Grand designs underway in Harrogate

PUBLISHED: 01:17 13 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:33 20 February 2013

Grand designs underway in Harrogate

Grand designs underway in Harrogate

Harrogate's status as an international destination is about to get bigger and better, reports Chris Titley Photographs by Joan Russell

Despite its failings, the National Health Service is now considered one of Britains most treasured assets. But not everyone in Britain saw the birth of the NHS as a reason for unalloyed joy. For Harrogate the new service was a threat as much as an opportunity. This was a town built on health tourism. People travelled from miles around to take its curative waters.

From Victorian times on, it thrived as a spa town, building beautiful esplanades and parks on the back of the boom.

Then, in 1948, the NHS arrived. Peoples understanding of health and medicine improved. Access to health facilities became free at the point of delivery, said Nigel Avison, director of development services at Harrogate Borough Council.

That provided a huge kick to Harrogate. There was no longer quite the same reason for people to come to the town. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Harrogates tourism trade plummeted.

Town leaders got together to seek an answer to the crisis. And they came up with a brilliant idea to bring conferences, exhibitions and special events to the town. That would fill the hotels abandoned by the spa seekers. And so Harrogate became one of the pioneers of business tourism.

Its experience in this field can be seen by the fact that the Home and Gift Show will celebrate its 50th anniversary in Harrogate this July. Next year the council-owned Harrogate International Centre (HIC) will chalk up 30 years of hosting events, the first of which was the 1982 Eurovision Song Contest compered by Terry Wogan and Jan Leeming.

But even somewhere as established as Harrogate is not immune to the wider financial crisis. Companies view exhibitions and conferences as discretionary spending, to be cut when times are hard. The knock-on effect was seen in April, when 37 out of 90 staff at the HIC were made redundant. Last year was tough, Nigel agrees, and this one is expected to be difficult too.

Ten per cent of Harrogates workforce is employed directly or indirectly by business tourism, which is said to bring in 180 million to the local economy. Under the HIC umbrella are venues like the Sun Pavilion and The Royal Hall, then there are places like the refurbished Mercer Art Gallery, Yorkshire Event Centre and its neighbour Pavilions of Harrogate, plus hotels, restaurants and bars too numerous to count.

All depend on keeping the visitors coming. The health of the conference and exhibition business is crucial to the health of the town, said Nigel.
So it is good to report that the future looks rosier. Work is well underway to create two new halls at the HIC which will add 3,300 sq m of space to the existing 16,500 sq m by October. With the new halls we will see yield growth because we will have the capacity to run two or three events simultaneously, said Angus Houston, director of the HIC.

This will boost Harrogates already strong position. Harrogate has a superb combination of purpose-built venues and a stunning safe destination, competing nationally and internationally, he said. Harrogate really is a unique proposition.

Destination Harrogate represents the leading hotels in the town. Its chair is David Ritson, general manager of the Old Swan. The HIC expansion, he says, will put us on the national map for some of the events that we werent able to consider in the past.

His experience at the Old Swan demonstrates the importance of business tourism. Recently weve had guests staying here from the microbiology conference; weve had the flower show at the Yorkshire Event Centre, and the British Neuroscience Association.

For him, the HIC extension is not the only positive development. The other news which is really exciting is the new train service. For the first time in 25 years there will be a direct train service into Harrogate from Kings Cross, London on a daily basis.

That opens up a huge market for longer weekends in Harrogate. For people coming to events at the HIC or in the hotels, they can make a day journey when previously that was quite difficult.

Another famous hotel is the Majestic, or the Barcel Harrogate Majestic Hotel to give its full title. Here is more good news: its refurbishment after last years terrible fire is almost complete.

General manager Vince Johnson said he was deeply grateful to the owners, hotel staff and community for their support in the aftermath of the blaze. We are nearly there, he said. The scaffolding has now come down and I am confident that the works within the hotel will be fully completed by August when the Majestic will be back in full swing.

He is very upbeat about the towns prospects. The Harrogate International Centres developments will bring even more business visitors to the town who we know from experience will return for leisure.

For Harrogate, its a challenging marketplace, though the town has many strengths and really is a special place to visit. Together with the vision of the borough council and the efforts of Welcome to Yorkshire that will, Im sure, allow us to enjoy continued success as a destination, with the Majestic at the heart of it.

David Ritson is sure that departing visitors take away with them a positive image of Harrogate. Its a lovely place to do business. It has an excellent location in terms of being able to walk to the shops and restaurants, it has lots of green areas within the district and it has excellent hotels and an excellent conference centre.

Id imagine their impression would be first class.

Getting there: Harrogate can be reached via the A59, A61 and A661 roads. It is connected to York and Leeds by regular rail services.

Where to park: The Victoria, Jubilee and West Park are the three council-run multi-storey car parks. There are many more surface level car parks.

What to do: Try the Turkish Baths, stroll round the Mercer Art Gallery, visit the Royal Pump Room Museum.

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