Who would have thought that I would end up being the Chief Executive of Southampton Business Improvement District, responsible to 630 businesses. Much of what I achieved over my career can be traced back to events at Edge Hill, or as importantly, the people I met.
I’m taking you back to a day in September 1981 when a very naive, slightly bemused young man from the rural county of Northumberland arrived at Edge Hill College (as it was then). That would be me. Who would have thought that I would end up being the Chief Executive of Southampton Business Improvement District, responsible to 630 businesses, ranging from coffee shops to independent retailers and the busiest cruise ship port in the UK, two universities, insurance companies, shopping centres and public art galleries.
In a way that autumn day was to transform my life, since much of what I achieved over my career can be traced back to events at Edge Hill, or as importantly, the people I met. In that first week I found friends with whom I have stayed in touch for more than four decades, including an emotional return to the campus in November 2023 for a group of us as alumni. Our wonderful tour guide, Rachael, was very patient as we gazed around and kept saying, “in my day, all this was fields.” We all agreed the campus looks fantastic, retaining intimacy whilst having state of the art facilities.
I can also proudly say that I met Maria, student of English and Art, resident of John Dalton Hall and to whom I am now happily married.
I studied BA History with Afro-Asian Studies, which was an interesting combination and gave me insights into a huge range of topics from Medieval farming techniques to Japanese literature and the growth of Stalinism. However, what I did also learn was the power of persuasion, the skills of presenting a coherent argument and developing an enquiring mind supported by a growth in my self-confidence.
Like many first year students, I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to do, how I saw my future career developing and how I perceived success in life. My journey did start with the rigours of academic study, the assignments which were always submitted on time (nearly) and the occasional exam which raised the revision bar high. Friends and enjoying life were very much part of a successful student life and a group of us ‘lived out’ in Southport during our second and third years, giving us all that rounded, worldly personality ready for the opportunities and challenges of post graduate life.
I referred to the people being important during my time at Edge Hill and one of those was the careers adviser, Hugh Potter. If I was to pinpoint an event or time that set me on my path through life, it was my conversation with Hugh after our finals were completed and I was in that limbo period of waiting for the results. I had by then determined that I was going to work in museums, but didn’t have the faintest idea of how to go about it. I had had a couple of chats with Hugh during the preceding months as part of the college’s ‘get you work ready’, but on this occasion he picked up the phone and called Liverpool Museums and within fifteen minutes he had arranged a meeting for the following week with the head of social and industrial history. This was a fascinating exchange on how to get into the profession, the value of post-graduate qualifications, voluntary and paid employment experience – however there were currently no openings at the museum. This was in June.
Fast forward a few weeks and a telephone call from the museum’s deputy director. I started work at Liverpool Museums’ Social and Industrial History Department in September with a temporary contract to move large transport objects, including the locomotive Lion (pictured) and by February I was the deputy head of department, initially based in Croxteth Hall. A vacancy had occurred since my careers chat, it’s not just stand-up comedy where timing is everything. For that, I am forever grateful to Hugh and Edge Hill.
The value of university advisers is not to be underestimated. They have a huge pool of knowledge and skills, along with a great contact list of employers in all sectors and regions of the country.
I may not have planned my career path, but on reflection there is a pattern which included setting up the first education service at Beamish Open Air Museum in County Durham, delivering hands-on learning activities for 60,000 children each year, followed by managing Alnwick Castle in my home county. Many of you will read this and, quite rightly, say that it makes logical sense for a history graduate to work in museums and historic properties, and to a great extent this is true, but they are also businesses, with hundreds of staff, thousands of paying visitors and multi-million pound turnovers each year. Whether operating as profit making enterprises or as a charitable trust there are some fundamental truisms, which can be applied to many areas. I had to get the product right, the service had to be excellent and exceed expectations, I had to identify key target markets and then we had to promote our product and services to our target markets.
We were preparing annual budgets and forecasts on how many people might come through the gates, paying an admission price we had set to cover the core costs, which included staff, maintenance, insurance and the marketing. This was matched against the possible effects of significant national events, major holidays and the unknown factor of extreme weather.
