No offence to our great cities, but I much prefer a conference in a seaside resort. Sadly, after years of losing competitive advantage against cities investing heavily in tourism infrastructure and bed spaces, the seaside has been all but abandoned by the main parties. UKIP did Eastbourne this year but, well, it’s UKIP. Not that I have anything against Eastbourne, far from it (UKIP on the other hand…).
Of course, seaside resorts like Eastbourne or Blackpool suffer from the Skoda problem. Some people simply refuse to see them as they are now rather than as they were 25 years ago. But our seaside resorts (or coastal towns as tourism professionals prefer to call them these days) are, like Skoda, resurgent and much improved. They are winning back the tourist trade – a trend that started before the credit crunch. And I’m confident conferences will soon head back to the seaside – and not because of political calculations, nor even mere grassroots pressure (though @ConHome is right to apply it)but simple economics . Conferences are money-spinners and the Coalition’s enthusiasm for localism will be the key driver in seaside boroughs upping their game and winning them back.
Consider this. In the 1920s seaside boroughs were among the very richest in the country. Now more often they are among the poorest. Losing party conferences might have seemed to some the final nail in their coffin. But seaside towns have been reinventing themselves around a timeless formula: Health, Happiness and Horseplay.
The coast has always attracted Brits when it’s offered us bracing sea air and exercise (the first seaside resort, Scarborough, was a health spa; Newquay has reinvented itself as a surfers’ dream – thanks to much improved water quality and the wetsuit). The seaside is (should be) a happy place to be too: quirky, fun architecture, a place to make you smile. Until 60s and 70s architecture came along of course, degenerating once exotic places into grey soulless boxes as the years went by (the Brighton Centre? Yuck.) Now we’re seeing a revival in seaside ambition – the Turner in Margate, East Beach Cafe in Littlehampton, Rock Walk in Torquay – and the scheduling for demolition of the worst of the 60s and 70s crud. Finally, it is ok to enjoy yourself too. Horseplay is not hooliganism (a la the mods and rockers who clashed in seaside towns) but nor is it sandwiches in silence in a retirement centre. Resorts had been in danger of falling into the trap of letting themselves slide from places of life literally to places of death. There is now much greater focus on balancing age profiles in seaside towns. I’m told the average age of residents in Eastbourne, for example, is 43. When Bournemouth consulted on building an artificial surf reef one of the findings was that older residents loved that it would attract young people (not least their own grandchildren) back to the town. The children of the 60s are now in their 60s. As they retire to the seaside in pretty much full health so the seaside is changing to embrace life on the edge again. It will make it richer.
Importantly, resorts have embraced local differences – unique selling points and points of difference (or whatever the current marketing babble may be): Brighton is bohemian and ‘resort’ is a banned word in its marketing whereas Southport markets itself as ‘England’s classic resort’. And thinking locally is attractive globally. When you can travel anywhere in the world, you tend to prefer somewhere that is like nowhere else on Earth. Seaside towns knew this when they developed. Being at the very height of architectural fashion attracted Coco Chanel and Hollywood movie stars to Morecambe, whatever the weather. And budget hotels – the fastest growing suppliers of bed spaces in UK tourism – are revolutionising value for money in accommodation and driving up standards elsewhere as small B&Bs compete with their own points of difference in customer care. The classic, bossy, customer unfriendly Blackpool landlady of myth (and, in some cases, truth) simply cannot work as a business model today.
Of course, in the old days of the Blackpool Corporation et al attracting tourists and other travellers made financial sense to the Town Hall. More economic activity meant more business rates, which meant more for investment and so on in a virtuous circle. Cutting that link was a huge mistake. So the welcome moves from DCLG bringing business rates retention ever closer will ensure it makes sense again to invest in leisure and business tourism and compete for conferences on grounds of product quality, not pity or political calculations of there being a few votes in it (moving conference to Birmingham didn’t win us Edgbaston after all). There is a long way to go but Blackpool and the seaside conference will be back – and better than before. And we’ll all be better off because of the localist economic competition driving it. Please join me, @graemearcher and @torypride in showing them we’re looking forward to being back. #BackToBlackpool