With the demise of the Dartmouth Business Improvement District, DB News believes it is important to investigate why it failed. In tough economic times we need all the help we can get, so when we fail to take advantage of one of the support options available we need to understand why, in order to put right any of the issues behind the failure.
DB News will make its own analysis of the failure but will also carry out a survey of its readers to establish if there is a common understanding of where it went wrong. The questions we will ask are fundamental, and our survey will ask you to give your own view on these questions. Anyone is free to answer if they have an opinion and all opinions will be published by DB News to avoid bias. Clearly the views we give here are biased, from the point of view they represent only one persons view of the actions and history of the BID Company. Having invested a considerable amount of time and energy in the creation of this opportunity our views are clearly going to be strong. You can help to balance this by completing the survey with your own opinions.
Q1 Was the 5 year business plan right for Dartmouth?
A Yes we believe it was. It was the result of a 12 month consultation with over 150 different businesses and showed a clear consensus on where people wanted the BID Funds spent. About 50% on Marketing the town to increase its profile nationally and internationally. Signage was another key investment area and parking incentives to help alleviate the one problem we cant seem to solve in Dartmouth. Attracting more non tourist businesses to Dartmouth was another key wish to create non-tourism jobs in the town for obvious reasons.
Q2 Did the Dartmouth BID Team successfully deliver the Business Plan?
A No! we believe they did not. The main aspects of the plan including signage, parking concessions and job creation were not delivered in any form at all by the end of the second year. Some marketing investment was made but was diluted in the second year to the point where it was ineffective. We do not believe the Board can challenge this answer, but they may disagree as to why they failed to deliver, so the next questions will seek to answer the reasons why. They might argue it was too soon to judge but 2 years is enough to see some progress is being made and if it was too soon then it should not have been closed down.
Q3 Was the marketing plan fully implemented?
A No, we believe that after the first year, when there was mainly an investment in Branding and in the Web platform for delivering the Brand message, the proposals made by our Agency were diluted to such an extent that the potential created by the first years investment was lost. What do we mean by this?
Establishing a new, strong brand for Dartmouth, that differentiates us from all the other West-Country resorts fighting for the attention of the same visitors requires a long term strategic approach. Anyone who challenges the Railway Platform advertising should bear in mind that the stations we targeted were in the center of our target markets (750,000 people who visited the West Country in the previous 12 months) with footfall levels that were fantastic. (see chart here.) For instance Milton Keynes has a monthly footfall of 5.8 Million! Salisbury 2.1 Million, Winchester 4.65 Million this is why the web hits for the Dartmoutheverytime.co.uk website grew by over 30% during the campaign. This was also a campaign that was unanimously approved by the BID Board as I was Chairman at the time.
The key benefits from this strategy should have been seen in the second year of the plan, when there was meant to be extensive newspaper advertising, coupled with a social media campaign and a reinforcing of the railway platform advertising. The mix of marketing channels was key to its success but in the second year the BID Board chose to restrict the campaign to social media only. This reduced its effectiveness significantly and devalued the investment made in the first year. The proper marketing mix would have had a long lasting effect on the awareness of Dartmouth as a quality destination.
Q4 Was the signage plan implemented?
A Again this is a no. Towards the end of the second year the BID Company involved the team from 20/20 that had implemented a prize winning signage scheme in Falmouth for their BID Company. However no outputs came from this discussion because we suspect they had already given up on continuing the BID project, so after 2 years there was no real progress towards this key objective of the BID. This failure is hard to justify but we suspect lack of resource will be a reason given. So Q6 seeks to explore this problem.
Q5 Were any parking initiatives implemented?
A Again no! The BID did get involved in a discussion with SHDC about the Park & Ride, but this was to try and ensure its survival, not to add any incentives to visitors. In the end SHDC did the job we pay them for and negotiated a deal with the bus provider that saved the service. The BID upset the Town Council by claiming credit for this so it does not qualify as a BID achievement in our opinion.
Q6 Were any new businesses attracted to the area?
A No action taken here at all. Perhaps excusable as you cant do everything at the same time but still disappointing.
Q7 Was there a lack of resource to deliver the BID?
A Yes is an answer that everyone will agree with. With only 8 Directors elected at the first AGM in 2015 their resources were always going to be stretched. This number fell to 5 Directors in the end with no full time BID Manager in place, so clearly this was inadequate to deliver the Business Plan. But how did this situation arise? At the first AGM there were at least 16 applicants for Board positions. It was early days and businesses were still prepared to give the team time to deliver something from the plan. However a flawed election process led to only 8 Directors being elected leaving the elected Board with a mountain to climb. DB News believes individual Board members tried hard to deliver their commitment’s but failed through a lack of resource. We must therefore question the direction and leadership shown by the BID Chair at the time. Your comments will be useful here.
Q8 What did the BID deliver?
