We’ve had the last Bank Holiday before Christmas and we’ve dried out and warmed up again. Within the next couple of weeks school terms start and the next raft of undergraduates are off to University. It can seem like the end of something – the Ashbourne Summer season. Certainly the retailers and the market traders will be settling in for the long winter before things pick up again in Easter 2015. In the news recently are plans for a May Day celebration next year which will be a new and welcome event for residents and visitors alike. While heritage is important, it isn’t enough in a competitive travel and leisure industry.
A while back I heard on the radio how Rio de Janeiro were sending a delegation to Blackpool to learn from them how to extend the season. Think about it…Blackpool is about sand, ice cream and donkeys but they have done a very clever thing. The Blackpool illuminations are only really effective when the nights are dark and they keep tourists coming well into the Autumn. Such a simple little trick and yet it transforms their proposition. Doubtless the landladies of Blackpool don’t begrudge a little extra electricity on their Council Tax bill. We have the same example much closer to home with the Matlock Bath illuminations. It’s a fun evening out with obligatory fish and chips and fireworks – well marshalled, with good public transport to make it easy and safe. And it’s such a simple little trick. You don’t even need a wonderful landscape with it all taking place in the dark. All Blackpool and Matlock Bath are taking advantage of is the Golden Mile, a stretch of calm river and some great marketing.
There’s a different way of looking at the “season”. You can see it as the end of a glorious summer or you can see it as spare capacity of all of our natural resources – hotels, cafes, restaurants and pubs – ready to be filled by something else. It is quite nice to have a breather but a thriving local economy benefits us all.
So the challenge is clear, how can we extend the tourist season for Ashbourne? we already have spectacular bunting. It would be great if we could find a way of extending and illuminating it but I suspect the cost and effort would be too great. I think a good pointer is to start with the basics. While leisure family camping in the wind and cold may not be everyone’s cup of tea we do have top class walking country which can bring people to Ashbourne throughout the year. As the Tour de France demonstrated, the English Dales (admittedly Yorkshire not Derbyshire) makes a fabulous backdrop and a challenging cycling course. We have terrific landscape for mountain biking and, as Ashbourne Highland Gathering demonstrates, a good terrain for fell-running too. We have Carsington close by for watersports, local venues for paintballing and quad biking, challenging 4×4 courses and excellent local shooting estates. Finally, we have possibly one of the most famous angling destinations and home of the Compleat Angler with the River Dove. As the brown trout season ends the pheasant season starts.
Our strap line of Gateway to Dovedale doesn’t do this wealth of Autumn riches justice. Dovedale is beautiful but do we just want to be a doorway? It doesn’t really tell tourists what we want them to be in Ashbourne for and why they may struggle to find time to visit Dovedale. It actually suggests they should be moving on to something more interesting. With the best will in the world Dovedale is a twenty four hour attraction too. Base Camp for Autumn is a more attractive brand. It suggests an outdoor activity destination but also that it is ideally located for people wanting to spend their holiday here.
We could develop the story still further. If we are asking people to come to Ashbourne out of the tourist season to be a base for their holiday we need to handhold them and make it worth their while. The cafes and restaurants can think about their target audience in terms of the menus and opening times. This approach is much more focussed than the summer trade. How about packed lunches, early breakfasts and coffees…and early evening and weekend opening. If all goes to plan our cyclists, runners and walkers will be out of the town in the daytime but hungry, thirsty and with pots of money to spend when they return. Those providing accommodation can think of hot tubs for aching limbs, accepting muddy boots and pets, very early breakfast for those wanting to be up with the lark, lifts home from the pub and clothes drying facilities.
After a hard day’s exercise and excitement our Autumn visitors are going to want to eat locally in the evening. So this we need to keep them entertained. One of my favourite ideas is for a night market. This would be a real differentiator from any nearby towns. We have seen how many people make their way to Matlock for the rafts. Imagine what we could do if we had a regular night market and late night shopping with live music and topped off with fireworks occasionally? Maybe some of the youngsters could dress their cars up in lights to provide a contemporary equivalent on dry land as they do their nightly circuits? On second thoughts maybe that is stretching the idea a little too far. With that exception perhaps we could run it through to the late night Christmas shopping evening.
My point is that, although the start of the new school term signals the end of one type of visitor to the town, Base Camp for Autumn could herald the start of a completely new Season which would benefit many of the town’s businesses.