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Liverpool is now well into its year-long reign as European Capital of Culture (ECOC), with events galore and new attractions for visitors and locals alike. If you visit Liverpool today, one thing that strikes you is the amount of activity and regeneration taking place in the city, on a scale that has not been witnessed for decades.
Early results would seem to indicate that the year has got off to a good start, with visits to events and city centre attractions up by 25% over 2007. But is it the ECOC which has brought these increases about, or a combination of other things? Has Liverpool learned any lessons from previous European Capitals of Culture? and what can the rest of us learn from Liverpool’s experiences in organising and running an event such as this?
This paper looks at some of the opportunities for a large scale celebration such as ECOC, some of the potential pitfalls, and summarises some key lessons learned.
Athens became the first European City of Culture back in 1985, with Glasgow taking the title a few years later in 1990. Cities would bid for the accolade each year. In 1999 it was decided to give each EU member a turn at hosting the title, to avoid excessive rivalry in the race to win the title. The UK was given its turn in 2008. It was also decided to change the title to ‘European Capital of Culture’ and thus in 2005 Cork became the first ‘Capital’. It was also decided that two countries/cities should hold the honour each year from 2005 onwards.
Following bids from several UK cities, Liverpool was chosen to represent Britain in 2008.
There can surely be few people who can name last year’s two European Capitals of Culture? (They are in fact Luxembourg and Sibiu in Romania.) And how few are aware of the other city sharing in Liverpool’s glory this year (Stavanger and Sandnes in Norway). From this it is clear that Liverpool cannot expect automatic results, and has to ensure it maximises the potential from 2008.
With the slight changes to the ECOC format and naming in 2005, research was undertaken on behalf of the European Commission to look at the impact of all 21 European Cities of Culture from 1995 to 2004. Entitled Report on European Cities and Capitals of Culture, this research concluded that while many cities viewed their year as successful, there were many problems and issues, most notably:
- political interests
- lack of significant cultural activities
- size and structure of the governance body
- turnover of directors and key management personnel
- inappropriate levels of experience among key staff
- communication problems between the various interested parties.
It is perhaps interesting that there is no clear formula for what an ECOC year should involve. With such broad interpretation possible, it is perhaps not surprising that direction was found to be somewhat unclear in some cases. However, due to the unique nature of every city and its needs, it is understandable why this is left so vague.
Planning time for the cities involved in this research ranged from two to four years, but most respondents felt that two years was too short and four years just about the right length of time to plan all the cultural events.
However, the key weaknesses of live meetings (ie time and travel costs and the associated hassle) must also be taken into account.
One particular challenge facing previous ECOC cities was the struggle to balance what was already established with what would be new or alternative.
About one quarter of the cities undertook major capital projects, with a similar amount undertaking minor works. What is interesting however, is that many of the cities took advantage of work due to be carried out anyway, and linked it with the ECOC, thus making it appear that more was happening in the city due to its status as ECOC.
Measuring the success of ECOC was problematic when taking the year in isolation. Some of the cities surveyed experienced growth in overnight visits (as high as +23%), while one experienced a decline in its year as ECOC (-6.7%). However, all reported that the majority of visits had been from local residents, followed by domestic tourists and then international tourists. This would indicate that focusing on your local residents is a key fundamental to ensuring success for events, rather than creating events to lure visitors from outside.
The limited information available in this research on reasons for visiting also points to the fact that very few visitors came specifically because of ECOC.
Rather disappointingly, monitoring was rarely built into the planning process, although most cities eventually carried out evaluation, but this nearly always focused on short term impact only. Since the report highlights the long term impact of ECOC, the implications are clear that monitoring should be long term, ongoing and built in at the planning stage itself.
The structure of the governing ECOC Board was also cited as a potential problem. In Graz, for example, the Board was made up of elected representatives, so that when the council changed following elections, the Board did too – right at the start of their ECOC year. Three key areas were highlighted as to how a Board should be developed:
- develop a small independent structure
- ensure strong leadership
- appoint members with appropriate experience and good relationships with relevant bodies (public and private).
Liverpool would seem to have learned much from previous cities. The Liverpool Culture Company (LCC) was formed to deliver the culture programme up to and beyond 2008. The Mersey Partnership (TMP) has been responsible in the past for the tourism promotion of Liverpool and Merseyside, and this meant there was immediately potential for mixed messages, doubling up of promotional work, or worse still nothing being done.
