Yesterday I was invited by Cumbria Business Interaction Centre, part of the University of Cumbria, to talk about local distinctiveness and growth for Carlisle to a small group of 10 local business owners, council officers and university staff. My evidence credentials were our ESRC-funded High Street UK 2020 project findings and new initial footfall research from the InnovateUK-funded place data science project, “Bringing Big Data to Small Users“.
Before the presentation I met with senior representatives from Carlisle Council, including Colin Glover (Leader of the Council), Daren Crossley (Deputy Chief Executive), Jane Meek (Director of Economic Development) and Emma Dixon (Partnership Manager). It was very lively and informative for all participants! Many thanks to Keith Jackson, of the Cumbria Business Interaction Centre, for facilitating the meeting.
One of the most engaging discussions was about the power of footfall data to understand the real-time activity in a city like Carlisle – and how this evidence can guide planning and management – and ultimately ensure the location is adapting appropriately to the changing needs of its various users. Carlisle is a multi-functional centre (and has been for over 1,000 years) meaning there are different components of its overall signature – tourism, shopping and community services. These need understanding and appreciating – so that they are all delivered – in the right measures, in the right areas and at the right time.
Unlike many locations, Carlisle is in a pretty healthy position, thanks, in part, to its relative geographical isolation. Vacancy rates are low, there is employment in the centre, good transport links, a sizeable resident population, a university, college and schools. All these act as attractors to a fairly substantial hinterland. On top of that Carlisle has a ‘rich and tempestuous history’, which brings in tourists, and it has remained a significant location since before Roman times.
So, Carlisle is coming from a position of power. And Daren Crossley (Deputy Chief Executive) asked whether that could lead to complancency? To a certain degree, yes. A city like Carlisle that starts from such a strong position is always going to be more resilient than a town that has, for example, grown around a single industry – like mining. However, trends in consumer behaviour, technology, transport etc. take root – and eventually even Carlisle traders will have to adapt – otherwise they will go out of business.
Nevertheless, the lack of imminent danger can mean it is difficult to engage retailers and other businesses into much collective action. And collaborative activities – interventions that strengthen the whole city’s offer – are a sure route to boosting individual operators’ KPIs (like footfall and sales). Without more cooperation, operators in the city are likely to be under performing (not fulfilling the potential associated with the location). So, how can the city engage more stakeholders into activities that will benefit everyone? Like working together to improve the 25 vitality and viability priorities, identified through our High Street UK2020 research.
One group that is building the collective power and capacity of the city is the Carlisle Ambassadors.
“Carlisle Ambassadors are people who have connections with Carlisle, an interest in the city and who support this Cumbrian centre of business, tourism and culture. It is for individuals, businesses and organisations who want to make it an even better place to live, work, invest and visit. It is for those who want to benefit from a strong and influential network, and who may be interested in collaborating on projects to make a difference.”
On that last point, I think that’s where the Institute of Place Management can really help. We can identify the type of projects, activities and interventions that can bring about more footfall and improve the customer experience.
I hope that after our meetings today we can work with stakeholders in Carlisle, through the University of Cumbria, Carlisle City Council and the Ambassador network, to feed through our research findings and help optimise the performance of individual operators, and, ultimately, the collective performance of the city.
The Institute of Place Management is the professional body for people who serve places. We welcome members from any sector who are trying to make places better.
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