How do we then encourage visitors to spend that little bit more cash once they’re inside the grounds or the building? They must feel relaxed and welcome on arrival, with easy directions and clear information, all reinforced by the smiling faces of our front of house team. Visitors need to feel that they are getting value for money, so their precious time is time well-spent. We aimed many of our experiences at families, so it was essential that activities and exhibitions were suitable for children. My belief was that if the children have something to do which is enjoyable and fun, then the family has a great day out, if on the other hand there is little or nothing for the kids, then boredom and frustration will soon change the mood of the day. If adults don’t have children, they can just bypass the activity, or, as I’ve seen on many occasions, have a quick go themselves.
This is all about making visitors feel happy, since the happy visitor will purchase souvenirs from the gift shop, enjoy lunch in the café, or have cup of tea before heading home. This secondary income is vital, but also the person who has enjoyed their day is much more likely to recommend our attraction or business by word of mouth to friends or the wider world through review sites.
I was very fortunate at Alnwick Castle, since in early summer 2000, I was the person who answered the call from a film location scout. It may be hard to believe but when I was standing on the castle’s walls looking down into the grounds and listening to two people talk about Quiddich, I had no idea what they were talking about. The rest is history. The Harry Potter film became the Harry Potter phenomenon, but at the time I was negotiating the best location fee I could obtain from Warners and then trying to gain some marketing benefits when the second film was in production. For all we knew, Harry Potter could have been a passing fad, forgotten after a couple of years. Here we are nearly a quarter of a century later and it shows no sign of decline. What this demonstrated is that you can never tell when the next ‘big thing’ is going to happen, but always hope and strive to ensure you and your business are prepared to take some risk and can take full advantage.
I later moved on to manage Arundel Castle, located in West Sussex. Again, I worked on the quality of what we offered our visitors and how we delivered it, with exciting medieval events, great gardens and refurbished toilets – any attraction or venue manager will emphasise the need for clean loos. Looking after a grade 1 listed and scheduled monument dating back to the 11th century has a wealth of opportunities for problem solving on a monumental scale. Entry was originally designed to repel fit and healthy warriors, whereas narrow doorways and spiral stairs are not so easy for delivering large stone slabs or bags of sand for our restoration of the medieval keep’s floor. A helicopter may seem extravagant, but it was effective, quicker and much safer.
Like many of you, I sometime browse the employment opportunities or listen to my wife, who does similar browsing. A role popped up in early 2022 at Southampton BID, which on the face of it bore little or no resemblance to my previous jobs. Curiosity and bit of encouraging led me to call the contact number, which started with me stating that I had no experience of BIDs and that my background was managing visitor attractions. Their response was, “let’s talk.”
I don’t know if there is such a thing as fate, or if there is any influence from aligned celestial bodies, but my timing was pretty good. Remember, how a chat about careers in museums coincided with them seeking staff, well this was GO! Southampton seeking to improve the welcome to the city, encourage cruise ship passengers to spend more time in the city and develop the visitor economy and tourism experience. Cruise ships bring more than 2 million passengers to the city from the UK and overseas, either embarking on their holiday or visiting for the day.
Attracting more people into the city centre is a year round activity for GO! Southampton, which reaches a climax with our Countdown for Christmas event in November.
All of this activity, care and attention is to bring additional economic benefits, particularly to the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors.
There is no way I can achieve this on my own, so the need to work in partnership with our 630 businesses, the city council and voluntary organisations is critical for success. Everyone must have a shared vision, a shared set of values and an input into the delivery. The measure of success will vary, depending on the organisation, for some it will be having a pleasant environment for their employees to enjoy during the day and evening, for others it will the raising of Southampton’s profile in the media, and for many it will be the increased footfall and more spend through their tills. All of these are equally valid, but the role for me and my colleagues is to ensure each of them enjoys success.
I had a wonderful time at Edge Hill, met and married Maria, made friends for life, have some very fond memories and I am very proud to say that I went to Edge Hill.
The twist in the story, Maria is Chief Executive of Cambridge BID. It’s something in the Ormskirk water!