Sir Ben Gill invites you to visit Herefordshire
PUBLISHED: 13:05 11 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:41 20 February 2013
Sharon Chilcott talks to Sir Ben Gill about his plan to grow the county's tourism
WhenSir Ben Gill lists the tasks ahead for Visit Herefordshire there is a quiet determination about him.This former farmer is set on ploughing his own furrow!
Just one illustration of this is his description of how he went about putting together the new board for the private sector-led body which is now responsible for marketing the county as a must-visit tourism destination. When I was asked to do the job the county council said I had a blank sheet of paper to do what I wanted. So, despite suggestions about the sort of experience he might need to enlist for the board, he says: I decided, no, I want people who are doers, so I went to busy people and I persuaded them.
As a result, he says: I have a marvellous complement of people, all hand-picked, and they are an enormous support.
An adopted Herefordian (although his wife, Carolyn, was born in the county, the couple were married in Leominster and they had an inherited property on Bircher Common as a regular bolt hole) the former National President of the NFU is an eloquent advocate for the county as a tourism destination.
He hardly draws breath in listing Herefordshires attractions:
The events, cultural assets including Hereford Cathedral with its Mappa Mundi and copy of the Magna Carta, the churches, historical interest, the landscape; the countys strong creative offer, its agricultural diversity, its extensive horticulture and role as a leading producer of specialist crops like asparagus and blackcurrants, the fact that it is the largest cider and perry producing county in the country (often wrongly sidelined to Somerset, he points out). He continues: Put all that together and its such a big offer for tourism, which people dont always appreciate.
Increasing awareness of exactly how much the county does have in the way of attractions, even amongst its residents, is one of the challenges facing Visit Herefordshire, which has a three-year service level agreement with Herefordshire Council to deliver tourism on its behalf, subject to various targets.
Maybe I can see it better because I came from outside, rather than those people who have lived with it, but a typical example is the first meeting I had with the Tourism Associations, at the Waterworks Museum in Hereford. There were about 20 people there and half of them didnt even know there was a Waterworks Museum or a miniature railway in Hereford, and of the other half, only half had ever visited yet its a national asset.
He adds: One of my frustrations is that there is not enough emphasis on selling tourism to people who live in Herefordshire. Also, you cant box tourism into one week or two week holidays, it doesnt fit into that box. Herefordshire has a raft of recreational aspects associated with the rivers, walking, cycling, even car journeys around the county.
Sir Ben was drawn to retire to Englands most rural county because: I couldnt have moved to an urban situation. You need to be able to relax in a working environment that you can be efficient in. However, the countys accessibility to other parts of the UK is also a real benefit: I have interests in Oxford, Cambridge, Norwich, Maidstone and Bracknell as well as Yorkshire and I chair a number of companies. I do a lot of miles, so Herefordshires good commuter links are crucial, he says, adding, with a twinkle, that he makes good use of his senior citizens rail card.
Yet one of his other frustrations is how frequently the county is confused with the south eastern region by a similar name. The county has a problem of identity. I even heard something on Radio 2 from Englands most rural county, Hertfordshire and it turned out the piece was from Ledbury!
Addressing this is high on Sir Bens agenda and consequently, this summer will see the introduction of a new iconic mark, the result of a process which has involved students from Hereford College of Arts and the Hereford Business Forum. I want to market the county more effectively and to continue to blur the distinction between tourism and business so that we get businesses in the county using the logo with the strapline as well, he says.
He is also keen to develop business tourism and to fill what he sees as a gap in the regions business offer. We are deficient in the West Midlands, almost from Shrewsbury to the Severn Estuary, in a decent sized business class hotel. We are working up a business plan and talking to a number of major hotel chains hoping to tempt them to come into the county.
We are looking to make Hereford or its environs a conference venue because its close to the motorways and airports and we hope people who come for business might come back with their partners for weekends or their partners could come with them and have things to occupy them.
Visit Herefordshire is based at the former Tourist Information Centre in King Street, Hereford. The building has been refurbished and in June it was officially re-launched as the Discover Herefordshire Centre, an information centre, ticket office and more. Its also a shop to promote the wares of Herefordians and to generate revenue which we can plough back in, says Sir Ben, who has plans to extend its use further by renovating and opening up the basement. The centre provides one of the income streams for the tourism body, which will also be funded by membership income and profit from the Flavours of Herefordshire Food Festival. A charitable trust, the Land of Wye Trust is to be established to take ownership of Visit Herefordshire Ltd and Sir Ben has asked the Bishop of Hereford, The Right Reverend Anthony Priddis, to chair this.
Other priorities are a new website (to be launched this summer), addressing the vexed issue of brown road signs, entering the debate about accreditation for bed and breakfast accommodation and encouraging local Tourism Associations to develop more information points. There will be more cross-border working under Sir Bens plans: Tourism is not confined to the strict geographical limits of the county. We need to work with adjoining counties for mutual benefit.
Visit Herefordshire also has an ambitious vision for the development of the Flavours of Herefordshire Food Festival, which already this year, at Herefordshire Race Course on 22 and 23 October, will have a more interactive feel. We are planning something much bigger next year, with a focus on training and improving skills and helping the public to understand food, he reveals.
To coin another agriculturally-inspired phrase, Sir Ben is not going to let the grass grow under his feet. He admits he has a big agenda and is working with a small team, to short timescales but he adds: We need to show we are dynamic and progressive and create an upward moving spiral. Its quite exciting.
Sir Ben Gill CBE MA (Cantab) was National President of the NFU from 1998 to 2004 during which time he had to deal with crises such as BSE and Foot and Mouth disease. Having taken over the family farm in North Yorkshire in 1978, on his retirement from the NFU he decided to develop the 19th century model farm buildings into a rural business park, which has state of the art communications and has been recognised for its outstanding energy performance. In 2006, he and his wife Carolyn moved to Herefordshire, from where Sir Ben runs his business Hawkhills Consultancy Ltd, specialising in advising agrifood businesses. He has been a non-executive director of Countrywide Farmers plc for nearly seven years and his other roles include being Chairman of English Apples and Pears Ltd and Chairman of Cawood Scientific, the largest provider of scientific analysis to the agricultural sector. He is a Trustee of the John Innes Foundation, Governor of the John Innes Institute and Chairman of a new board set up to form Harrogate International Business School. He has just agreed to join the board of the Marches Local Enterprise Partnership.
*As Chairman of Visit Herefordshire, from next month Sir Ben Gill will be writing a regular column about the countys events and attractions for the Herefordshire and Wye Valley Life Diary.