LFW/Cowal Open Studios

Item Posted: Tuesday 17th November, 2009

Increasingly groups, whether volunteers or professional events organisers, have to predict what impact they are going to have on local business and tourism. Funders, whether local authorities or public grant- making bodies, want –understandably- to ensure the money they invest is well spent.

There are, however some glaring holes in the system. No two public bodies can agree on a format for the guesstimate for how many people are likely to attend an event. More seriously they have no standardised method of calculating an event’s impact on tourism and local business, and no straightforward reporting back structure. The result of this is that each group asks attendees different questions, has to spend an inordinate amount of (unfunded) administrative time collating the information, and then feeding this information back to funders. What funders then do with this hard gained data is questionable. No doubt Homecoming 09, and Visit Scotland, will quote all sorts of data as to how Homecoming has increased tourism and expenditure at local businesses, but it is doubtful whether the end figures will have much validity.

Event organisers can be frustrated in their attempts to get feedback, through no fault of their own. Often the very nature of the event militates against encouraging people to complete forms (which frankly few visitors want to do anyway). An outdoor festival, or a big concert where people are in the dark for most of the event is hardly conducive to getting forms completed!

Assumptions have often been made that it is just the big events and festivals that bring in the tourist pounds. Whilst high profile events, such as them Homecoming Gathering in Edinburgh, may have the biggest draw for tourists they also of course take the largest chunk of the funding cake, and when things go wrong –as they did in Edinburgh –leave the largest financial black hole! There, it seems, rather than having had a positive impact on local business, local business is left with a series of bad debts.

However one group who received a Homecoming grant have done their best to collect and collate information. Cowal Open Studios, after their Open Studios weekend in September, have invested time in analysing the results of the events. Of course the results are useful for them in planning for the future, as well as to feed back to the funders who invested in the project. Visitor numbers were up 68% on 2008 at over 2,200. Based on information gathered from almost every attendee at an international concert they put on in conjunction with Fiddle Folk/Lochgoilhead Fiddle Workshop, the analysis showed that some 840 extra people visited Cowal during the weekend.

While you would think that the main beneficiaries of such events would be the 43 individual artists themselves, this is by no means the whole story. Certainly, as businesses, the artists gained sales (up 22% on 2008) and hopefully, through the wide distribution of their directory and brochure, gained an improved profile for each and every one of them. But it was other local businesses in the Cowal area that saw the biggest results of the cooperative venture.

Because so many tourists came especially for the weekend, and stayed for holidays around the weekend, the COS project represented over 2000 extra ‘tourist beds’ (a phrase much loved by funders), and visitors spent nearly £250,000 while they were in the area, so local restaurants, pubs and hotels have much to thank Cowal Open Studios for!

Jean Donaldson, Chair of Cowal Open Studios, commented: ‘This should demonstrate to funders that, pound for pound invested, a local and largely voluntary group can ‘punch substantially above its weight’ when it comes to producing a positive impact on business and tourism. We hope that, for the sake of the artists and the local economy, we can continue to build on promoting Cowal as a prime cultural tourism destination into 2010 and beyond.’

There are many, though, who would question the whole basis of funding decisions based on a projects ability to increase tourism. Many valuable groups have improving community life as a key raison d’etre. Should they really be forced into a situation where the only way to get money is to tick a ‘tourism’ box before they receive support? If we are serious about the need to expand the range and choices of activities in rural areas maybe something of a re think needs to take place.

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