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Could a seaside tsar return Britain's coastal resorts to a golden age?

25 October 2016
Could a seaside tsar return Britain's coastal resorts to a golden age?

Many of Britain's formerly vibrant seaside towns have lost their lustre in recent years. Will the suggestion of a seaside tsar help them recapture their glory days? Janet Harmer, Neil Gerrard and Katherine Price report

"I do like to be beside the seaside," proclaimed the classic music hall song of the early 1900s, the early heyday of the British seaside town. The grand hotels of that era still perch on clifftops along our coastline, testaments to a golden age, but many are fading and crumbling and British coastal tourism is commonly seen to be on the wane.

In fact, coastal hospitality and leisure is still growing, but according to the findings of Coastal Tourism 2016, a comprehensive report on tourism along Britain's 11,000 miles of coastline, it is growing at a rate slower than the national averages.

Historically, seaside tourism has been the largest sector of the domestic market, but in recent decades it has suffered. In England, domestic and day trip coastal tourism is now collectively valued at £8b to the economy, representing 31% of domestic overnight holiday trips and 8% of tourism day visits. A relatively meagre 15% of international visitors make it to the English coast, valued at £927m per annum.

In some locations the situation has been described as dire, with former thriving hotels and restaurants closing, adding to wider socio-economic problems involving high levels of unemployment, drug use and despair.

The Gallivant at Camber Sands

The challenges for coastal tourism include significant staffing issues surrounding recruitment, engagement and retention and with skills gaps for chefs and housekeepers being specifically problematic.

However, while there has been a huge shift in the profile of coastal tourism, it is not all bad news. Grand properties in places including Blackpool, Scarborough, Cleethorpes, Rhyl and Hastings may have once dominated the focus of a seaside break, but today it is the burgeoning boutique and lifestyle hotels in less populated areas - such as the Pig on the Beach in Studland Bay, Dorset; the Scarlet hotel in Mawgan Porth, Cornwall; and the Gallivant in Camber in East Sussex - which are leading the way.

These new businesses are not dependent on the vagaries of the British weather and are a world away from those hotels that traditionally welcomed families for a two-week bucket and spade holiday. Instead, they are likely to provide a haven from city life for a short break, maybe two or three times a year.

In his recent report, The UK Independent Hotel Sector Today, hotel consultant Melvin Gold highlighted the new breed of seaside hotels as being "often supported by spa, leisure or food and beverage facilities that mitigate weather and seasonal dependence".

In order to replicate the kind of success being achieved by visionary entrepreneurs in creating niche, independent businesses up and down the country, help within traditional resorts is needed on a large scale - hence, the British Hospitality Association's (BHA) announcement in July that it was calling on the government to appoint a 'seaside tsar' to help revive the economies of struggling coastal towns.

In essence, the BHA wants the government to put in place a seven-point action plan (see panel), which will include a reduction in tourism VAT to encourage coastal businesses to invest in themselves and kick-start recovery.

BHA chief executive Ufi Ibrahim said that the kind of "burning injustice of poverty, race, class and health" that Theresa May pledged to tackle on becoming prime minister can be found in coastal resorts across the country and therefore should add weight to the call for a "meaningful investment strategy" to "drive real change in these communities".

The Pig on the Beach

Coastal Communities Fund

Ibrahim has welcomed the emphasis placed on coastal tourism in the prime minister's new tourism strategy, which highlights delivering over 6,000 training places and apprenticeships in seaside towns by March 2017 through the Coastal Communities Fund (CCF).

Set up in 2012 by the Department for Communities & Local Government, the CCF awards funding through rounds of grants to boost sustainable jobs, investment and growth. Beneficiaries include private companies as well as local authorities, coastal community teams and social enterprises. So far, grants have been awarded to 218 organisations to the value of £125m, which has been forecast to attract more than £240m of additional funds to coastal areas. A further £90m will be available through the CCF from 2017 to 2021.

One beneficiary of the CCF is the four-AA-star, 47-bedroom Carbis Bay hotel in St Ives, Cornwall, which received £525,000, following the owners' own investment in the hotel of £5m, and it plans to regenerate its beachfront location to include the addition of a watersports centre, restaurant and conference room.

Despite the steps already being taken to put improvements in places, the BHA wants to see much more being done. Will the association's call for more help work, and is it what coastal hospitality businesses really need?

