We’ve all heard the rhetoric. Lancaster is a “sleeping giant”, a “hidden gem”, a “honeypot” for tourism, if only it could unlock its potential. Others dismiss Lancaster as a dead end, backwater town, with an appaling transport system that leaves tourists on a one way street out, never to return.
The word on the street now though seems to be that “finally” Lancaster is taking a joined up thinking attitude to how it markets itself, with a multi-agency approach that is starting to pay off.
Buzz words of course, but is this the kind of fighting talk we need in order to compete with other UK short break city destinations that have already established themselves as visitor attractions?
“Yes”, says Bay Tourism chair Roger Carter, who this week took Lancaster to Old Trafford in Manchester to sell the city to around 600 potential buyers in the group travel business.
Thanks to funding from Lancaster Unlimited, the city had a stand at the Great for Groups exhibition, which Roger says will give Lancaster a huge boost when attracting visitors over the next few years.
Last year the Lancaster district attracted 7m visitors, with a £22.5m rise in visitor spend compared to 2012 - a total of £381.5m.
Visitor numbers rose by 109,000 and the tourism industry provides 5,670 jobs.
Certainly things are on the up, but Roger thinks we can up our game further.
He said: “We’ve got it all here in a microcosm.
“A beautiful city, coast and countryside that rivals anything else in the UK.
“Joined up thinking has always been there, but the opportunities haven’t been there for a multi-agency approach.
“For the first time we’ve been able to put it all together and present it. The groups market has never been identified in Lancaster, even though it has in other parts of Lancashire.
“I think the castle has been the catalyst for opening the city up to groups.
“We’ve never been a coach friendly city, but group visits are not just about 40 seater coaches.”
It’s certainly the case that Lancaster has its fair share of attractions.
Lancaster Unlimited, in a recently produced brochure, describes Lancaster as “a city alive with culture, heritage and unique attractions”, and bigs up our street market, boutique hotels, theatres, quirky pubs, musuems, high street and independent shops, coffee culture, castle and parks – in particular Williamson Park. Suzi Bunting, Lancaster BiD manager said Lancaster Unlimited is also offering a meet and greet in the city and helping to plan itineraries for group organisers who are not aware of the historic venues and shopping experience on offer, including opportunities to eat and drink at a wide selection of places within the City Centre BID area.
She said: “The visiting coaches will be met on George Street as the current drop off/pick up in the City Centre and directed to the Coach Park on St Leonardgate.
“They will be welcomed on board the coaches with a few words about the fine city centre and encouraged to shop, eat, spend and visit the heritage attractions.
“Were groups looking for overnight accommodation depending on their requirements they will be referred to the accommodation currently available within the heart of the city BID area.
The groups market has lots of potential to bring new growth of business to Lancaster Unlimited – Business Improvement District for the future.”
Several months ago Bay Tourism, again with the help of Lancaster Unlimited, paid for an article in Group Leisure Magazine, which brought a lot of interest from group tour operators and agencies.
“We organised a two day visit for about 40 different agencies and group operators and the response was excellent,” said Roger.
“Everyone loved the Play in the Park, but some of the criticisms were that there are not enough hotels in the city centre, meaning people have to come in and out of the city.
“Also the pre-visit knowledge about the city was low.
“At Great for Groups I’ll be talking about Lancaster as a destination on behalf of Lancaster Unlimited, and The Borough, Lancaster Castle, Brief Encounter Tea Rooms and The Fenwick at Claughton will all have representatives there.
“This is a long term thing, there’s no quick fix, tour operators do their planning a long time into the future and this is what we’re doing, laying foundations for the future.
“We believe that Lancaster is a sleeping giant, a hidden gem, a real honeypot. The marketing starts now, it’s the follow up to all this that’s going to be important.
“We’ve got great communications, but people have been bypassing us until now.
“The new road will make a huge difference, and BiD has been the kickstart for a fresh look at what’s happening in Lancaster.
“I think the future for the city is bright.”