All change at First West of England and Destination Bristol

James Durie
Chief Executive - Bristol Chamber & Initiative | Business West
10th March 2021

At the March 2021 Initiative meeting over 120 members were able to bid a fond farewell to two stalwarts of the Bristol and West of England business community and heard about developments and future plans for the visitor economy and Bristol Airport in the lead up to a crucial summer for the city and wider region.

After President of Bristol Chamber & Initiative Richard Bonner opened the meeting – where he expressed his disappointment at the failure of the Great Western freeport bid – Chamber Transport Chair Roger Key paid tribute to the retiring Managing Director of First Bus West of England James Freeman.

Initiative Manager Victoria Matthews then gave members an update on key activities, around the forthcoming local elections in May and the latest on Bristol’s Clean Air Zone, before Director of Public Health for North Somerset Council Matt Lenny described the local authority’s pandemic response.

Following this, members assembled on the call heard from Destination Bristol Chief Executive John Hirst, who after 24 years at the helm of Broadmead, the city’s main shopping quarter, together with destination management organisation (DMO) will shortly retire.

Before John reflected on his tenure, he shared some exciting news regarding the future of the organisation.

In April 2021, Destination Bristol will merge with Visit Bath and other local destination management structures across the West of England to become Visit West.

The merger, which was first suggested in 2002, is happening now in an effort to pool resources and meet three key objectives to accelerate tourism in the region, said John.

One of the key deliverables of this newly formed organisation was to develop and market the region’s attractive offer more effectively in order to increase the number of overnight stays among overseas visitors. A large proportion of tourist visits to the region are by day visitors, often by coach from London, which sees them stop off in Oxford and at Stonehenge en route to Bath. A more joined up marketing effort on part of Visit West will help to promote and improve the West of England as an important and growing tourist destination in its own right, and encourage visitors to say longer and spend more, John said. 

Another driver of the merger, John continued, was the review of DMOs undertaken by Visit Britain, which shifts emphasis towards funding regional DMOs such as Visit West, over city-based ones i.e., Visit Bristol.

Not only will the merger bring Visit West into line with the competitive funding environment, by pooling the talents and resources of the West’s already successful DMOs, Visit West will become one of the major players nationally, putting it in a strong position to work ever more closely with Visit Britain. Business West Initiative and the local authorities will be the partners of this new organisation.

In terms of next steps, John said Visit West would launch in April 2021 once an agreement had been finalised. John then offered some reflections on his 24 years at Destination Bristol, sharing an assessment of the growth of the city’s visitor economy. 

Chair of Bristol Chamber & Initiative (and also Destination Bristol) Dr John Savage, who was instrumental in the formation of Destination Bristol and other key partnership organisations together with Bristol City Council, paid tribute to John and wished him well for the future.

Staying on the subject of the visitor economy and the region’s international dimension, members had the chance to hear from Bristol Airport Chief Executive, Dave Lees.

Demonstrating the enormous impact of the pandemic on air travel to and from the region, Dave said that the airport was currently running at 1 percent of usual levels of activity, maintaining only essential domestic routes for business travel in service of Hinkley Point C, NHS Blood and Transplant and for Western Power Distribution for example. 

With leisure travel currently banned as part of the UK-wide coronavirus lockdown, Dave explained how he and his team looked forward to the future recovery and growth of the airport and the efforts taking place behind the scenes to make this happen, including the airport and aviation industries’ very important low and zero carbon road map.

To finish off the meeting, we were joined Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire, who thanked John Hirst for his valuable contribution to the visitor economy of the city and wished him well for the future. Thangam spoke briefly about the 2021 Budget, expressing regret at the failed Bristol freeport bid and the lack of new funding for Bristol Temple Quarter.

The next Initiative meeting is on Thursday 1st April from 11.30am and invitations will be sent out shortly.

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