Gold is sceptical about the appointment of a seaside tsar. "Alongside the emergence of niche hotels, which don't rely on seasonality for business, much of the seaside is a challenge," he says. "There are many very dated hotels that are not fit for purpose. Unless a tsar is armed with cash, I'm not sure what he or she can do."

However, chef-proprietor Bryn Williams, who operates his eponymous 60-seat restaurant in Colywn Bay in North Wales, welcomes the support that a seaside tsar could bring to coastal communities, with the caveat that any appointee must work hand in hand with local communities.

Williams' restaurant is located in a £4m community building that also provides meeting rooms, a café and a watersports centre. It is part of the wider £10m Porth Eirias regeneration project, overseen by Conwy Council. Williams praised Conwy Council for thinking outside the box in working with local businesses and understanding what visitors to the town want as it works on regenerating the area. While he believes that beaches will always be a draw for people, there needs to be more decent-quality attractions, which Colwyn Bay now has, to make a difference. In particular, he says, the council has created "a lovely, clean, tidy beach with good parking and good facilities", including free Wi-Fi, which supports restaurants and other tourism operators.

As a result, Williams says Colwyn Bay was packed over the summer, with his restaurant serving an average of 1,000 people a week. In his view, the work of a seaside tsar would be an extension of what Conwy Council is already doing. While he recognises that there may be a central person overseeing any seaside project, it is imperative that there is also local knowledge. "There would have to be someone different looking after North Wales, South Wales, Devon, Cornwall, and so on," he adds.

Bryn Williams at Porth Eirias is one of many coastal hospitality businesses that has benefited from the Welsh government's Tourism Investment Support Scheme, receiving £135,000 to help fit out its kitchen and front of house. The creation of destination restaurants, which will bring in people from far and wide, has been a specific focus of the funding. Dylan's restaurant - another beneficiary of the fund - received £140,000 to enable it to open in a Grade II-listed building in Criccieth, joining a sister business in Menai Bridge.

Bryn Williams at Porth Eirias

Loss of EU funding

These figures, however, are a drop in the ocean compared with the funding that many coastal resorts have received from the EU. Wales, for example, has recently been awarded £27.7m of European money to go towards £85m being spent on 11 strategic tourism projects, the majority of which are coastal. Saundersfoot, for instance, on the South Wales coast, will receive £15m to help establish it as one of the best small coastal destinations in the UK.

The concern now, of course, is that as the UK moves towards Brexit, what will EU funding, which has benefited many resorts, be replaced with? Gerwyn Evans, head of tourism development for the Welsh government, recognises that while the CCF is welcomed, the appointment of a seaside tsar would help fight the corner for an area that can sometimes be forgotten.

"It all comes down to quality, and if you invest in the right quality and the right product, then people will travel to the destination," he explains.

"It's about understanding what USP there is for each resort. I think it's really important that you tell the story of each destination and build on its strengths, whether it is water sports, the beach, history or culture."

Blackpool, undoubtedly, is the resort more than any other that is regarded as the epitome of the British seaside destination, with its family-friendly images of donkeys on the beach during the day and illuminations on the promenade at nights. But in recent years, deep-rooted negative perceptions have sprung up, led by the market the town has built up in wild stag and hen parties, while at the same time increasingly suffering from social deprivation as many accommodation providers have shut up shop.

Blackpool is believed to have more hotels and guest houses on the market than any other UK coastal resort, and many are not shifting. It is believed to be in the hundreds.

The Scarlet hotel

Tom O'Malley, who looks after the North West for Christie & Co, says: "Hotels are not selling because the market was badly affected by the credit crunch and there is just so much on the market. Supply is severely outweighing demand and many of the hotels are very run down."

However, the town is fighting back with the local council's £2.5m Destination Blackpool marketing plan for 2015-17, which aims "to improve the standard of our facilities, tackle the benefit culture that blights the resort and resolve the over- supply of poor accommodation".

The latest figures show that the current supply of 68,000 bedrooms in Blackpool is falling, while the total number of tourism visits to the town has risen to more than 17 million annually. Improvements now under way in the town include the £200m transformation of the seafront involving a series of dramatic steps down to the sea and the creation of six headlands, along with the tramway extension from the promenade to Blackpool North railway station, development of new branded hotels in the town centre and South Beach, and the creation of new bespoke conference facilities at the Winter Gardens.

