Bristol Zoo Gardens hosts visitor economy-focused Initiative meeting

James Durie
Chief Executive - Bristol Chamber & Initiative | Business West
26th September 2019

At the end of a busy summer our September meeting of the Initiative focussed on the region’s visitor economy.

Held at one the region’s major attractions, Bristol Zoo Gardens, over 120 Initiative members and invited guests heard from speakers including Mayor Tim Bowles, John Hirst, Dr Justin Morris and Nick Hounsfield about the prospects and challenges for the visitor economy.

As a co-founder of the city region’s destination marketing organisation (DMO), Destination Bristol, the Initiative has long understood the value of the visitor economy said President Richard Bonner, as he set the scene for this quarter’s meeting. 

Promoting a vibrant city that continues to invest in a great offer for visitors and residents alike is key added Richard, before James Durie, Chief Executive of Bristol Chamber of Commerce & Initiative (BCCI) at Business West, updated members on progress on the Initiative’s main priorities.

The continued regeneration of Bristol’s Harbourside is a project that the Initiative has long propagated, from the recreation of The Matthew, regenerating Canon’s Marsh and supporting the Watershed, Underfall Yard and Brunel’s SS Great Britain, each of these developments has injected new life into the city centre and helped cultivate a vibrant hub for the city and its economy along this stretch of the Floating Harbour. By contrast, the Cumberland Basin remains somewhat cut off from the myriad attractors further east, and in a city and region where space for new homes and employment is at a premium, the development of this area has huge potential to unlock significant spaces for new high-quality affordable homes and also extend the activities and uses of the harbour. James reiterated the point that we know that the highway options for the Western Harbour development are still at early stage options and that the council has undertaken early public engagement on what needs to be a careful, sensitive and well thought through approach to this special part of our city. But that as a city we must not take allow immediate reaction and concerns at this early stage to prevent the city examining the greater potential of this area.

In light of Business West’s recent pledge to support a Chambers Climate Coalition, Initiative Manager Nina Skubala provided a brief update on the work we have underway, working with partners and members, as to how we how we best re-challenge ourselves and can address the climate and ecological emergency and what we do. Matt Griffith, Business West’s Policy Director, then reported on the work the organisation continues to do to help support businesses as they prepare for Brexit, before West of England Mayor Tim Bowles talked about the West of England Combined Authority’s remit in terms of skills and the visitor economy.

Employing 30,000 people in the Bristol area alone, the visitor economy is a priority sector for WECA emphasised Tim. Aware of the issues highlighted in the Skills West Visitor Economy Local Sector Skills Statement, such as low wages and unclear progression routes, WECA has been proactive in supporting apprenticeships across the sector. The authority’s aim, explained Tim, is to ensure that the visitor economy across the West of England is able to both support and offer high-skilled, high-value jobs that meet the needs of business. Additionally, Tim emphasised the importance of a joined up region wide approach to the visitor economy, particularly in terms of securing extra funding from central government. Illustrating the point, Tim described how a joint bid involving the University of Bristol and Visit Bath amongst others enabled WECA to secure £5m to launch the Bath and Bristol 5G smart tourism project. Although the devolved authority is still in its earlier years, projects such as Bath and Bristol 5G serve to demonstrate the power of joined up thinking when it comes to the visitor economy Tim added.

Such sentiment regarding the importance of joined up thinking and partnership working was echoed by Destination Bristol Chief Executive John Hirst. Fresh from a charity bicycle ride to Paris, which raised £120,000 for one of the Initiative’s charity partners Above and Beyond, John described how collaboration between DMOs and working together cross region is viewed favourably in Whitehall, and declared his ambition to make Bristol, Bath and the West of England area one of the government’s five future designated Tourism Zones across the UK.

Amidst an increasingly tough financial environment, John then emphasised the importance of the wider business community getting behind the sector, supporting what he described as efforts to communicate the ‘Premier League’ offer we have in this region to a global audience. As an example of how businesses are supporting the sector, John praised Bristol Airport’s poster campaign in its arrivals area.

Dr Justin Morris, Chief Executive of Bristol Zoological Society, outlined their new Strategy to 2025 which include ambitious growth plans for the Society’s two main visitor attractions, Bristol Zoo Gardens and Wild Place Project, and its major focuses on education and global conservation.

Since taking over as Chief Executive in August 2018, Justin and his team have put in place plans to modernise and improve Bristol Zoo Gardens’ visitor experience. Central to this work is an exciting new project to develop an immersive visitor experience that encompasses interactive and virtual reality elements.

No less innovative an attraction, the Wild Place Project, is a conservation park in South Gloucestershire, which, with its newly opened Bear Wood, experience is designed to inspire families to enjoy nature and discover wildlife from the UK and around the world. Having just opened the doors of this new attraction, early feedback from visitors has been positive, and Wild Place looks set to exceed its visitor target numbers earlier than expected.

Following Dr Justin Morris’ engaging insight into Bristol Zoo’s plans, Initiative members then heard from entrepreneur Nick Hounsfield, who revealed all about another inspiring new visitor attraction in South Gloucestershire, The Wave Bristol.

In 2011, lifelong surfer and full-time Bristol osteopath Nick decided to pursue his dream of creating the UK’s first inland surfing lagoon following the death of his late father. Nick described the many steps he had taken to make his ambitious project a reality, before singling out James Durie and the Business West Initiative team for praise as a result of their close involvement and support of the project right through. Scheduled to open in a few weeks, The Wave already has expansion in its sights, with a plot now secured for a second inland surfing lagoon in East London, and several places and parties from overseas expressing an interest.

The guest speakers then took questions from the audience as a panel. Jon Bower, Real Estate Regeneration & Infrastructure Partner at Womble Bond Dickinson, highlighted the importance of connectivity for a thriving visitor economy, before Executive Director of the Initiative in Bath Ian Bell pressed the panel on their views on a so-called ‘bed tax’.

John Hirst stated that provided it was something that was rolled out nationally, and ring fenced for re-investment in the marketing and promotion of the visitor economy, then he would be in favour such a tax, which generally would apply to hotels and other visitor accommodation such as homestays.

President Richard Bonner offered his concluding remarks, before members enjoyed a walk through the Zoo and food, drinks and networking in Zoo’s event and restaurant space The Hide.

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