What York needs to reopen for business

York BID Executive Director Andrew Lowson shares his thoughts after conversations with countless York businesses

To put it mildly, these have been a tough few weeks. Yet, faced with the biggest challenge of our lifetimes, York businesses have risen to it. We’ve seen so many examples of companies putting aside their own concerns to help others – making PPE for health and care workers, cooking up meals for those who needed them most, delivering vital supplies.

For me this has only underlined how incredibly generous, agile and interconnected York’s business community is. And these qualities will be needed more than ever as we move from crisis response to recovery and rebuilding.

Like many businesses the York BID has temporarily downsized in response to the emergency. But our streamlined team has been working hard behind the scenes. And we’ve been talking to businesses large and small on a daily basis.

When the crisis first hit, that enabled us to help shape the emergency response, as part of a group including City of York Council and Make It York – supporting companies to access grants, or to furlough their staff.

Now though, our ongoing conversation with city businesses is informing my thoughts on how York can get back on its feet.

Reopening the city

Two of the sectors most badly disrupted by the lockdown are retail and hospitality, so I’m going to concentrate on those – and look at other sectors in subsequent articles.

As we know, the government is planning to allow non-essential retail to reopen from 15 June. So what should York be doing to prepare for that?

Firstly, we need guidance on how the city’s public space will be controlled. In terms of pedestrian flows, this might mean turning some streets one-way, widening footpaths or closing roads.

And we need an initial transport plan which covers car parks, public transport, walking and cycling. These measures are about safety and confidence – and are vital if we are to persuade people to return to the city centre.

Clear guidance is urgently needed, to enable traders to adapt their own strategies.  The public must feel the city is safe.  Businesses must feel their staff’s health is not at risk.  Oh, and we need toilet provision!  Without that, you can rule out day trippers to the city.

York’s business owners are admirably pragmatic – they know it’s down to them to make their business work and we know they provide a great offer. But they need to know about the framework they will be trading in and that customers can access the city and be comfortable during their stay

York’s changing market

We already know that a large number of the foreign tourists York attracts each year won’t be coming any time soon.

Now we need more information. We’re asking Make It York for details on how many tourists we can expect to lose this year, and from where. That will allow us to calculate the gap in the spend – and the impact on key sectors including hotels and visitor attractions.

From there we can start identifying the markets that might make up some of this shortfall. Will it just be the local area to begin with? Are we expecting a rise in staycations later in the year?

A city marketing campaign to these markets should follow – and this will empower businesses to adapt their own trading strategies, in order to appeal to the people these promotions will attract.

Hospitality challenges

We have to be realistic – some York businesses will struggle to reopen as long as strict social distancing guidelines are required.

Much of the city’s late-night economy is predicated on the special atmosphere created by a packed and buzzing pub or bar, for example.

Similarly, many York restaurants are made all the more special because they are located in historic buildings with small, intimate rooms. Will it be possible to make such a business pay if you are only allowed a single table per room?

We hope that ministers recognise these specific challenges. The government needs to offer targeted support to those sectors which will take an ongoing hit. We will be lobbying both local and national authorities to make this case – much as we have done with the Raise The Bar campaign.

A united front

From my conversations over the past couple of months, I’ve been very encouraged by the positive approach shown by York businesses. Many are planning – or already implementing – significant changes to be ready for the challenges ahead.

What they need now is for York’s leaders to agree and implement a strategy to get the city up and running again.

Then we must unite behind York’s recovery plan. The more we work together, the faster the revival.