The highest-rated hotel in the town - the four-AA-star, 180-bedroom Imperial - is also expected to benefit from further improvements. Currently on the market for £10.5m, along with other properties within Lone Star's Hotel Collection portfolio, it is thought that a new owner will add to the £1.5m that has been spent on the hotel's public areas over the past two years. With the hotel due to mark its 150th anniversary next year, it is hoped that new investment will add to the celebrations.

Imperial hotel Blackpool

An image overhaul

Alison Gilmore, the Imperial's general manager, believes that the steps that have already been taken to upgrade the image of Blackpool, along with a strong year for domestic tourism, have helped drive up profits at the hotel by 20%. The older visitors and families who were the traditional guests are now increasingly being replaced by younger couples attending concerts and other cultural activities.

"The biggest challenge we have in Blackpool is in changing perceptions among people who have never been here," she explains. "Conference agents often struggle to sell Blackpool as a destination; the general conversion rate of 56% increases to 85% following a site visit."

Despite the steps already being undertaken by Blackpool Council to implement a sea change by improving the image of the town and the quality of its tourism, Gilmore would welcome the additional help that a seaside tsar would bring. "It is a massive task, but anything that will raise the profile of seaside destinations can only be a good thing," she says. "Whatever focus it takes, the most important thing is that it must have longevity."

It remains to be seen whether or not the government will appoint a seaside tsar. Certainly, what is clear is that vast sums of money will be required to tackle the widespread issues that continue to impact negatively on resorts that have not already benefited from EU funding, the CCF or other public bodies.

Many of the most successful regeneration programmes have arisen where there has been a partnership between the private and public sectors. In Margate, Kent, for example, the renaissance of the town that was kick-started by the development of the Turner Contemporary art gallery - now run as an independent charitable trust, having been initially funded by Kent County Council, Arts Council England and the South East England Development Agency - was later followed by the transformation of the Old Town, which received joint funding from public and private money.

More private money being invested in some of the former grand hotels that once graced the promenades of many coastal resorts is certainly a step forward in revitalising those towns that have lost their lustre. The news in August that Andrew Brownsword Hotels had snapped up the 152-bedroom Imperial hotel in Torquay - once one of the UK's most iconic seaside hotels and another former Hotel Collection property- was music to the ears of both locals and hospitality observers far and wide.

In recent years, the Imperial has declined from the glamorous hotel it once was, both as the focus of glittering local events and the location of a two-week family holiday, with the same guests returning year after year. As the traditional guests who once stayed so regularly disappeared and subsequent owners of the Victorian property failed to invest in maintaining the hotel to its former regal standards, the Imperial lost its status, with the AA dropping its rating from five to four stars.

Now it is hoped that Andrew Brownsword's track record as a quality operator with deep pockets who has continually invested in the likes of Gidleigh Park and Bath Priory, which form part of his 14-strong portfolio, will ensure the hotel will be returned to its former glory.

Brownsword is no doubt aware of the potential that lies ahead for coastal tourism. Hopefully, individuals like him, together with the government, will follow suit.

Carbis Bay hotel

Case study: all change on the Kentish coast

The trajectory that the east Kent coast towns have followed over the years is little different to that of many of their counterparts up and down the country. Whereas areas like Margate were much-loved beach resorts as long as 250 years ago, they gradually fell on hard times in the latter part of the 20th century.

Further down the coast, author Charles Dickens would holiday regularly in the bustling port of Folkestone. Such was his enthusiasm for it that he described it as "one of the prettiest watering places on the south coast. The situation is delightful, the air is delicious, and the breezy hills and downs, carpeted with wild thyme and decorated with millions of wild flowers are, on the faith of a pedestrian, perfect."

By the early 2000s, you would find very few people to offer such a glowing description of the area as it fell into economic decline. In 1998, the BBC reported, it was the least profitable place to do business in England. But now Folkestone, Margate, Ramsgate, Hythe, Broadstairs and other towns are all undergoing something of a renaissance.

No doubt this is helped by the high-speed rail link to London and the white heat of the London property market pushing more people out of the capital (Margate and Ramsgate were in Strutt & Parker's 2016 list of the top 10 seaside towns with the biggest percentage rise in house prices).

