DIRECTOR, NORTHERN SECRETS
How and why are you promoting the North East region to groups?
I came to know and love the North East when I visited friends and family as a child from my home in Germany, since my mother hails from Durham. After studying Business, Tourism and Urban Regeneration at Newcastle University, I trained as a Blue Badge guide and used this as a stepping stone to discover more about the region, and to meet key people within the tourism industry. I also worked with the local Regional Development Agency (RDA). When the RDAs were disbanded in 2010, the region’s eight local tourist boards didn’t seem much interested in championing group travel, and so I decided to pick up the reins and formed Northern Secrets. I work with international incoming groups – especially from Germany, as I am a fluent German speaker – but also with many from other parts of the UK, including social groups such as the U3A and choirs, incentive travel groups, and press and travel trade visitors too. My passion for the area means I am really enthusiastic about encouraging groups to visit, and I hope to also inspire attractions, venues and hotels to understand the potential value of the groups market and, moreover, how to welcome and work with groups. I see myself very much as an ambassador for North East England.
What are the main needs of groups that you feel you can support?
Each group is unique, and I will tailor a programme to their specific needs. It can be as simple as a guided tour, or a several-day package involving accommodation, visits to attractions and local restaurant bookings. There’s nothing off the shelf in what I do, so if a U3A group, for example, wants a cultural tour, I am very happy to arrange this, but will also organise something more educational, or indeed any other sort of specialist tour! I also represent the north east at major trade shows in Germany and in the UK. Meeting GTOs face to face is the best way to develop business, as it enables me to discover exactly what is required and to enthuse each organiser or tour operator about the many attractions of the region, not all of which they may be aware of. I also manage the ground handling for tours for visiting passengers on ocean cruise ships that now call at Newcastle and at Sunderland – it’s the first time for many years ships have docked there.
How popular is the North East with groups? What are the challenges?
The region is comparatively low on the tourism radar. Over the last 10 years however, the number of groups visiting Newcastle has grown and in 2014 there was a remarkable increase in German visitors of 40% over the previous year. Not every group stays overnight, but at least the city is now included on itineraries. There is great potential for groups visiting from overseas, but they do generally have their own language needs and I am always amazed at how few attractions provide written material in a range of languages! Other types of customer service training into cultural differences would also help visitors from abroad feel more welcome; for example, in Germany’s bars it’s customary to place your order at your table whilst in Britain you order at the bar.
Should there be a more co-ordinated groups proposition in the North East?
There is a huge potential for groups in the north east, but there needs to be more training about what groups require, and better customer services at most attractions and hotels. The eight individual tourist boards need to work much more closely together, and by sharing their resources and limited budgets could capitalise on what could be achieved, thus increasing groups business to the region. There should be a clear strategy for group tourism to the region, and a real desire to improve what is offered to groups to make it more attractive for them to come. The challenge is that, except for myself, Blue Badge guides, a handful of attractions and companies, no-one is yet taking this responsibility on board.
Alex was born in Germany (his father is German and his mother is British), moving to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to study at university and making it his permanent home in 2004. Passionate about the area and its great tourism potential, he set up Northern Secrets in 2010.