Have you seen people with clipboards, quizzing the visitors who stop to admire the iconic view down Shaftesbury’s Gold Hill? It’s part of an extensive market research exercise that will continue for the next month.
“There’s never been a survey about tourism to Shaftesbury done before,” explained Steve Keenan from the Shaftesbury and District Tourism Association. The SDTA operates the Tourist Information Centre and has shared the cost of this research with Shaftesbury Town Council.
They’ve split the printing costs of the questionnaires and they’ve purchased Kindles, which have been pre-programmed with the survey questions. Guests staying at the Grosvenor Arms have been asked to tap their own survey answers into one of these specially adapted tablets. There’s another Kindle collecting responses at Gold Hill Museum and one tethered to the front desk at Shaftesbury Abbey.
Steve says we need know more about our visitors so we can offer them the best experience. “A lot of people come for the day, just for an outing from the coast. But some people come for a week. We don’t know who they are,” said Steve. Visitors will be asked to share the first part of their postcodes or their home nation, so we can identify any visitor patterns.
Steve’s first morning as a voluntary market researcher helped him understand the breadth of Shaftesbury’s appeal. “The first two people I spoke to this morning were from Essex, the next family was from Holland and they were staying in Shaftesbury for a week. You might not expect to find Dutch people staying in the town for seven days or people from Chelmsford calling in on the way back from Cornwall,” he said. “This is good stuff.”
Tourists will also be asked to reveal their means of transport and to share their experience of navigating to the town centre by car and the ease of town centre parking. Visitors will also be asked whether it was easy to find their way around the town on foot. “We need to get the input of people who might tell us that they like the walks but the signage could be better, or the food is brilliant but where is Gold Hill?” said Steve.
“This not just an exercise in ‘aren’t we wonderful’. We really need to see what we can do better. We also need to find out what we’re doing wrong,” said Anne Giberson, Chairman of the SDTA. There is no recurring problem or complaint that has encouraged the group to commission this survey. Anne says they are just being proactive. “It’s finding whether people come to Shaftesbury for a couple of hours. Do people come back here after a visit? And are there enough things to do, for the people that choose to stay around?”
If a cluster of responses suggest that there’s an existing or emerging problem then that issue can be addressed. “We need to know what we need to improve on so that they are going to come back and spend more money in the town. We want them tell their mates and friends on social media that this is a place worth coming to,” Steve continued.
During their consultation, survey respondents will also be asked why they chose Shaftesbury as a destination and whether they had enough information about the town before they arrived. The researchers will also ask what could encourage visitors to stay in town longer, whether that could be more food or drink options, more independent stores or set walking trails.
You might think that the Shaftesbury and District Tourism Association could find out the answers to many of those questions by reading reviews on websites like Tripadvisor but Anne says there is a need for an organised survey. “It’s important to have numbers,” said Anne. “If we want to do things, we could get grants.”
Although Shaftesbury will never attract the sort of visitor numbers enjoyed by destinations like Bournemouth or Salisbury, Steve says that market research is useful because Shaftesbury does have a lot that is worth promoting. SDTA needs to make sure that they are sending out the right message.
“Not many places in Britain have got a Gold Hill,” said Steve. “We’re also the second highest market town in England. We have a lot of great selling points. There’s the King Alfred connection and the Abbey. We don’t have a huge tourism industry but it is important to the town. Increasingly, with leaving Europe and the value of the pound, tourism is important to this country and we should be able to capitalise on what we have already and to encourage more people to visit.”
Steve says the information gathered can help the council plan for the future as well. “Towns and cities are seeking more information about their visitors. The other side of the story is the residents. Places like Cambridge and York are suffering over tourism. There are too many people coming into their towns, filling up the car parks and clogging up the roads. It is understanding that balance for both the visitors and the residents. If the facilities and the benefits of the towns are shared then everybody will be happy to see each other,” Steve said.
The Visitor Experience Advisory Committee is carrying out the survey work. That group is made up of representatives from tourist attractions and tourism-reliant businesses including the Shaftesbury and District Tourism Association. VEAC has been set up to advise Shaftesbury Town Council on tourism matters. VEAC helpers will continue asking the questions until the end of September.
Visitors who agree to take part in the survey are offered the chance to enter a prize draw to win a £100 Fleur De Lys voucher or £25 to spend on food or drinks at the Grosvenor Arms.