Homecoming News: Lessons from Highland 2007

Item Posted: Wednesday 17th December, 2008


Lessons to be learned from Highland Year of Culture?

Homecoming Scotland is the first large stream of funding we have seen since the Highland Year Of Culture 2007, so the recently report on whether the 2007 efforts were effective or not is very relevant to the planners and event organisers of 2009.

For some the Highland Year of Culture 2007 was a damp squid, for others an opportunity to put on new and innovative events which could have a lasting impact on their communities as well as on local tourism and business.

The formal weighty 100 page report on the outcomes of the country-wide year’s events in 2007 has just been published. Although it is not directly related to Homecoming 2009, there are important similarities, and there are lessons to learn for organisers and councils which could improve the value and impact of Homecoming for everyone. The report is definitely a ‘mixed bag’ of criticism and praise.

The evaluation report showed ‘consistent negative comment’ on Argyll and Bute Council’s requirement that project funding applications should show a projected economic benefit, with additional visitors attracted to the area. The consensus of objections was that a greater focus on matters cultural would have been preferable. There are still issues surrounding the emphasis on business and tourism. Most organisers of events would probably prefer to have been remembered as people who helped improve the quality of life for people living in an area, rather than having to prove ‘additional visitor nights.’

A major and recurring criticism of Highland 2007 by promoters - and one which involves Argyll - was that it bred too many festivals and that the competition was detrimental to pre-existing events. The Belladrum Heart of Tartan boutique festival singled out Argyll’s Connect Festival for providing ‘unfair competition’, and the 2008 Skye Music Festival has been cancelled for lack of interest, put down to post-Highland 2007 ‘festival fatigue.’ There were major conflicts in the programme schedule which impacted negatively on some festivals and should not have been allowed to happen. For instance the Cowal Games are the same weekend as the Connect Festival, although both were funded in part by the Council.

The major accepted overall failure of the Highland Year of Culture was the lack of marketing, aggravated by the lack of a coherent vision for the initiative. Awareness of Highland 2007 did not reach much beyond the Highlands and Islands with 60% of Scots outside the region remaining unaware of the year-long event.
Three major strands of general failure were identified: Inadequate staffing -the marketing department had a core staff of two - a heavily under-resourced unit for so major an event; having no representative from VisitScotland on the main Board; and the lack of an effective site for on line marketing. This meant the site was almost always behind in updating, and its core function was confused. The survey found that downloads from the site were almost exclusively information packs on the funding process, rather than a main source of information on the programme for potential audiences –tourists and residents alike.
Former First Minister, Jack McConnell who began the initiative, set it specific challenges. One of these was that it should change the perspectives of the rest of Scotland on the Highlands and Islands. It didn’t come close.
On the figures alone, the event could not have been judged a success. It didn’t wash its face in the relation of cost to income generated. A 1.3% increase in visitor numbers is a modest return on such a significant overall investment. An estimated increase of £260,000 per annum in repeat visits generated by Highland 2007 is close to negligible. However it has to be said that, despite locals lack enough knowledge of, or involvement in, Highland 2007, Argyll and Bute had, compared with other regions, the lion’s share of ‘additional visitor nights’ - at 39%, with Inverness second at 17%.
Yet, whatever its overall failings, the investment in many capital projects would not have happened without the commitment to run Highland 2007. The events left significant benefits to the cultural infrastructure of the region. The fact that there were in the end 400 community events in the programme as opposed to the prior estimate of 150 is testimony to the spread of the event across the Highlands. Young highlanders reported a changed sense of Highland culture, in distinct contrast to older people who reported little change in perception The younger audience also said that it was a year when there was plenty to do - an unusual and welcome experience for young people in rural areas
Many of the drawbacks noted in the report have been addressed by those running Homecoming. The web site is far more user friendly and easier to search by region or by date, but some events funded by councils rather than from the central pot of money are still not fully listed, and do not come up on the main search facility. There has also been an extensive overseas press and publicity campaign. There is a determined effort to ‘brand’ Homecoming events, and events organisers have had more opportunities to get together to share ideas and information.
The jury is still out on how well everyone learns the lessons from Highland Year of Culture, but generally the willingness to make 2009 build on the work of 2007 seems to be in place.
To read the full report go to www.highland2007.com and to read more analysis of the report try For Argyll’s Web site at http://forargyll.com/2008/11

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