The Ashbourne News Telegraph (19th September 2012) provides coverage of the findings from the Ashbourne Traders Group’s survey of retailers and businesses. The traders have been meeting for some time to try to revive Ashbourne’s High Street. They should be saluted for taking the initiative. 67% reported their takings are down on 2011 levels, and 73% see a bleak future ahead. To some extent these figures merely confirm what you would expect – we are, after all, in a big recession.
This report comes off the back of the newspaper’s own research which showed that 78% of Ashbourne’s shoppers thought the town didn’t do enough promotion. It also showed that most of the town never visit the Thursday market and only 44% support it. Thankfully we know that there are some great attractions if we can let people know about them. The newspaper also reported the 3,000 visitors so far to the fledgling Heritage Centre and 19,000 to the Streetfest.
It is a little ironic that some of the regular criticisms of the town are about the lack of parking, traffic congestion, and the price of parking. These all hint at people wanting to be in the town but finding it difficult to do so. We are in an excellent location. To an extent it is quite difficult to avoid Ashbourne because of the road network. The challenge seems to me threefold:
- Communicating to the outside world about the attractions of the town to promote tourism and therefore increasing the footfall from “strangers”.
- Developing ways of stopping some of the through traffic – those who have found their way here but don’t stop and maximizing the experience of those who do (so they do it again and tell others).
- Building the sense of community amongst Ashbourne residents and those living in nearby villages to ensure they support the Town’s activities.
The short-term win is in the second challenge. These people are here already – we don’t need to carry out a major marketing exercise to get them. I work in telephone customer services and regularly we check the customer’s experience to try to improve what we do. I’ll do some test calling, ringing directory enquiries to see what information a customer would get before calling the customer service number and hearing exactly what a customer would hear. With this in mind I recently changed my journey to work just to see what Ashbourne looks like to the passing motorist.
The first thing that struck me is that until you get right on the outskirts of the town there is no build up or expectation. We recently drove through Germany and on previous journeys through France we see big signs by the side of the road with a panoramic view of what you can see at the next junction – often a chateau or a museum. There is nothing long-range telling people to come to Ashbourne and what to expect – a nice view of the market place, St Johns St or St Oswalds. This should be off the A50 to the South and by Markeaton Park on the A52.
At the gateways to the town there is signage – and the big events are promoted there. We certainly could do with consistency and currency at all the major entry points into the town telling people exactly why they should stop. The Ashbourne News Telegraph reported in April that 46 problem signs have been identified and should be replaced http://www.ashbournenewstelegraph.co.uk/News/Signage-problems-look-set-to-be-fixed-24042012.htm. I do have to take issue with the slogan of “Gateway to Dovedale”. It seems me we are advertising the town as somewhere to pass through straight away rather than a destination in its own right. Of course getting agreement on what a replacement slogan should be would be no easy matter but it could be a great debate along the way!
We then have the signage in the town itself. As far as I can tell Ashbourne has a tourist information centre, toilets, Shaw Croft car park and Carsington Reservoir. The way we are advertising the town is as a stop off for toilets on the way to the water or Alton Towers. No wonder the design of the toilet block was so important! More importantly, if Shaw Croft is full we have no other parking facilities so move on!
One of the promises from Derbyshire Dales District Council when the Thursday market was given a 12 month reprieve was that signage to the market would be installed so that once people were in the town they could navigate from the car parking. I stopped on Shaw Croft when it was deserted to have a look around and couldn’t see anything but the “Edwardian” sign post by the Coop pointing at the Market Square. The only brown sign we have appears to be for the Tourist Information Centre – what about ones for St Oswald’s, the Heritage Centre, the recreation ground? Similarly the parking signposting is inadequate. We have parking at Auction Close, Cockayne Avenue, the Leisure Centre, Sainsbury’s, and the overflow car park for Shaw Croft. We also have the Park and Ride facility from Waterside as well as potentially a tourist walk into town from there along the side of the river. None of this is obvious to the passing motorist.
In the current economic climate and with the research from the town looking grim, the quick and cheap win is to make sure our signage represents us correctly and positively. I really hope that the Highways department of Derbyshire County Council have tourism as well as traffic in mind, that DDDC deliver on their promises and that the Visit Ashbourne have a plan. I don’t want more signage cluttering our streets, just the right signage of whatever colour.
Any ideas on a new slogan? What about “Welcome to the Peak District’s Friendliest Fairtrade Market Town”