The success of Virgin’s London to Chester Voyager train service is giving the city’s economic fortunes a welcome boost. BARRY ELLAMS reports
When you have a high-speed train service two hours from one of the biggest capital cities in the world ‘tourist prospecting’ can become like mining for gold.
When Visit Chester and Cheshire (VCC) persuaded Virgin Trains to treble the frequency of its London rail service from five to 14 trains a day, and introduce its fastest yet service – London to Chester in less than two hours – even it couldn’t have forecast an economic dividend of £17.9m.
A joint short breaks campaign from May to September 2009 to promote the new train link reached 12 million people.
A marketing campaign in Milton Keynes and London has helped year-on-year passenger figures rise by 38% and increase footfall into Chester significantly.
‘Tenacious, highly motivated and groundbreaking’ is how Virgin Trains director of communications, Arthur Leathley, has described VCC’s courtship of Virgin Trains.
He said: “They first came to us four years ago when we were preoccupied with track improvements that left no space for us to consider developing specific markets.
“However, Chris Brown and his team kept knocking on the door, and when Virgin Trains finally started looking for partnerships to help build leisure travel, VCC was ready, and we had the bones of a relationship already in place.
“Their forward-looking approach has enabled Chester and Cheshire’s extensive services, attractions and experiences to be opened up to millions of people across the South East, and in London, Milton Keynes and the Midlands, who now find themselves within easy reach thanks to fast, frequent and affordable train services.”
With Merseyrail piloting a regular 15-minute train service between Liverpool and Chester, First Bus adding Chester Station to its Liverpool-Chester route and the expansion of John Lennon Airport, the public transport network is creating new gateways for ‘Chester PLC’ to hit home the message that the city can retain its status as North West’s ‘jewel in the crown’.
Chris Brown, chief executive of Visit Chester and Cheshire, believes whilst the city is some way off maximising its potential there are signs it has taken a remarkable leap forward.
He said: “People used to talk of York overtaking Chester and Bath. York is a big part of the East Coast main line and used that opportunity to develop their infrastructure.
“Chester is suddenly on the map. It has always fundamentally been in a great geographic location – Virgin Trains gives us that accessibility to London, Milton Keynes and the South East and an opportunity to put the brand on the radar.”
He added: “It is still a hugely untapped market.”
VCC is looking to build on Chester’s role as a visitor hub and develop the long-stay tourism market, basing visitors in Chester’s hotels, dining in the city’s restaurants and frequenting its attractions. Staff are also widening holiday themes and experiences to include Cheshire, North Wales, Wirral, Liverpool and Manchester.
Popular visitor themes such as food and drink tourism, equestrian events and canal boat holidays, alongside Chester’s famous heritage, its zoo and racecourse are markets growing in confidence.
Chris Brown has long observed that Chester has had to curb its over-reliance on Chester Racecourse and Chester Zoo. As two of Chester’s greatest assets both attract nearly two million visitors every year and are two of the city’s most consistent economic performers – especially at a time when Chester has no theatre/arts centre or city -centre cinema.
However, this summer the city has shown signs of honing its potential.
A bustling ‘events and festivals’ programme which includes Rhino Mania and the Giants Parade has helped Chester rediscover its role as an open-air venue.
With hotel brands such as Doubletree by Hilton, Abode, Hotel Dragonfly and The Chester Grosvenor, coupled with top restaurants such as Simon Radley at The Grosvenor, 1539, Marco Pierre White at Doubletree by Hilton Chester and Michael Caines at Abode, the city’s reputation as a honeypot for fine dining and luxury breaks is well established.
If the city can build on the foundations laid this year as an event and festival hotspot, a winning formula will capture the minds and spending power of regular and new visitors.