Why Sheffield has the potential to 'break the mould' as a tourist hot spot
Sheffield is uniquely poised to 'break the mould' as a tourist hot spot, but we must all act as 'ambassadors' if the city is to capitalise.
That was the verdict from a panel of experts brought together by The Star to debate the city's visitor economy.
The thriving arts scene, rich heritage and bustling nightlife of Sheffield's city centre, coupled with the ravishing views and sporting opportunities abounding in the Peak District, make it perfectly positioned, they said, to cash in on a new kind of short break combining the pleasures of city life with rural adventures.
But we all have a role to play in spreading the word about Sheffield's attractions. It's not just those working at its hotels, bars, restaurants and galleries who will shape visitors' first impressions of the city, after all, but everyone who interacts with them on the streets, stadiums and elsewhere.
It's also important to talk up the city, and rein in our cynicism, they suggested, when explaining to friends and relatives what it has to offer.
Edward Highfield, Sheffield Council's director of city growth, said: "You hear talk of people having a negative impression of the city from The Full Monty, but millennials weren't even born when that was released. They don't have a negative impression; they have no impression at all.
"We're all ambassadors with a part to play in the city's marketing drive. Every interaction we have is part of that. We need to give people a positive impression of Sheffield to fill that gap of them having no impression at all."
Dom Stokes, head of entertainment and events at SIV, which runs venues including FlyDSA Arena and Sheffield City Hall, echoed that view.
"We have such great assets but I think sometimes the good folk of Sheffield take them for granted. There's a natural tendency to keep people on their toes and criticise what we've got," he said.
"We need to do more to get people to visit Sheffield in the first place because we know when they come here they have a great experience."
The advent of cheap European flights means there's a whole generation of Britons who have never explored their own country, according to Mr Highfield, who believes Sheffield can tap into that market as well as attracting more overseas visitors.
"We have the chance to break the mould and offer a city and rural break combined, which is a market that hasn't been grown in the UK," he said.
One of the difficulties in selling Sheffield, it was discussed, is that there is no single stand-out attraction. The city's strength lies, rather, in the diversity of independent creative venues to be explored.
Claire Thornley, director at Sheffield design studio Eleven and editor of Our Favourite Places, the hit guide to the best of the city's culture, believes the key is helping people easily navigate their way around the best the city has to offer.
"When we write about an event, we also mention related events nearby so we're giving people multiple reasons to visit," she said.
"We try to build these natural journeys for people so they can get the best out of the city while they're here."
Sheffield brands itself as the Outdoor City, highlighting the wealth of open air pursuits to enjoy both within its limits and in the neighbouring expanses of the Peak District.
So far this marketing strategy has been largely focused on attracting big employers and the skilled staff they require to relocate to the area, but the council is now stepping up efforts to use it as a driver for tourism.
Sheffield was recently awarded £500,000 to help attract more young adventure sport enthusiasts from Europe on short breaks.
And plans were unveiled last month to revive Sheffield's derelict Ski Village as an extreme sports complex, complete with accommodation.
Gill Pomfret, senior lecturer in tourism at Sheffield Hallam University, said: "There's really massive potential to increase tourism, especially with this new funding.
"Lots of people already come here independently but once these bookable short breaks are up and running, making it easier for visitors to plan their trip, we could attract many more people."
Alexis Krachai, managing director of communications firm Counter Context and chair of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce's Visitor Economy Forum, said: "People will drive for four or five hours to come here and go mountain biking or climb at Stanage Edge.
"We have all the assets. It's not about doing anything fundamentally new, it's about stitching together what we already have so people understand what's available.
"There's huge potential to drive up visitor numbers to the city but it doesn't lend itself to a billboard campaign. It lends itself to people sharing stories."
WHAT THE EXPERTS HAD TO SAY ON...
Sheffield's transport links are not holding back tourism, but nor are they seen as a 'differentiator' helping attract more visitors, said Mr Highfield.
He claimed the promise of HS2 speeding up journeys to London, and the prospect of quicker, more frequent trains to Leeds and Manchester, would improve things but it was important to take advantage by improving connections within South Yorkshire.
There was agreement that Sheffield needs to expand its tram network to link up with the rest of South Yorkshire. Mr Highfield claimed Sheffield was the only city to have built a tram system but failed to expand it.
The experts also said it was important to make it easier for visitors, especially those from overseas, to get around South Yorkshire. They mooted the idea of a region-wide travel card, covering all forms of transport, which would make it simple for people to get from Chatsworth to Doncaster Sheffield Airport, for example.
As for the airport, they said Sheffield must make more of this 'gateway' to the world which is just 25 minutes from the city centre and has 'huge capacity to grow'. Ms Pomfret said the recent creation of a direct bus link from Sheffield station to the airport was a step in the right direction.
Mr Highfield and Mr Krachai both claimed the Sheffield City Region deal, which would see a directly elected mayor handed new powers currently held by the Government, is vital to improve South Yorkshire's infrastructure - especially when it comes to transport.
"This is a deal which has already been signed three times and represents a huge opportunity to access hundreds of millions of pounds of funding for the region," said Mr Krachai.
"The debate about Sheffield City Region versus one Yorkshire is the wrong debate, as one doesn't preclude the other. Let's not discard the deal we already have."
Ms Thornley called for more support and investment in culture.
She praised proposals for the £5.5 million Tinsley art trail, an eye-catching series of cracked, hovering, leaning and knotted chimney sculptures; and S1 Artspace's plans for a £21 million cultural centre at Sheffield's Park Hill estate.
"Both of those things would be game changers in terms of cultural tourism, and I really want them to happen," she said.
"I think we need to be ambitious and be unashamed of being ambitious."
FESTIVALS AND OTHER EVENTS
The panel agreed that Sheffield is already blessed when it comes to festivals and other events, from the World Snooker Championship and Sheffield Doc/Fest to Tramlines and the Cliffhanger weekend.
But Mr Highfield urged people to take more risks and not just expect the council to write a cheque when planning new events. He said he would like to see Sheffield launch its own major triathlon, for example.
Mr Krachai hailed the example of the No Bounds Festival, held just outside the city centre, whose founder, he said, believes it could become the city's answer to Barcelona's Sónar festival, which is attended by more than 100,000 people each year.
The city's hotels are generally busy, said Mr Krachai, with the average occupancy rate of 77.4 per cent comparing well to other cities.
But he said the 'rack rate' - the amount they can charge guests - is below that of some comparable cities, and the relatively small margins meant it was not an easy job running a hotel in the city.
He added that the growth of Airbnb was not generally seen as a threat to hotels within the city, as they tended to cater for different markets, while Mr Stokes said he was not aware of the city ever having had to turn down an event due to a lack of visitor accommodation.
As for whether the city needs a five-star hotel, Mr Krachai said: "We need to look at making the city a more attractive place to stay so we can drive up the rack rate. The market will tell us when we need a five-star hotel."