“We have to pull together.” Northern Soul talks to James Mason, CEO of Welcome to Yorkshire
At the time of writing, the UK is slowly attempting to reclaim some semblance of normality. Tourism faces many challenges including encouraging the public to go out and reconnect with Britain’s popular attractions and areas of natural beauty.
Welcome to Yorkshire has kickstarted its efforts with the launch of The Yorkshire Gift Card, an initiative designed to boost regional, national and worldwide support for the county’s businesses.
James Mason became chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire in January 2020. Within weeks, lockdown began and he was tasked not only with ensuring forward planning continued but also with finding the most appropriate ways to highlight all that Yorkshire has to offer post COVID-19. So, how does the sector get back on track?
“None of us have been in this situation before but communication is key. Lockdown gave us the opportunity to take a good look at the offers we put out before COVID-19 hit. We’ve had time to reflect, tidy up the website and restructure. In this business, you’re always looking to see how you can do things differently and make improvements.
“It’s a huge challenge for us all mentally and economically but it’s also a huge opportunity to go forward. We’ve listened to customer feedback and sharpened up the offers to ensure that what we deliver next to employees, customers and the outside world, is better than it was before.”
But stepping into the new role also came with pre-coronavirus challenges. “It would be remiss of me not to refer to the fact that the past 18 months had been difficult for the organisation with well-publicised financial issues and lots of changes,” says Mason. “We’d all been working hard to reduce the fixed and variable costs that were suffocating the business and we needed to re-shape the organisation and introduce a new business model. The next task was to deliver a strategy to introduce new product lines.
“It was all was moving along really well then COVID-19 struck. All plans were put on hold in order to work on a recovery plan to try and help businesses stay afloat. We wanted to retain and support the industry as much as we could.”
Presumably, one of the hardest tasks for an industry which relies on public support is to instil confidence that safety is at the forefront of all future plans?
“Very much so,” agrees Mason. “A major factor in our work on the re-opening phase is to ensure that staff and customers feel safe to return, trust that the attraction is fit for purpose and see that it provides an amazing experience. It’s also key to highlight the offers they’re coming for.”
Affiliate membership of The Yorkshire Gift Card allows businesses a chance to access a number of resources. For Mason, this was crucial. “It can help keep businesses going for longer. We’re bringing new people into our circle and, in time, if they can move up to being paid members, that’s brilliant. We’re a not-for-profit organisation funded by local authorities, so it was the right thing to do. We’re also underwriting the cost of the card to instigate and promote business in Yorkshire.”
The programme is designed to lock in additional money for participating businesses and encourage local spend. That last part is particularly important.
“Research shows that people spend 35 per cent more than the value of the card. They are also bought by people outside of Yorkshire for family and friends in the area. It’s a long-term project and takes time to build, but the initial response since the launch a few weeks ago has been excellent with well over 200 sign-ups from businesses ready for re-opening.”
The next step for the reach of the card is the addition of personal membership.
“It’s a brand new initiative. Individuals had never really been approached before, but it makes sense to tap into personal membership. There are born and bred Yorkshire folk right across the world, so that’s a big market. People who have moved away still have a longing for their home county.”
He adds: “We have 280,000 followers on Twitter and a million on our combined digital platforms across the world. We wanted to harness that power and create a social community. Even if you don’t live here, you can still have your roots here. People can buy things like Christmas Yorkshire hampers to send to family abroad. We can even plant a tree here for you so you can still feel part of the community. It’s a nice thing to have especially if you end up moving back at some future point.”
Recent scenes of thoughtless overcrowding on beaches and in parks and the appalling littering are off-putting to many. How does Mason and his team aim to factor in the many things that, while out of their control, will undoubtedly influence the public’s willingness to head out and about?
“It’s difficult,” he admits. “But we can’t go back to our old ways, particularly with littering. We have to reinforce a positive message and ask people to respect distancing. We don’t want vigilante behaviour, but people have to take ownership of everything and understand their place in society now. We all have a responsibility to finish COVID-19 off and make sure that, if we ever face it again, we’ll be ready for it and have a new attitude to deal with it.
“We’re adopting the ‘imagine now, visit later’ approach. National parks, York Minster, the Sculpture Park haven’t changed. The beauty is still there and will be there when it everything settles down. In the meantime, let’s not become complacent. We’ve come this far together and if it’s a few more weeks or months, we have to pull together.”
For more information, visit: yorkshire.com/giftcard
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