Sheffield tourist office could close as visitors move online

Sheffield's tourist information office in Surrey Street.
Sheffield's tourist information office in Surrey Street.
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Sheffield Council has revealed plans to close the city centre tourist office, blaming changing habits and a lack of use.

The authority wants to market the city's attractions online rather than through the physical space in Surrey Street, next to the Winter Garden.

Cabinet member for business Mazher Iqbal said people increasingly used the internet to research their trips to Sheffield.

But heritage campaigners have criticised the plans, urging the council to do more to promote the city.

Valerie Bayliss, of the Friends of the Old Town Hall group, compared the office to its counterpart in the Tasmanian town of Sheffield, population 2,000, which she visited 10 years ago.

"We found a tourist office on the scale of Chesterfield’s – lots of information, friendly staff – we were welcomed with open arms when we said where we were from," she said.

"The tourist info side was supported by a fairly substantial shop and we were told the model worked well. The town set out years ago to grow a tourist trade based on a programme of mural painting round the town; it has been very successful in achieving their aim of developing the local economy through visitors.

"It looks like they have now developed the operation into a local museum.

"If a town of 2,000 can get this right, why on earth can’t we?

"We need more visitors – and have plenty of attractions to show them, if we just organise ourselves properly. The internet is no substitute for face to face communication and advice and won’t cope with casual drop-in callers who find a bit of time to spare.

"Why do the council think other local authorities make sure they have decent facilities for visitors? It’s an investment that pays."

The council said in the early 2000s, when the office was part of a national tourism organisation, it was attracting about 100,000 interactions - in-person, over the phone and via e-mail - per year.

But that had dropped to about 6,000 today.

By contract, the council-run Welcome to Sheffield website now gets 1.5 million visitors a year.

The office costs £64,000 a year to run, with much of that taken up by the salaries of the two staff.

Coun Iqbal said Sheffield was 'increasingly popular' with visitors, who came for various reasons including outdoor activities and events such as the World Snooker Championships.

"But where people are looking for information has changed," he said.

"As the statistics prove, people don’t arrive in a city on-spec and turn up in a tourist information centre any more. They research online, book online, and use real-world reviews to inform their travel decisions.

“It is crucial that we spend public money as effectively as we can, and this means channelling our money and resources into the services that people use the most.”