A This is a good question. The answer, in our view, sums up the reason the BID was unsuccessful. Here are some of the schemes the BID Board did spend its scarce resources on:
Shop local scheme: A lot of effort went into this scheme, but it proved difficult to get off the ground. Why? In our view because it was not asked for once during the consultation process. The idea came after a visit to Falmouth BID where this scheme has been implemented successfully. The problem is the local consultation is meant to tailor the BID to each town because they are all different. A scheme that works in Falmouth will not necessarily work in Dartmouth. Falmouth BID is a pure town center BID, which is why a shop local scheme is supported. Dartmouth is a whole town BID for important reasons (attracting new businesses to the upper town for one) and the lower town shopping experience is tailored more to visitors than locals. So it was always going to be less effective in Dartmouth.
Scaring seagulls: Again not requested or even mentioned during the consultation process. Also a difficult, if not impossible objective to reach so resulted in some ridicule from BID opponents and residents.
Nurse recruitment: A video advert to recruit nurses for the Minor Injury Unit in Dartmouth which risked closure due to shortage of nurses. Whilst this initiative is creditable and community oriented, it was nothing to do with the BID Business Plan and was not mentioned during the consultation. It illustrates that the decisions being taken at this time by the BID Board were short term and designed to try and gain favour within the non-business community. Admirable, but a misappropriation of levy payers funds in our opinion.
New wooden notice board for the Green Partnership: OK! not sure where this fits in with the BID objectives but we wont delve into this one as the Dartmouth Green Partnership do a great job keeping the town looking great for our visitors. As long as we manage to get the visitor numbers back up again.
So in summary the majority of BID resources appear to have been expended on initiatives that were not mentioned in the Business Plan and do not fulfill any of the key objectives of the BID. This undermines the view that the BID did not have enough resource to deliver the plan. Perhaps if the limited resources had been targeted at the real BID objectives we may have seen more progress towards achieving something after 2 years.
Q9 Was there a lack of support for the BID?
A This is also an interesting question but we need to understand what the question means. DB News did try and help businesses understand the difference between the BID Company and the legal BID entity, which are 2 separate things. The legal BID is a district set up where businesses must pay a levy for the delivery of a business plan they have voted for. The BID Company is an entity that is only set up after the vote in order to deliver the 5 year plan. So there are two things to judge here, the 5 year plan and the company set up to deliver it. We believe it is impossible to judge the legally established BID because so little of the BID Plan was delivered by the BID Company. So the opposition to the BID continuing was actually in our view a vote against the BID Company not against the BID Plan. There was still time to deliver the BID objectives, but by closing the BID company the team have removed any option for an alternative team to deliver the plan. This option was not offered to members by the BID Company. Which is a great shame. In several other UK BID’s an ineffective first Board has been replaced after some years to allow the BID to go on to be successful and gain another 5 year term.
Early on there were complaints about the turnout for the YES vote, but the turnout for the NO vote was the same, despite a great deal of publicity and despite ensuring the voting papers reached all the business owners at their homes. So that shows how many businesses actually engage with decisions in the Town and in my view shows that we had as much support as was possible for the YES vote. So this cannot be seen as a lack of support for the BID as its the normal turnout in Dartmouth.
Q10 Should the BID have been allowed to continue under new management
A Clearly our answer to this question is a resounding YES. With three years remaining and about £80,000 in the bank at the end of the second year there was a real opportunity to deliver what we promised in the Business Plan. It needed people with the right marketing, financial, organisational and management experience to step up and deliver the plan but we believe this was possible, as those people are in the town. It also needed a full time BID manager which would have been a more difficult task to fulfill but was still possible. The Boards decision to close the BID was a reflection on their lack of vision to see what could be done, and to fight for what we all believed in when we gained the YES vote. DB News recognise that the BID opposition were very effective, but the Boards failure to deliver the key elements of the plan, and their failure to communicate effectively with levy payers gave them all the reasons they needed to convince people to vote in favour of the BID closure.
The loss of the BID is a great loss for the town, something the Town Council recognised at their last meeting. DB News feels particularly disappointed by its loss having worked so hard to create the opportunity in the first place. We are also disappointed that we will now miss the opportunity to apply for additional funding available from the Discover England Fund. This is £40m funding available for tourism initiatives in the UK. The applicant must provide 20% of the required funds but the BID could have applied for this and found the additional funding stated in the Business Plan. You can read more here.
The nearby Torbay Tourism BID (TTBID) has now gone to a vote and will possibly result in the investment of over £3m in Torbay tourism over the next 5 years. This may help Dartmouth as we are on the list of local attractions for Torbay, but we fear it may also have a negative effect by drawing people away from Dartmouth to Torbay. However no one can predict what will happen so we should not speculate here. What is clear though is that there will now be very little funding available to promote Dartmouth and its surroundings. We will watch with interest as the Visit South Devon organisation attempts to run our destination website for us and hope that they can deliver results that have not been delivered before.