York's tourism agency marks its silver jubilee with an ever growing influence on the economy

PUBLISHED: 19:02 03 September 2012 | UPDATED: 21:49 20 February 2013

The River Ouse provides a glamorous backdrop for business and pleasure tourists

The River Ouse provides a glamorous backdrop for business and pleasure tourists

As York's tourism agency marks its silver jubilee, Chris Titley talks to the chief executive about the sector's growing role in the city's economy Photographs - Visit York

York was a very different place 25 years ago. One of the big issues in 1987 was the lack of working public telephones half were out of order, largely thanks to vandalism. The citys pubs were preparing for the onset of all-day drinking, but the idea of 24-hour licensing was still a long way off. And York succumbed to Fergie fever with thousands of cheering well-wishers greeting the Duchess.

It was also a very different city economically. When York Visitor and Conference Bureau opened its doors for the first time in 1987, the tourist industry attracted only 2.1 million visitors a year and was worth 55 million.

Today the bureau is known as Visit York. Over its first quarter of a century it has helped transform the tourism sector, which now brings in seven million people a year and is worth 443 million.

So in the year which brought the Duchess of Yorks daughter Princess Beatrice to the city with the Queen on her Diamond Jubilee tour, Visit York is celebrating its silver jubilee. Its chief executive Gillian Cruddas describes tourism as a significant part of the York economy. And that success has brought its own challenges.

It employs 23,000 people directly, she said. What were keen to do is make sure those people have year-round jobs, so weve had an objective for a long time to reduce seasonality, to encourage people to come at quieter times of the year and to stay longer.

The recession has made this task harder. When the crash happened, business tourism conferences and meetings slumped across the country.

Five or six years ago the split was about 55 per cent leisure tourism, 45 per cent business. Now its probably much closer to 70-30, Gillian said. It creates a challenge for us to make sure we get people here midweek, and that we get them here in winter.

Restoring conference business back to pre-credit crunch levels is one of Visit Yorks key targets. Another is to bring in the bigger spending overseas visitors and persuade them to stay longer.

Looking back over the last 25 years, Yorks tourism offer has pretty much reinvented itself. Lively bars and pavement bistros have joined the traditional pubs and cafs. City Screen and the Yorkshire Wheel are among the attractions which didnt exist a quarter of a century ago, while city of festivals is a brand which encompasses massively successful events like Septembers Food and Drink Festival and Illuminating York in October.

An estimated investment of more than 300 million in accommodation and attractions across the city over the same period has seen existing hotels revamped and new hotels open, including the citys first five star hotel, the Cedar Court Grand in 2010. Bed spaces have almost doubled in 25 years.

Weve got a lot more partnerships than we had, said Gillian. Weve got strong relationships with Leeds Bradford Airport, Jet2 and were talking to Monarch about their new routes.

And were excited about the new route down to Heathrow which might be really interesting for business tourism.

Visit Yorks boss also believes theres now a much more joined-up approach to promoting the city: Retailers get behind campaigns more than they did 25 years ago. People are more aware of not only what the visitor economy is worth, but what it means to their individual businesses.

And in general its a more welcoming city: Local people now acknowledge what tourism brings to the economy and the jobs it creates. The service is not perfect in every quarter, hence our workshops and training, but there is something about a Yorkshire welcome.

Visit York has secured 800,000 from Visit England which will be spent marketing the city over the next three years. Meanwhile the website will be relaunched this autumn the internet and social media are two essential marketing tools which didnt exist in 1987.

Yorks tourist agency is allowing itself a celebration or two of its jubilee. There has already been an anniversary dinner with the organisations founders or their descendants, and 500 representatives of the tourist industry will be invited to an Eighties-themed dance at Yorkshire Air Museum this month.

But Gillian is not one for looking back and is already planning the next marketing drive. Weve got to be very confident that we have got an international brand.

Its not known all over the world, and we cant afford to be complacent and think everyones heard of York, but we definitely need to exploit the fact that its a very positive brand.

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