But there have been concerted efforts on behalf of local authorities like Shepway District Council, and local business figures like Sir Roger De Haan (former chairman and chief executive of Folkestone-based Saga Group) to regenerate the area and encourage more tourism.

Certainly, Denise Vas, general manager of the Hythe Imperial hotel in Hythe, has seen the benefit of those changes. At one time managed by AccorHotels under the Mercure brand, the hotel pulled away in August 2015 to act as an independently run hotel within the Classic British Hotels marketing consortium.

The Hythe Imperial hotel

The four-AA-star Victorian hotel has enjoyed considerable investment to restore it to its former glory including a refurbishment of the rooms, the renovation of the Imperial Ballroom, and the recent launch of a MoÁ«t & Chandon Champagne bar to name just a few initiatives.

Business is good. Revpar is up by £8 and average room rate is up £19 against the prior year.

"Visit Kent figures for Folkestone and Hythe for 2014 show that we had 57,000 visitors. However, in 2015 that rose to 89,000, which is the highest in three years, and if anything, we see that growing," says Vas.

"These figures reflect the work of the Folkestone development team in partnership with Shepway District Council. It is due to extensive monetary input into Folkestone's Harbour Arm and the surrounding areas. We are going to see more housing developments in Hythe as well as another in Dymchurch, and we have an excellent relationship with Michael Lyons, the mayor of Hythe who, along with Shepway District Council, is helping to lift tourism and bring in more people, whether that is from London and the surrounding cities or from abroad."

A weakened pound has helped in that respect. Visitors from overseas have more money to spend. East Kent is popular with German tourists in particular - 19% of visitors from abroad to the Shepway area are German.

Vas is in favour of the idea of a seaside tsar to support coastal towns and suggests that other areas look to Shepway as a model for how to drive things forward. But she is also in no doubt that money is required to make any strategy a success, as well as more training of the local workforce in hospitality skills, as education in coastal towns is sometimes poor.

"I think the most significant challenge facing all destination marketing on the coast is funding, as local councils are not provided with sufficient budget to drive the business and regeneration area. Coastal tourism has been valued at more than £8b and I think the largest market segment, the domestic market, is very undervalued," she adds.

The hotel is working to understand where its guests are coming from and is targeting more domestic overnighters passing through the area. A total of 935,000 people come through the area each year, but only 365,000 of them are staying in hotels, says the hotel's sales and marketing manager Theresa Swift.

James Thomas, owner of the Royal Harbour hotel in Ramsgate, would like to see the government drop the rate of VAT for hospitality businesses to give them a hand.

He too has seen an "enormous interest" in this part of the world from visitors in the last two to three years, and encouraging growth in his business over recent times. Five years ago revpar at his hotel was £40.99. In five years it has risen by 33%. The average room rate in the same period has gone up by 17.5%.

"What would really help is to reduce VAT to level the playing field with our European partners, whether we're in Europe or not. For every £100 we get, £16.66 goes to the government. There's a huge movement to try to get that reduced. I think that would help employment as well as investment," he says.

The BHA's action plan

  • Appoint a seaside tsar to co-ordinate a coherent response across all departments
  • Establish coastal action groups to develop a co-ordinated response and investment strategy
  • Create a progressive tax environment, including a reduction in tourism VAT
  • Create Coastal Enterprise Zones to incentivise investment
  • Invest in critical infrastructure and improve broadband, rail and road connections, and protect against rising sea levels
  • Improve education and training provision for young people and adults
  • Support local authorities to tackle social issues and housing problems

The potential for tourism

  • With only 15% of international visitors to the country visiting the English coast, there is a huge opportunity to grow overseas visitors
  • The average length of a seaside break is 4.1 nights, creating opportunities around the short-break market
  • While families still account for the largest proportion of visitors to the seaside (41%), empty nesters (over-55s) - currently accounting for 33% of the market - tend to be higher spenders and represent a key growth opportunity
  • Pre-nesters (under-35s) account for only 11% of visitors to the seaside, providing hospitality operators the opportunity to make a concerted effort to attract this market
  • More than a third of all seaside breaks are taken in July and August, opening up the opportunity for businesses to extend their seasonal offer

Source: 2016 Coastal Tourism: Summary report of challenges and opportunities for growth by National Coastal Tourism Academy

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