The City of Expectation
As the inaugural holder of the UK City of Culture award, Derry-Londonderry was given the opportunity to show the world what it was capable of. Rebecca Kincade spoke to some of the businesses in the heart of the city to find out if the packed events calendar and ambitious projects really lived up to the weighty expectations…
Ask anyone from Derry-Londonderry to describe their city and you will be met with staunch and unwavering pride. For years the residents have been hoping for an opportunity to tell their story and show off the city they love so much.
When the UK City of Culture was awarded back in 2010, Derry-Londonderry fought off competition from Birmingham, Norwich and Sheffield, with a strong year-long programme of cultural activities that encouraged ‘joyous celebration and purposeful inquiry’. The Turner Prize, Royal National Ballet, Radio One’s One Big Weekend and Lumiere were tipped as some of the leading events of the year.
Once making the headlines for its troubles, now Derry-Londonderry was finally undergoing a transformation that would see it shed the dark days of the past and become a beacon of hope for other cities in the midst of conflict. Rather than shying away from the history, this was a city that took a ‘warts and all’ approach to its cultural offering.
2013 was heralded as a catalyst to build the economy of the region, delivering a lasting legacy for the people and the economy. Huge capital investment transformed the city aesthetically in time for the big launch and ambitious architecture projects, such as the Peace Bridge and the former military base at Ebrington, went on to win national awards.
Tourism was expected to be the real winner from this year, and the Irish Times reported that hotels in the area witnessed a 25% increase in trade. Linda Lynch, sales and marketing manager, City Hotel, Derry said: “There was a fantastic buzz in the lead up to 2013 with everyone hoping for a phenomenal year and it didn’t disappoint. City of Culture 2013 really was Derry’s time to shine and the overall turnout for the year exceeded everyone’s expectations.”
I asked Ms Lynch if she felt that more could have been done to support local businesses to make the most of the year’s events. She said: “Hindsight is a great thing and there are always things that could have been done differently but overall we were delighted with the events and the impact this had on the business. The only improvement that I can think of is the timing and availability of information regarding programming. Sometimes it wasn’t available until very close to the event and therefore made it slightly more challenging to plan our strategy alongside.”
Ms Lynch credited Tourism Ireland, NITB and the City of Culture team for successfully profiling the city in out of state markets. From her perspective, it is now in the hands of the local public and private sectors to drive this achievement forwards into a prosperous future for the city.
The year was not all smooth sailing. Public rows, controversial appointments, sackings and resignations among those in charge of delivering the events programme caused a wave of negative media coverage in the lead up to key moments. While some accepted this as part and parcel of running an event of this magnitude, the bitter after taste remains that this was an unnecessary blackening of the positive image the city had worked so hard to create.
Una Kincaid, owner, The Sandwich Co chain, has five bars based in Derry-Londonderry. She had hoped that their business would increase enough to secure jobs going forward into the future. Ms Kincaid said: “Our type of business is still suffering as a result of the recession. During 2013 most of our shops only attained the same turnover as in 2009, and turnover increased by approximately 15% on 2012. We were fortunate in that we also provide outside catering. Due to the demands created by the year’s events we had the opportunity to tender for and secure quite a substantial amount of business in this area.”
In the run up to 2013, Ms Kincaid enrolled all of her staff in the World Host Training programme, supported by DEL. She wanted her employees to understand what an important role they had to play in the upcoming events.
She continued: “At a cost of £20 per candidate for a two day course, this was very feasible for small businesses and it really benefited our staff. I feel NITB could’ve provided more support and the overall advertising campaign for the year could have been stronger. When I travelled to Scotland, London and Italy during the year, I saw little to no advertising regarding our City of Culture. I think the All Ireland Fleadh had the most impact on southern tourists, which is a particularly important market for us. Many had been too nervous to travel north before and they were surprised at how friendly our city was.”
At City of Derry Airport, Charlene Shongo, commercial manager, noticed a significant increase in corporate aviation surrounding events such as Radio One’s One Big Weekend and the Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann.
She said: “Whilst the majority of events were targeted at audiences from the city, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the airport saw direct benefits especially during large events. The main impact of the year lies in how it has changed people’s perception of the city. Derry-Londonderry is now seen as real destination for short breaks and cultural events.”
The focus has now shifted to the impact that this year has had on the future for the city. A £900,000 Legacy Fund has been set up with pledges from The Arts Council and Derry City Council. Another programme of events for 2014 has been announced, with music, fashion, storytelling and visual arts designed to maintain momentum. This is all part of a 10-year plan to double tourism revenue into the city, with the City of Culture acting as the main catalyst to drive this strategy forward.
There is no doubt that 2013 involved a real team effort from the whole city. While businesses did notice an increase in trade, the suggestion appears to be that this was not in line with their expectations or hopes. The question remains as to whether the expectations held where realistic. Was the City of Culture 2013 ever about offering one strong year for local businesses? Or was it about much more than that? The transformation of the city, the opportunity for the residents to have their voices heard and the overall change in the perception of Derry-Londonderry has left a cultural and economic legacy that, if properly grasped, could sustain the regeneration for years to come.