Visit County Durham celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. HEATHER BARRON reflects on the success of Durham’s destination management organisation – and looks ahead to the future

IN 2019, English tourism generated more than £100 billion, and supported 2.6 million jobs; it is a major employer of school leavers and young people, as well as an incubator for entrepreneurs and innovation.

In the same year, County Durham welcomed 20.13 million visitors – contributing £955m to the local economy and employing more than 12,000 people.

And although the tourism sector was devastated by the pandemic in 2020, these figures serve to underline the significance of the visitor economy to the county’s wider economy, and the importance of the work being done by Visit County Durham.

Visit County Durham – the county’s destination management organisation – provides strategic added value to tourism activity in the county, and leadership to both the public and private sectors, on the visitor economy.

As she reflects on the challenges faced when establishing a destination management organisation (DMO) for Durham 15 years ago, Visit County Durham’s managing director, Michelle Gorman, emphasises the importance of laying solid foundations.

In 2006, responsibility for tourism was devolved to regional level and Government funding enabled each North-East county to set up their own DMO, with Visit County Durham established as part of regional development agency, One North East.

Businessiq: Place of Light branding at King’s Cross Train Station, LondonPlace of Light branding at King’s Cross Train Station, London

That crucial inaugural year was spent gathering as much information as possible, and analysing what Durham had to offer. What were the destination’s strengths and weaknesses? Who was already visiting and where were they coming from? Where could improvements be made?

“We had to have that evidence base in place, so we could then take a very strategic approach as to how we were going to develop and promote the destination,” explains Michelle, who has been with the organisation since the beginning. 

It was time well spent because, as it celebrates its 15th anniversary, Visit County Durham is cited as an exemplar of best practice for a DMO operating within the framework of a local authority, coordinating the management of all the elements that make up a tourism destination.

Recognising from the start that the challenge could only be met through effective partnerships, the county’s first Destination Management Plan was compiled, involving key stakeholders and businesses from around the region, in both the public and private sectors.

“One of our great strengths is our partnerships,” says Michelle. “We don’t only work in partnership with our tourism businesses, we work across transport; we speak to retailers, we speak to town centre management; we speak to people who are responsible for our protected landscapes.”

Businessiq: Michelle Gorman and Ivor StollidayMichelle Gorman and Ivor Stolliday

Following the closure of One North East, without the support and intervention of Durham County Council in 2010, Visit County Durham would have ceased, and the county would have been without a DMO. And one of the key benefits of locating a DMO within a local authority, is the strategic connection between the DMO function and wider regeneration and economic growth functions and strategies, meaning that the visitor economy is knitted into long-term growth plans.

Ivor Stolliday, who has been chair of the Visit County Durham Ltd board for the last nine years, credits much of the organisation’s enduring success with the stability that has come from a strong relationship with Durham County Council, and the support the authority has given the DMO since its inception.

He says: “We are a real public-private partnership which works. The council has been unfailingly solid in its support of the visitor economy, and through everyone’s hard work, and sticking to our goals, we have had some considerable success.”

“We’ve always had an excellent working relationship with the county council and they are hugely supportive of the visitor economy. What that means is that tourism and the visitor economy is really embedded into wider economic development plans.”

VISIT COUNTY DURHAM – THE MILESTONES OF SUCCESS

2006: Visit County Durham incorporated.

2007: The business to business e-newsletter, Wednesday Grapevine, is launched. The county's first destination management plan is produced.

2008: Taste Durham food tourism quality scheme launched.

2009: This is Durham destination brand is launched.

2010: thisisdurham.com is launched.

2011: Visit England names Durham as one of England’s attract brands.

2012: Visitor Information Network is launched, with 39 locations across the county providing a visitor information provision.

2013: Durham is a founding member of the England’s Heritage Cities consortium.

2014: Northern Lands regional rural product development project gets underway.

2015: Working in partnership with Visit England and Visit Britain the Northern Tourism Growth Fund enables promotion of the county to key overseas markets.

2016: Place brand is launched – This is Durham, Place of Light.

2017: Visit County Durham investment into developing dark skies tourism.

2018: Northern Saints Trails project is launched.

2019: #Durham19 marketing campaign delivered to capitalise on the county’s Year of Culture.

2020: Visit County Durham and industry partners work collaboratively to minimise the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on businesses and the destination.

THE ROAD TO RECOVERY

AS the visitor market re-opens in 2021, and with feedback from businesses indicating pre-covid, or better, visitor numbers, Visit County Durham is looking ahead with optimism.

The county is back on track to achieve a £1 billion-plus visitor economy, creating jobs and opportunities for residents, communities, and Durham businesses.

“Covid has highlighted how important we are as a DMO to our businesses in the county,” says Michelle. “We’ve supported them throughout this pandemic, whether it’s signposting to advice and guidance, or to financial support.” 

Alison Clark, Durham County Council’s Head of Culture, Sport and Tourism, believes the pandemic has caused people to look at things differently: where they live; the way they travel; and their appreciation of the countryside. And, as a result, she is convinced that great things lie ahead for Durham and the wider North-East region.

“When you think about some of the wonderful European cities and landscapes, what we have here is better, it’s just about being broad and visionary about the way we talk about it,” she says.

Businessiq: Alison ClarkAlison Clark

“It’s about attracting the kind of investment and investors who are going to make a difference to us. Our USP lies in our culture, our heritage, and our landscape, and we have the space, the transport links, the accommodation, and the places to eat, that create a fantastic visitor experience.

“Going forward with the next 15 years, that’s what we’ve got to get people to understand, so that it encourages them to visit and invest. That way, we maximise the visitor economy, and, more broadly, the creative economy.”

Businessiq: The 1950’s welfare hall is part of the Remaking Beamish projectThe 1950’s welfare hall is part of the Remaking Beamish project

Alison is confident that the Levelling Up agenda, along with other Government programmes, are focused on making the north ‘punch its weight’ to its full potential – and that, along with a bold collective vision within the county, will stand Durham in good stead and see it thrive.

Examples of Visit County Durham’s plans to boost the visitor and the wider economy, include:

  • Support for the sector via a visitor economy business resilience, productivity, and innovation scheme.
  • Partnership between County Durham and the A Coruña province in North Spain to collaborate and promote the pilgrimage routes of the Northern Saints Trails and the English Way section of the Camino de Santiago Compostela.
  • Launch of a county-wide conferencing and business tourism website and destination proposition.

And partner product development projects, which include Remaking Beamish; Raby Estates; The Auckland Project; and SeaScapes, will also play a key role in recovery.

The light at the end of this year’s tunnel is Lumiere – the UKs leading light festival commissioned by Durham County Council, taking place in November. As well as attracting visitors, the festival has significant place-making outcomes, contributes to the identity of the place, and benefits businesses and accommodation providers.

“The staging of the biggest light festival in the UK is a testament to Durham’s will to be ambitious and to really want to offer something different,” says Alison.

Having celebrated 15 successful years, Visit County Durham’s plans for the next 15 echo that ambition. Having already achieved the objective for the county to fulfil its potential as one of North East England’s lead destinations, the aim is that it will offer a visitor experience that exceeds the best offered by England’s premier county-based destinations.

And by working in partnership, Visit County Durham will continue to develop and grow the visitor economy, presenting a clear and consistent image and identity for the county, with Durham County Council’s commitment to culture-led regeneration broadening the leisure experience for both residents and visitors alike.

It is for these reasons, why the visitor economy – as well as enriching lives of residents through the experiences it brings – is integral not only to the prosperity of local communities, but also to the civic pride of residents.

From those all-important foundations that were laid 15 years ago, the spotlight continues to shine very brightly on Durham.