York BID Executive Director Andrew Lowson assesses York’s recovery so far – and rallies support for potential opportunity on the horizon
There was a moment last week that really lifted my heart.
Walking through York, I overheard a resident complaining about ‘the number of [expletive] tourists’ in the city centre!
How long is it since we’ve heard that particular grumble? To me, it reflected a welcome sense of familiarity.
The city centre is getting busier. Latest figures show that footfall was down 26% on the same week last year. In normal circumstances that would be seen as a terrible figure. But given that York was down 80% a few weeks ago – and that the UK footfall average is still down by 45% – it is very encouraging.
Friday saw the introduction of regulations making it mandatory for most people to wear face masks in shops. Some retailers were concerned that this might dent consumer confidence, just as it was beginning to return. Data from Scotland – which brought in the same rule a couple of weeks earlier – suggests that people have adapted quickly. I took my kids to Fancy Dance at the bottom of Micklegate, leaving with puppy and ballerina themed masks, which have been well used ever since. I personally went to Alterations Express on Fossgate for a fetching royal blue mask. They confirmed they are struggling to keep up with demand. So lets hope this is an indication the general public are embracing this change and not letting it affect their experience in York.
The reopening of the hospitality sector is certainly helping to drive footfall. This is so vital to York: 93% of visitors come here to enjoy food and drink, and 74% for the attractions. This weekend will see more of those attractions reopen, including York Art Gallery and the Castle Museum. These developments will certainly help to build confidence as we look to attract more domestic tourists to York to help make up the shortfall in overseas visitors.
Family friendly space
On the subject of confidence, research from UK Hospitality suggests that some members of the public are still uncomfortable with the idea of eating inside a city restaurant. That is one of the reasons we have created the pop-up eating and drinking space on College Green.
The Green near the Minster, with its tipi and picnic benches, offers an opportunity to enjoy food and drink from a local outlet in the fresh air, every day from 11am to 9pm. This family friendly space is already being well used and gives Goodramgate businesses additional seating capacity, on a street where on street pavement cafes are difficult to implement.
One thing that COVID has shown me is how intertwined our business sectors are. I’ve mentioned how hospitality is helping retail. The professional and office sector is still a long way from operating ‘normally’. Many offices remain all but empty. A recent survey by the West & North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce found that 61% of office-based businesses plan to continue some form of remote working for up to 12 months.
That is a concerning statistic for many York city centre businesses which rely on the custom of office workers.
Each office-based business must make its own decision about when to come back, prioritising staff safety. I hope that when decisions are being made by business leaders, the local economy is a consideration. It is maybe an issue some employers are not necessarily mindful of. Let us also not forget that so much business creativity comes from human interaction.
It is one reason for the coffee shop explosion of recent years. I know many people craving a decaf vanilla latte with a colleague, as opposed to another day feeling the symptoms of Zoomatosis!
Welcome the Lords
Finally, I want to look at a potential future. There have been more stories in recent days of York being a favoured destination for a regional relocation of key government institutions – be that the House of Lords or civil service departments. I was surprised to see some people complaining about the prospect.
I will stick my head above the parapet on this one – York would be crazy to snub an opportunity as transformative as this.
A relocation of this scale would:
- add much-needed diversity to our economy, creating high-value jobs for our young people, while helping to retain the most talented graduates from our universities;
- support the existing economy: the boost to our hospitality sector, for example, would be incalculable.
So we must ask ourselves, what more can York do to help turn this incredibly exciting opportunity into a reality? A strong business voice will play a big part and I’ve started conversations with government officials, as to how best we can do this.