Ups and downs of the summer

DESPITE a struggling economy and less than brilliant weather this summer, tourism businesses across north Northumberland are optimistic, with some even performing better than last year.

That’s not to say that it hasn’t been a tough year, but as one tourism boss pointed out, ‘the bottom hasn’t dropped out the market.’

Jeff Sutheran, chairman of the North Northumberland Tourism Association, said: “Obviously it’s been a difficult year with economic pressures and the weather has not been great. Some businesses are saying they have struggled.

“Those businesses offering a premium service, like the five-star B and Bs, seem to have held quite strong while some of the more middle-of-the-road B and Bs have struggled. But it’s not all doom and gloom.”

In an ongoing survey of his members, Mr Sutheran said that the response to how business had been compared to last year was mixed, with 20 per cent saying it was stronger, 20 per cent the same, 40 per cent a little down and 20 per cent well down.

“I’m really optimsitic about when it picks up. The quality of the tourism offering in Northumberland is extremely high,” he said.

“And it’s not a bad thing for people to have to say how do we make things better to ensure that people come.”

The summer has also been mixed for English Heritage, which is responsible for attractions including Lindisfarne Priory, Dunstanburgh Castle and Warkworth Castle.

Jon Hogan, events manager north, said: “We have seen mixed performances for some of our historic properties in Northumberland this summer and average visitor figures in Northumberland and Tyne and Wear are down 13 per cent. This is due largely to the economic climate and inclement weather the UK has experienced this summer.

“However, when the weather is favourable, there have been some excellent attendances at our summer events including Viking Week at Lindisfarne Priory which welcomed almost 5,000 visitors and Belsay’s Fashion from the Past event which attracted 4,200 visitors.”

Chris Calvert, director of Bamburgh Castle, said that the bank holiday weekend had provided a welcome boost.

“The bank holiday weekend was busier this year than last year which is great as the general trend so far this year has been slightly down. Bank Holiday Monday was busy considering the other events on in the county and that the causeway was open for the morning.

“We have been working with the tourist information centres who are selling our tickets and have a promotion running with accommodation providers as well. We’ve also done some work with Cragside and Alnwick Castle and Garden where we have handed out vouchers.”

“While visitor numbers are down, the spend per visitor in the shop is up. We’ve been working really hard on our shop and as well as over 200 locally-made lines, we feel we have a great choice for visitors.”

Mr Calvert, who is also chairman of the Northumberland Attractions Association, said that tourism businesses in north Northumberland need to work together.

“It is very important at this time, with the loss of marketing from One North East that businesses work together in partnership to promote the county – we are not competing with each other, but with Scotland, the Lake District and Yorkshire,” he said.

“The Northumberland Attractions Association will continue to attend national trade events to do what it can to promote the county.”

For some though, business has been booming this summer.

Catherine Armstrong, of Sunnyhills of Belford farm shop, said: “It is now exactly a year since we opened our new farm shop in Belford so this is our first full summer season.

“We have had a fantastic holiday season and the farm shop and the coffee shop have been busy throughout the day.

“People are definitely still spending although we are finding that their overall basket spend is slightly less. For example, we are noticing that the budget for taking home gifts for friends and family is smaller than last year.

“However, what we are also noticing is that when people are spending, they definitely want to buy quality so we have benefited from this trend as we offer high-quality produce, catering and gifts.”

And it was even better at Doxford Hall, near Chathill.

General manager David Hunter said: “Here at Doxford Hall we have just had the very best month in terms of occupancy and revenue since the hotel opened.

“Occupancy is up by nine per cent on last year and revenue for August 28 per cent up on last year.

“Year to date we are 15 per cent better than this time last year in terms of occupancy and up six per cent (revenue) on last year.

“As a result of this increase we have increased our workforce by 10 per cent.”