Overseas visitors ‘key’ to boosting Cumbria’s tourism market

  • Annual Cumbria Leisure and Tourism Roundtable sheds light on latest trends
  • Changing nature of overseas visits now benefitting smaller tourism firms
  • Companies urged to make most of Lake District’s World Heritage status

Growth in overseas visitors is helping to boost tourism in Cumbria, but businesses in the region can’t afford to become complacent.

That was the verdict of attendees at a summit of influential business owners and tourism leaders held in the county for an annual ‘health check’ of the sector.

The annual Leisure and Tourism Roundtable debate, organised by MHA Moore and Smalley, also discussed issues such as funding, environmental issues and maximising the potential benefits of the recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status.

The panel heard how smaller tourism businesses are now benefiting from emerging markets like China and the Far East, with visitors from those regions now choosing to travel independently or in smaller groups.

Danny Thompson, owner of Oakbank House, a guest house in Bowness, said: “We didn’t win any market share of Far East visitors when the big coach parties were coming because we couldn’t host them. However, we’ve seen more people coming over as families or couples. This is great for smaller tourism businesses like ours. It has contributed to a phenomenal year for us.”

There were a range of views on UNESCO World Heritage Status. Sarah Swindley, director of the Lake District Foundation, encouraged businesses in the region to make the most of the ‘We Are The Lakes’, World Heritage toolkit.

She said: “A lot of work went into achieving World Heritage status, we now need to maximise the benefit of the status as a region and we’re keen to speak to all businesses about their ideas for doing this. The marketing toolkit is accessible to all and we’d urge people to use it, especially when targeting overseas visitors.”

Mike Dunbobbin, owner of Appleby Manor, said: “We’re in the early stages of World Heritage status. It’s a badge of quality and it’s certainly nice to have, but we now need to all work together to ensure it pays commercially. We need co-ordinated action to promote the status and encourage more visitors.”

Simon Berry, managing director of English Lakes Hotels, added: “The status is especially important for attracting visitors from emerging markets like the Far East and Australasia, as people there recognise it as something special. It will be a slow burn rather than a big bang, but I think it does mean the future is rosy for the region.”

On the issue of funding for property improvements, it was noted that the banks are supportive of the sector, but strong management teams remain most attractive for lenders.

Julian Troup, head of UK hotels at Colliers International, said: “Banks are currently as focussed on the business acumen of the borrower as they are on the actual business opportunity. Banks look at whether the debt can be serviced as they want to be in it for the long haul.”

Another factor discussed was the increased competition from online booking agents and the growing popularity of property rental sites like Airbnb.

Colin Johnson, head of the leisure and tourism team in Cumbria for MHA Moore and Smalley, said: “Airbnb is a big challenge to the whole sector, but especially for the smaller accommodation providers. There are around 100 properties available to rent in Windermere and Bowness alone, equivalent to another big hotel opening with cut price rooms.”

Staffing issues remain a challenge but staff turnover issues can be overcome by thinking creatively to attract and retain people, according to the panel.

Simon Berry, of English Lakes Hotels, said: “You have to create the best place to work. Flexible work patterns are part of the solution, we have all but done away with split shifts, we offer guaranteed weekends off and set good rates of pay.”

Brian Coulthwaite, of the Watermill Inn, Ings, said: “One of my sons is currently doing chef training, the other has just finished and is working full time, however not doing the 60 plus hours like in the old days and he shouldn’t have to. Chefs just don’t want to work seven days a week anymore. The industry must move on if it is going to attract staff.”

Nick Lancaster, managing director of Langdale Leisure, said: “I think the Brexit vote could be a threat in the supply of labour locally, although as long as I’ve been in the industry, there has been a shortage of chefs. I agree that flexibility on working hours is key to solving this. You can get highly effective people but in return you must invest time in them.”

Panellists at the roundtable were Simon Berry, English Lakes Hotels; Danny Thompson, Oakbank House; Julian Troup, Colliers International; Nick Lancaster, Langdale Leisure; Brian Coulthwaite, The Watermill; Mike Dunbobbin, Appleby Manor; Sarah Swindley, Lake District Foundation; Colin Johnson and Keith Widdicks, MHA Moore and Smalley.