpool came up three years ago, like most people my initial thought was: ‘Liverpool? You must be joking.' But on arriving here, you can't help but be impressed by what already existed, and the cranes on the skyline. It was obvious the city was regenerating."
If Liverpool follows Glasgow's example, the Capital of Culture title will put paid to outdated prejudices. Brown believes there's the potential to make even more of the award than Glasgow could in 1990 because of the rise of low-cost flights and short breaks.
The euphoric scenes that greeted Liverpool's successful bid last month are now receding memories. Investors and city leaders are left with the hard slog of fulfilling their ambitious plans in time for 2008. These include a 10,000-seat arena and conference centre at the King's Dock. A £750m retail scheme, including two hotels, 143 shops, 360 apartments and numerous bars and restaurants, is set to transform the city centre. A cruise-liner terminal is due in 2005, and plans for the "Fourth Grace" - a controversial cloud-like building designed by Will Alsop - to add to Merseyside's famous skyline have been approved.
The rapid growth brings the worry of making sure that by 2008 the city isn't one huge building site. But the decision-makers are confident. "If you look at Barcelona winning the Olympics, they did 25 years' work in five because of the timeline," says Brown.
And that's why Capital of Culture 2008 is the icing on the cake for Liverpool. It already had great plans for the future. Now it's got a deadline to make sure they happen.
European Capital of Culture 2008
As European Capital of Culture, Liverpool will host a full calendar of events and exhibitions during 2008. These will reinforce the city's role as a regional shopping centre, a UK and European tourism destination, and its cultural heritage. Highlights include:
- The opening of a museum of comedy, which will launch an international festival of comedy.
- The opening of the World Discovery Centre at the Central Library, which will offer digital access to Europe's biggest public records archive and a link-up with America's Ellis Island visitor centre.
- A deaf and disabled arts festival.
- A festival of light involving 700 representatives from faith communities.
- The fifth Liverpool Biennial, featuring 50 international artists.
- The launch of an annual American and Irish festival, linking New York, Dublin and Liverpool
- The world's biggest stargazing event via the International Space & Astronomy Centre (opens 2004).
A report by ERM Economics, commissioned by Liverpool City Council, estimates the title will generate:
- An extra 1.7 million visitors and extra spending of more than £50m a year.
- £200m in increased tourism spend.
- Public and private sector investment of £2b over the next five years.
- 14,000 new jobs in the culture and tourism sectors.
Liverpool's steady hotel growth is now seeing a sudden burst of activity. A 162-bedroom Travel Inn Metro opened in April, a 130-bedroom Premier Lodge in May, the Racquet Club, a members' club with eight bedrooms, opened last month, the
55-bedroom Hope Street hotel opens in September, and a 200-bedroom Radisson SAS is due at the end of the year. A £14m, 150-bedroom Malmaison hotel and a 70-bedroom Alias hotel are planned for next year.
Melvin Gold of consultant PKF commented: "The market has been transformed in terms of supply by the opening of the Crowne Plaza and Marriott hotels five years ago. The city's occupancy 75.6%] is well above the regional average [69.3%]. But there are still challenges. The city does relatively poorly in room rate, which is £10 below the regional UK average. They've got to get room yields up by an increase in room rate. With the Radisson SAS opening shortly, there's the risk of oversupply in the short term for Liverpool, but the Capital of Culture in 2008 gives the city something to work towards."
How hotels have grown
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