From creating thousands of jobs to bringing international sporting events to the region, NewcastleGateshead Initiative is a driving force behind inward investment. Chief Executive Sarah Stewart tells Andy Richardson about an organisation that’s reinvented itself but still follows its guiding principles.

FOUR blokes in hi-vis jackets are easing a grass sculptured elephant onto a low loader. It is the Monday after the European club rugby finals weekend which brought tens of thousands of fans to Tyneside. The oval ball extravaganza, and the verdant jumbo itself which was the centrepiece of the fans’ zone near Newcastle Crown Court, are among the latest eye-catching attractions that NewcastleGateshead Initiative (NGI) has helped to bring to the region.

With an hour to kill before my meeting with chief executive Sarah Stewart, I ask people on the Newcastle Quayside what they think NGI does.

No one I speak to that morning seems to know much about the area’s leading inward investment organisation. This is no bad thing I reckon. One of the impressive aspects of NGI is that, rather than blow its own trumpet, it has preferred to make a big song and dance about our region. It might seem ironic that an organisation whose mission in life is to tell the world what is great about the North-East remains relatively unknown to the majority of people in its home area, but all of us benefit from NGI’s efforts, whether we know about it or not. They help to champion our culture, industry and tourist attractions on the national and international stage. NGI is an organisation that continues to quietly go about the business of delivering spectacular results.

Sarah says: “The major events - Rugby World Cup, Olympics Football, the Great Exhibition of the North - are what everyone often focusses on because they are the most visible, but most people locally will never see the vast majority of the work that NGI does. Our campaigns are happening elsewhere across the UK and, where possible, internationally, so very few people in the North-East will be aware of what we do every day to bring leisure visitors here, attract major conferences and investment.”  

Sarah Stewart joined NGI nine years ago, initially on a six-month interim basis while the board looked for a permanent replacement for its highly-regarded CEO Andrew Dixon who’d left to head up Creative Scotland. It quickly became apparent to both parties that she was the ideal person for the role. 

“I was delighted to be invited in because for 16 years I had my own consultancy so for me this was the next challenge in my consultancy life,” she recalls. “Having been here for just a matter of weeks I realised that if I was ever going to do a full-time permanent job again it was going to be this one. It was a role that had meaning, this organisation really does make a difference; there was a dedicated, passionate team that are great to work with; a very supportive board - all of the elements came together to say that this was a job I wanted to do. I was thrilled when they decided to offer it to me and, here I am nine years later and still loving it.”

The last decade has been one of reinvention for NGI. The fall-out from the financial crash and the Cameron Government’s public spending purges meant that destination marketing organisations had to find new sources of funding.

One big challenge facing NGI was the closure of the regional development agency. The disappearance of OneNorthEast, which had been an important partner and funder for the work NGI did, meant significant structural change was needed. 

Sarah says: “We had to think quite carefully about what the organisation was and what we wanted to do in the years to come. The timing (of my appointment) worked quite well from that point of view. It wasn’t business as usual it was about looking at new sources of funding to ensure that we could continue to deliver what we did.”

To place that in context, in 2009, public funding would have accounted for about 60 to 70 per cent of NGI’s income, now it is about 30 to 40 per cent.

“The two local councils’ ongoing support was critical and has proved very beneficial. What was also pleasing was the general recognition and goodwill among our partners and supporters that NGI’s work was of significant value to the region and we had to keep going. But it was never a matter of survival it was always about continuing to thrive,” she says emphatically.  

“We are now a bigger organisation with more funding coming in than a decade ago so a lot of progress has been made but the essence of the organisation hasn’t shifted. We are still very much a public-private partnership. And that combination remains fundamental to everything that we do. We are still an organisation that is about creating economic value.

“Our three pillars of work under that are about: attracting visitors through leisure, tourism and business events; attracting inward investment and securing jobs through that; and bidding for and delivering a series of major events and festivals that help attract visitors, investment and economic value for the region.

“Underlying all of that is inspiring people to visit and to live, learn, work and invest in and around Newcastle/Gateshead.

“To achieve that we are trying to create a supportive environment for everyone to flourish in. It’s also about changing perceptions of what Newcastle/Gateshead and the wider North-East region is like,” Sarah says, adding: “That mission has remained pretty core to everything we do. It’s just the way that we go about getting the funding to do it, and working with an even wider range of partners, is what’s changed.”

NGI now has 175 private sectors partners. It works very closely with local authorities, the LEP and will support the new combined authority north of the Tyne.

 “We’ve become more commercial in what we are doing. We seek out campaign sponsors and people will buy-in to what we are seeking to deliver,” she explains.  

NGI’s evolution led to it setting up a commercial arm, NGI Solutions. It delivers projects on behalf of a wide range of organisations and companies across the whole of the UK, in areas such as research, marketing and communications, and digital projects. Any profits made by NGI Solutions are invested back into the main business.

NGI has also become much more ambitious in terms of securing national funding from the likes of the Arts Council, ERDF funding, DCMS, Visit England and Visit Britain. And it has bid for major events that come with funding, such as the Great Exhibition of the North, that it then has to secure a lot of money around to make happen.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, to fill the gap left by the regional development agency NGI took on the role of attracting employers and business investment to the region.

Sarah explains: “That has been one of our biggest successes. Over that time, we have been able to attract and secure around 7,500 jobs, which essentially is the equivalent of a Nissan (factory), only it is made up of lots of smaller investments across several sectors.”   

Spectacular tournaments and exhibitions are making it harder for people to ignore NGI’s impact. Forthcoming events which it has helped bring to the region include the Rugby League World Cup in 2021, and this August the World Transplant Games will take place at venues across the area.

Sarah says: “It’s important to stress that no single organisation delivers events of that size. It really is about working in partnership.

“We are bidding for more sporting events and developing an idea that came out of the Great Exhibition of the North around how you can use the creative side of industries to get people to appreciate some of the amazing things happening in our key sectors. It will be a kind of regional festival of innovation that will happen over a period. That’s at an early stage but we’d like some of it to start next year,” Sarah reveals.

NGI is also delivering a major project on behalf of Visit England that will encourage overseas visitors to explore the delights the country has to offer outside of London. A driving route from the Home Counties to the Borders called the Explorer’s Road will guide visitors through parts of England, such as the North-East, they might otherwise miss. An international visitor or tour operator will be able to go online and book their trip, accommodation, stop-offs at restaurants, tearooms, gardens and historic sights rather than think a visit to England simply entails a trip to the London Eye and Madame Tussauds.    

Sarah concludes: “The work we do on projects outside of the North-East generates money that supports what we do locally. It’s all about being diverse, sustainable, creative and building on what we have done so far.

“The team can be proud of what they have achieved but there is so much more to do. We are really excited about what comes next.”