There is a growing awareness of the potential role of culture in placemaking: it sits high on government and Arts Council England (ACE) priorities, and many creative local authorities across the country join up their assets and resources for the wider benefit of promoting their region.

This seems a sensible response to the massive growth in domestic holidays (pre-Brexit), increases in overseas visitors and the opening up of places all over the UK as budget airlines connect more airports with multiple European destinations.

Competitive programmes, such as UK City of Culture, European Capitals of Culture, Great Exhibition of the North, and the associated funds, including ACE’s Cultural Destinations, have given efforts a real boost by dangling a helpful carrot for those who can get their act together, submit joined-up bids and nurture partnerships needed for cultural tourism success.

Disappointing findings

But a quick trawl of analyses using the national Audience Finder dataset (from over 800 museums and arts organisations in all English regions and Wales, including all National Portfolio Organisations but excluding the top UK museums in the National Museum Directors’ Council), suggests that over 90% of all audiences and visitors at UK venues come from within a 90-minute travel time, and at best 8% (including the concentration in London) are from overseas.

While major museums in big cities buck this trend (in London an estimated 60% are overseas visitors), for most arts organisations the proportion of cultural tourists, those that have the potential to stay overnight, is remarkably low.

This is surprising as there is plenty of evidence to suggest that effective cultural tourism can change perceptions of a place, deliver more buzz, more visitors and increase revenue for the cultural sector and beyond. This can make a significant increase in the return on investment of arts funding.

Best of all, the richer their travel experiences, the more tourists want to share with their personal networks, accelerating the shift in perceptions. The benefit to local communities is more than just economic. In this virtuous circle they benefit from better facilities and cultural opportunities, in turn satisfying visiting-friends-and-family experiences, and the more engaged a community, the better ‘hosts’ they become.

Honest answers

So, what’s not to like? We know it makes sense, so what’s stopping us? First, we have to ask how relevant the opportunity is in reality. Building a successful cultural tourism offer is not just a new marketing concept, nor a simple re-package, but requires a long-term commitment to new ways of working.

And there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Each place has different strengths and weaknesses. Beyond this, success is dependent on players forging some common understanding of where they are now, where they want to be and how to get there.

Cultural tourism is not something you can tackle on your own. Creative Tourist works nationally and internationally with cultural tourism partnerships to switch on the power of culture in place marketing. It relies on honest answers to fundamental questions across a destination.

Is your place already on the tourist map and, if so, what is the tourist offer? If not, is there potential for tourism? Does your place have the requisite assets – infrastructure, quality hospitality (food, drink and accommodation), retail and, crucially, an authentic and distinctive cultural offer? Can you marry the culture and tourism priorities for your area?

Is there strong leadership locally and is there an appetite for cross-sector collaboration and partnership-working? If so, then you could have the basics required to take advantage of the opportunities offered by cultural tourism.

Successful approach

The Audience Agency is working with Creative Tourist on a number of destination programmes with a wide range of partners. Based on this experience, we suggest the ingredients of a successful approach to cultural tourism are as follows:

  • Honesty: Being honest about the strengths and weaknesses in your place. Is your offer distinctive (to you) and valued by visitors, what needs to be improved, and who (or where) is your competition?
  • Priorities: Don’t rush to market if your offer isn’t ready yet. Think about what you can do with limited budgets: start talking about your destination and what it has to offer; make it easy for visitors to find out about you, including through third parties; and optimise your digital presence and tracking.
  • Real market insight: This is as much about not being overwhelmed by the many datasets and research options available, but using information to identify real, rather than imagined, potential. Cultural tourists vary as widely in their interests and preferences as other audiences and it’s just as vital to synthesise the available intelligence into a working segmentation that serves your place.
  • Leadership and partnerships: A high-functioning, sustained partnership between all the key players in culture and tourism, public and private sectors.

The good news is that we have more intelligence on cultural tourists than ever before – it’s just a case of using data with purpose and flair. In the Look Sideways East project, we piloted the use of Audience Finder data and Audience Spectrum to understand the cultural attitudes and preferences of visitors to Norfolk and Suffolk by understanding the differences between their choices and behaviour at home and in other locations they had visited.

This helped partners to shape successfully differentiated communications and packages for the large numbers of Metroculturals (from London), Commuterland Culturebuffs (from the home counties), Dormitory Dependables and Home and Heritage (from neighbouring regions).

We’re excited about the possibility of linking Audience Finder with Visit England’s new visitor segmentation to get a sharper understanding of cultural tourists.

Differentiating between tourism operators is another critical dimension. It’s important to understand what makes people tick across this spectrum from the TripAdvisor-using independent traveller to major group organisers.

Experimentation and partnerships

The best thing about funding programmes like ACE Cultural Destinations is that they encourage experimentation. So while places will need to co-create great ideas of their own, visitor needs and behaviours will be exponential – create, test, learn, go again.

There are many other strategic bodies whose remits cover culture and tourism, such as Local Enterprise Partnerships, Destination Management Organisations (DMOs) and Destination Marketing Organisations, such as Welcome to Yorkshire, Business Improvement Districts and the 13 new metropolitan mayors across England.

Remember, cultural tourism is not about producing a new leaflet or website. Do take a deep breath, a step back, get acquainted with new partners and start working strategically. New partnerships and new ways of working can deliver significant change for you and your place.

Anne Torreggiani and Helen Palmer (Co-Director of Creative Tourist)

First published on Arts Professional, 8 June 2017