In previous articles we have said that saving the BID means retaining the possibility of saving the TIC. This report speculates on how this might be done .
Dartmouth TIC has been serving the town since 1992 according to Companies House records. In that time it has relied mostly on volunteers to provide the important resources it needs to deliver its services. Clearly this year it has struggled to survive and is now at risk of closure in August at the end of its financial year. There is little news coming out about how it will remain open. So how can we save this vital service?
Why is it struggling?
The TIC today
The TIC derives its income from several sources. Firstly from subscriptions paid by clients who value the tourism marketing services the TIC provides. many of their subscribers are small businesses, usually accomodation providers, that benefit from the big investment the TIC has made in their brochure and online presence, something a small business couldn’t afford to do. Secondly there are some retail sales of souvenirs and guides, and occasionally they take a royalty from ticket sales for local organisations. In addition the Town Council has provided some support from the rates. The rent for the building which is owned by SHDC is kept pretty low, but its probably unfair to call it subsidised.
How has tourism changed since 1992?
Clearly the internet has played a very big part in the changes that have taken place since 1992. Mobile technology has also made significant differences to the way people use their leisure time. A glossy brochure and/or newspaper ads used to be the only way to get your product in front of potential customers but now there are multiple routes to market. Low air fairs have made the home holiday less competitive and seaside resorts have not invested enough to keep their attraction fresh. If you visit the Coastal Tourism Academy website you will find lots of reports on how tourism has been affected in the last years.
How has this affected the TIC?
The TIC has tried to keep pace with the technological developments in tourism with a major investment in a Dartmouth website using a proven CMS (content management system) from New Minds. The brochure is still produced and distributed around the country in large numbers. Volunteers still provide important services for visitors to make their experience as positive as possible. However limited funds make it difficult, if not impossible, for the TIC to run any major national marketing campaigns to reach a bigger audience.
So what is going wrong?
The problem with new technology is that eventually new companies build new business models around the internet which are far more effective at delivering services to clients. It is always difficult to change an existing business model to keep pace with this change in the market, because managing change and finding new skills is always difficult. So now we have Travel Supermarket, TripAdvisor and many other businesses that are trying, often successfully, to create a new niche. Their investment dwarfs the TIC’s resources making it hard to compete. The TIC has done well in terms of gaining web hits but this is not the critical statistic in this market, what matters is conversion rate. i.e. how many website visitors turn into real customers. Accomodation providers will always look at where their bookings are coming from to evaluate their marketing investment. And high conversion rates can only be achieved with a lot of other support activities around the website that push up this conversion rate. Social media, newspaper ads, Brand/image building and so on. These are outside the financial resources available to the TIC. The result is that the service they provide is seen to have less value from the business side, so subscription levels are, and have been dropping for a few years now. The BID’s marketing programme was meant to provide that missing element of support for the TIC, but it has failed to invest at the level that BID members originally requested (for reasons we will not explore here). TIC Directors have sometimes blamed the BID for their loss of subscribers, but the question we must ask is why did the BID consultation result in a request for 50% of the BID budget to be spent on Destination Marketing? We believe it was because members did not see the TIC having the resources to deliver such a comprehensive marketing programme, so they believed the BID was the only way to do this.
With the decline in subscribers the TIC has been forced to increase the price of their service to cover their overheads, but this has had the effect of making it even less competitive. So the decline in subscribers is likely to continue. Those subscribers we have spoken to talk about the difficulty of justifying the cost of their TIC subscription against the returns they receive, and many of them are now looking at alternatives like Owners Direct, to promote their businesses. Many of those who continue to support the TIC do so out of a sense of loyalty community spirit. The website is therefore not fully inclusive and is less effective because of that. An incomplete database of accommodation providers is of limited value to someone planning to visit Dartmouth.
The New Minds website is a Rolls Royce of websites, unfortunately with the costs of a Rolls Royce. Today’s CMS websites are, in our opinion, far more economical and flexible than the New Minds model. This website you are reading now, Dartmouth Business News, uses WordPress, a CMS which is behind 20% of the worlds websites including CNN, BBC, American Airlines and so on. It cost us nothing to develop as the CMS is free, it took 3 days to produce and our only ongoing cost is £33 per year for hosting. I know its not sexy but it is responsive for viewing on mobile, and it gets the message over. That is a big contrast to the £20-£30K used to develop the TIC site with about £10K per year license fees! The value of the TIC site is in the content which the TIC has to load themselves so why there is an annual licence fee at such a high level is very hard to understand. In addition the TIC site is not responsive and so is difficult to use on mobile. Mobile is where the majority of web surfing is going on today.
Back to the question – How do we save the TIC?
The solution we have proposed on a few occasions has met with support from those businesses we have spoken to (but not by the Directors of the TIC to be frank). It involves simply recognising that the TIC’s primary role should be to look after visitors when they arrive in Dartmouth, with the BID taking over full responsibility for national marketing of Dartmouth to get the visitors here in the first place.
Only the Dartmouth BID has the guaranteed income to create a consistent long term marketing programme, so the Dartmoutheverytime.co.uk website should be jointly owned by the TIC and the BID. The BID can invest in keeping it current and up to date, the TIC can offer subsidised rates for subscribers supported by the BID’s levy income. Every levy payer in the tourism industry should have an entry in the website, which is incomplete today and therefore of limited value to visitors. The BID can take full responsibility for National promotion of Dartmouth, both as a tourist destination and as a business location. The BID Company has already invested at least as much as the TIC in the website with no ownership rights, something I personally believe to be a high risk use of levy payers funds. I also believe the BID can renegotiate the licencing of the New Minds CMS on the basis that the value of the site is in the content, and it has taken the TIC overheads beyond what they can afford. If that negotiation fails then I believe a new lower cost responsive website using the same URL should be developed that will reduce overheads and at the same time free up more funds to invest in backup digital marketing to increase the websites conversion rate. This is far more important than having a sexy site. The TIC can then focus on activities which look after the interests of our visitors while they are here.
This is not an original idea with the Lincoln BID doing exactly this to rescue their TIC, which was due for closure. The Dartmouth TIC Directors argue that there is a big difference between Dartmouth and Lincoln, which is true, but all it requires is a willingness to accept the need for change.
Of course if the BID closes in 3 weeks then this option is gone.
This is a