To avoid this, both parties signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2005, which details exactly who does what and is agreed at the planning stage of any activity.
LCC and TMP have even gone as far as to jointly produce one marketing plan, which reduces the chance of any confusion as to who does what. In this way, it is clear from the planning stage what marketing activity will be done and by whom and when.
Furthermore, both parties agreed to one branding so that the end user, the visitor, remains unaware as to who actually produced a piece of print or undertook the promotion of an event. There is one simple aim, to ensure a unified look and make the branding stronger.
TMP also have a placement at the LCC, which further encourages close co-operation on all fronts and eases communication between the two organisations. A further placement has been a TMP employee based in VisitBritain (VB) in London. This has kept Liverpool 08 at the forefront of VB activity worldwide and contributed to taking advantage of opportunities such as hosting the 'England for Excellence' awards in Liverpool this year, the first time this has been held outside London. 
Liverpool has also placed great emphasis on using existing resources rather than re-inventing the wheel, such as using a shared events database.
One particular area of criticism has been senior management turnover at the Culture Company, coupled with a lack of understanding of local issues.
One such example is Australian Robyn Archer, who was brought in as Artistic Director for the Culture Company, but spent just 97 days in the city in her 2 years of employment, leaving little time to get to know the city, its culture or its people. Following criticism about elitist events and their poor attendance figures in 2006, she left just 18 months before the launch.
From the European evidence of previous title holders, it is clear that any events need to mirror the local population first and foremost. If they won’t visit an event, it is unlikely that visitors to the city will displace them. So whilst external ideas can be good, they always have to be linked to a deep and clear understanding of the local issues and people. Clearly, the finalised list of attractions and events for 2008 has gone down well with locals and visitors alike, judging by the overall attendances to date.
And although the Culture Company was set up as a separate entity, outside local politics, it has nevertheless been accused of being too mixed up in local political in-fighting, especially during the late and drastic revisions for the Mathew Street Festival in 2007. Removing local politics from an event as high profile as a European Capital of Culture is perhaps an ideal. But it is one which has eluded all previous cities to date, to a greater or lesser extent. Perhaps it is simply a reality we all have to live with.
It is clear from the experiences of previous ECOC cities that targets need to be realistic. In terms of tourism, visitors may not necessarily flock to your city in large numbers, so keep things in perspective.
A key issue which has to be taken into account is how to manage people’s expectations after the bid has been won. Liverpool suffered initially due to the 'Fourth Grace' building not going ahead; however, this has largely been forgotten now that a new Museum of Liverpool is planned for the site.
Liverpool has stressed from the very beginning that this is not just about one year, a year of celebrations. It is much more a springboard for repositioning Liverpool as a vibrant, cultural world city, about changing people’s perceptions. And targets such as these are not achieved overnight, nor are they achieved over the space of one year.
This is one area where Liverpool has got its message just right to local stakeholders, as few, if any, see this as simply a year of celebration alone. Many see parallels with Glasgow and how it used its City of Culture status in 1990 as a catalyst for future business and for shifting perceptions. The legacy of Liverpool 08 will be its long-term image.
Another area where Liverpool has been successful is getting the local businesses and community in general right behind the bid and run up to ECOC (though this is not necessarily the same as supporting the Culture Company). Following on from examples of best practice from other cities, Liverpool has set up programmes for Ambassadors and Volunteers. One irony perhaps is that success here generates other challenges: with more people on board, there are more diverse interests and views on what should be happening and when.
Research by the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University does however point to one area where criticism is heard, namely communication issues. On several occasions where there have been feelings that the Culture Company has failed in delivering, they have in fact been more to do with a lack of communication from the Culture Company to manage stakeholders’ expectations.
It is interesting to note from this research that TMP has an excellent communications system in place, established over many years, and was universally praised in its promotion of Liverpool. Again, this supports the notion of using what is already in place.
Liverpool’s bid for ECOC included 30 key capital projects, some of which were happening anyway, but were significant enough to be included in the bid. Liverpool has done well in linking these developments with ECOC to give focus to 2008 and the opportunities it presents. Many have been completed successfully.
- The Cruise Liner Facility is now open and 'Liverpool One', covering 42 acres of the city centre and providing 1.6 million sq ft of retail space, opens on 29 May 2008 (Phase 1).
- HM The Queen officially opened the Arena and Convention Centre Liverpool (ACCL) on 22 May. ACCL includes a 10,500 seat arena with the convention centre including exhibition space, 3 auditoriums and 18 breakout rooms, and is already attracting many conferences.
