I’ve just obediently filled in the Harrogate Borough Council survey on proposals for the town’s economic growth strategy. Going through the questionnaire crystallised the views that have been forming in my mind over the past couple of years. I work for local businesses, mostly B2C, so heavily reliant on Brand Harrogate. Which does not exist.
Harrogate is portrayed in the national media as a quaint spa town. The Pump Room Museum is fabulous but that’s just what it is, a museum. No one has visited Harrogate to take the waters since 1950. We have the enviable heritage of a Victorian Spa town with beautiful architecture and classical parks but these have to function in their own right. It’s only in the last couple of years that the Valley Gardens has embraced the idea of entertainment in its modern form – not promenading but entertaining – with the excellent Fire Garden and the StrEet Food Festival.
I think the local decision makers would still like to see Harrogate as a conference hub. This idea is hardly new – the conference centre was built in the eighties, not a resounding success either architecturally or commercially. Now hideously rebranded as the Convention Centre (and relocating to Texas with that name), it does appear to be attracting a new audience with consumer events. Visitors are likely to be local so they don’t attract fresh pounds into the town. The big trade fairs have trailed off as the corporate spend on business jollies tightens. Trade visitors are now more likely to be on a day trip than flashing their company cards in the local hotels and restaurants.
So where does Brand Harrogate go? I can’t help but feel that perhaps we are trying to reinvent ourselves when the answer is right on our doorstep. Harrogate is regularly voted happiest place to live. The variety of events hosted by the Harrogate International Festivals team makes the town a cultural Mecca. A quick look on Rightmove confirms that property prices are some of the highest outside the home counties. The countryside surrounding us and celebrated at our own Great Yorkshire Show makes us God’s own county. People want to live here, people with money for leisure want to spend time here.
A great example of going after the high-end pound can be seen at Rudding Park. It’s consistently listed as one of the top hotels in the UK, has award winning dining with a celebrity chef and just this week has opened a spa to die for. Their offer is classy and people love it. Harrogate is full of class – independent restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, food halls – we even have our own Turkish Baths. Yes the Tour de Yorkshire brings visitors but getting merry on cheap booze in a pop up beer tent does nothing for a sustainable future for our town.
The number of well established family businesses in Harrogate is remarkable; they should not be in a battle to survive against the high-churn, impersonal high street staples you can visit in any city. A weekend in Harrogate needs to be an event in itself. Investment should go into the arts, into businesses with unique and local products, into innovations that start with Harrogate as their core. All these businesses create jobs – not just at a service level but by attracting entrepreneurs and their talented teams.
Imagine a town people visited because it had a reputation for customer care, for creativity, for individuality. It’s not a stretch, Harrogate already has this in pockets. Now imagine it all joined up into one package. There you have it, Brand Harrogate.