York is aiming to be one of the world's top tourist destinations
PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 July 2014 | UPDATED: 11:20 24 October 2015
Is York in for its best summer yet? Jo Haywood reports Photographs from Visit York
Promoting the attributes of a city as beautiful as York is never going to be a tough sell, but taking on the task in a year when the city’s tourism offer hits heady new heights is just like a walk in Rowntree Park, isn’t it?
Well, not quite. Kate McMullen, the new head of Visit York, might have plenty to shout about this summer, with the Tour de France, the Ebor Festival, the Mystery Plays, major new exhibitions and a host of venue relaunches, but she has to continually find new and interesting ways of turning up the volume so York’s tourism messages can be heard above those of other destinations.
‘Of course it’s a positive bonus to take on this role when York is at the top of the pile, but other cities are rising up through the ranks,’ she explained. ‘As our competitors raise their game, we have to work doubly hard to maintain and improve on our own ranking. There’s no time for sitting still.’
Certainly not if the Visit York team wants to hit its ambitious target of doubling the value of tourism in the next ten years.
‘That’s not doubling numbers – this is not the biggest city – but getting people to stay longer and spend more,’ Kate explained. ‘It’s not a numbers game; it’s about improving the visitor economy.’
It no doubt helps that she knows the city inside out, arriving first as a student, then choosing to settle down in York and raise her family. She’s also been involved in marketing the city for 15 years; seven as head of marketing at Visit York.
‘I know the city and the organisation,’ she said. ‘I think it helps that I’ve been passionate about promoting York for a very long time.’
The core of York’s tourism offering – its history and heritage – remains the same, but around that is a constantly evolving programme of festivals, events, exhibitions, conferences and themes that give Visit York intriguing new hooks to hang the city on.
There are numerous hooks to attract visitors in the coming months but the biggest of all is undoubtedly the Tour de France.
‘It’s a fantastic opportunity; the biggest the city has seen in many years,’ said Kate. ‘The Tour de France will give us incredible media exposure, but we have to find ways to extend that legacy and to use it as a springboard for promoting other events and festivals.’
To that end, Visit York is providing an eye-catching calendar for every hotel room highlighting the myriad reasons for return trips and has just launched a new campaign aimed at repositioning the city regionally, nationally and internationally as a cycling hub.
‘The Tour will have left the city by 11am on July 6th, but we want to capitalise on the cycling message for weeks, months and years to come,’ said Kate.
All the signs are pointing to an extremely busy Tour De France weekend. Around 180,000 people are expected in York and accommodation providers are reporting few – if any – available rooms. But this is just one event and, once the last cyclist has pedalled past the minster, Kate and her team will already be pushing their next promotional message.
Visit York does a lot of research to find out why visitors choose York and what the highlights of their stay are. It’s interesting to note that the two lists rarely match.
‘Shopping, for example, tends to be low down on their reasons for coming,’ said Kate. ‘But then people say they love the shopping experience when they get here. In fact, they always leave with more carrier bags than they intended.’
With this in mind, Visit York is starting to make a concerted effort to market York as a shopping destination to rival nearby Leeds and Harrogate – a message they’re hoping will even be heard in China.
‘We promote York differently in different countries; tweaking the message to attract particular sets of international visitors,’ said Kate. ‘Generally speaking, Americans and Canadians want a typically English experience – tea at Bettys and a day out at Castle Howard – like they’ve seen on TV. Chinese visitors, on the other hand, very much like to shop and spend money. While European tourists, particularly the Dutch, like to be outdoors and are very keen on cycling.’
Which brings us neatly back to the Tour de France. Will the crowd-pulling race and York’s host of other festivals and events make this the city’s best summer yet?
‘It’s certainly going to be an extremely strong summer,’ said Kate. ‘All the indications are that we’re building to something quite special – and not just for visitors, but for those of us who live here too.
‘It’s easy to become complacent about your home town but, really, we’re all pretty lucky to live here, aren’t we?’
Summer of Fun
The world-famous Ebor Festival takes place at York Racecourse from August 20th-24th, providing sporting excellence, fashion and fun in the city’s oldest, richest, fastest and most famous race meeting.
York Castle Museum is launching a major new exhibition – 1914: When the World Changed Forever – on June 28th to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War. New technology and research will be combined with the museum’s extensive military, costume and social history collections to tell the fascinating and often moving stories of Yorkshire people who lived and died during the conflict.
The Richard III Museum, run with verve and good humour by Mike Bennett until his untimely death earlier this year, has been relaunched as The Richard III Experience by the Jorvik Group, which has also refreshed and updated the Micklegate Bar Museum, now The Henry VII Experience.
Shakespeare’s First Folio – ‘the most important book in English literature’ – is on display at Yorkshire Museum from July 15th.
The York Army Museum reopens in August after a £1 million revamp, offering visitors new displays and themed audio-visual experiences that will give fresh insight into key regimental battles and individual stories of conflict.
York Dungeon is launching an hilariously scary new show, Tyrannical Tudors, which recreates a scene at St Mary’s Abbey in 1541, when an impoverished York was in the grip of Henry VIII’s wrath.
And York Food & Drink Festival is enjoying two bites of the cherry for the first time this year, with cookery demonstrations and markets from June 20th-29th as well as a full programme of events from September 19th-28th.