- New hotels opening in the last year, such as Malmaison and Hard Day’s Night, all add to the impression that things really are happening in Liverpool.
By embracing these new developments, ECOC benefits and it also creates the impression that ECOC is delivering. This is something which previous ECOC cities benefited from, and Liverpool is following suit.
One thing that Liverpool does not lack is a pool of famous celebrities; and Liverpool has a host of high profile ambassadors to promote the city this year.
- In January, Ringo Starr kicked the year off from the roof top of St George’s Hall, to a crowd of 40,000 onlookers. However, just one week later, on the Jonathan Ross Show, he apparently indicated he missed nothing about Liverpool. Whilst this may just have been a flippant comment, it does highlight a risk in using celebrities for promotional purposes. Ringo has since made it clear he loves Liverpool and can still be seen on the Liverpool 08 website promoting the city.
- In 2006, as part of the build up to ECOC, the Premier League gave permission for Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard and Everton’s James Beattie to wear ‘08’ on their shirts instead of the usual 8, in the local derby football game. Always a game full of passion, the promotional opportunities were curtailed somewhat when, following two quick, successive yellow cards, Gerrard was sent off after only 18 minutes.
- On 1 June 2008 Sir Paul McCartney brings the two Liverpool icons of Beatles and football together when he appears at the Liverpool Sound Concert at Anfield.
Celebrities can certainly help in raising the profile of such a promotion but we should all be aware that by association, there are elements of control that are lost.
With nearly 5 months of 2008 gone, preliminary figures are impressive, despite the earlier criticisms.
In the first 4 months of 2008, there were 2.75 million visits to cultural events and attractions across the city, showing an increase of 25% over 2007. Individual figures for some of the main attractions and events are detailed below.
|Event/attraction||visits||% change over 2007|
|National Museums Liverpool||768,799||+28%|
|Merseyside Maritime Museum
(part of National Museums Liverpool)
|Sefton Park Palm House||25,348||+25%|
|Arena & Convention Centre
(new for 2008)
Furthermore, hotel occupancy is currently 82% (Jan-Apr) up from 72% for the same period last year. Hotel occupancy for 2006 as a whole in Liverpool was 73%. What makes this even more impressive is the number of new hotel developments and extra rooms available this year. The new Arena and convention Centre undoubtedly contributes much towards this increase, but these are impressive figures nevertheless.
Overall, the value of tourism to Liverpool and Merseyside in 2006 was £1.2 billion. TMP have set a target of reaching £1.4 billion for 2008, rising to £2 billion by 2015.
Early indications for Liverpool 08 look extremely encouraging despite structural and communication issues early on in the planning stages. With any event as large and complex as ECOC, it is perhaps inevitable that there will be issues and problems along the way, especially when given a 4 or 5 year planning and preparation timescale.
All previous cities have had problems of some sort, so it would be unrealistic to expect Liverpool 08 to run completely trouble free. Liverpool has learned from previous European Cities and Capitals of Culture and there have already been notable successes.
There are certainly some key learning points from Liverpool 08 and other ECOC cities.
- Set realistic targets and do not expect large visitor numbers in the year in question (if it happens, it is an added bonus).
- Use the event as a springboard to reposition the city and change perceptions, rather than focusing purely on the year itself.
- Build on existing culture, instead of re-invention.
- Include monitoring processes from the planning stages.
- Use existing institutions, infrastructure and staff.
- Deliver on promises, manage expectations.
- Adopt ambassador and volunteer programmes to involve the local community.
- Have a clear structure in place, either one body or clearly defined roles, with one business plan.
- Liaison with tourist boards and local trade is vital.
- Train key staff.
- Design events for locals – the visitors will follow.
If locals and visitors alike continue to enjoy the range of attractions on offer this year, Liverpool could be looking at significant visitor numbers this year alone, and possibly enjoy the most successful ECOC to date. However, Liverpool 08 is not just about 2008 – its impact will be felt for many years to come, perhaps decades.
Colin Joy spent 19 years promoting Britain in the British Tourist Authority and VisitBritain. Most of this time (14 years) was spent as a manager overseas. In London, he was responsible for long haul business planning, customer service worldwide and overseeing worldwide marketing activity, using his many years of overseas experience. Colin is currently working as a freelance travel and tourism consultant.
The author would like to thank Pam Wilsher from The Mersey Partnership for the invaluable information and advice that she provided in the development of this article.