We recently spoke to Sarah Bassett, Chair of Alcester Chamber of Trade and founder of Visit Alcester. Sarah has a wealth of experience delivering successful region wide marketing campaigns alongside local councils, business associations and business owners. Sarah is a force for innovation and development in her local community, we had to learn more about her journey and ambitions…

Sarah, what inspired you to start Visit Alcester?

Alcester, just a few minutes drive from Shakespeare’s Stratford upon Avon, is a picturesque Market Town that is steeped in history, jam-packed with independent shops, and boasts an array of independent cafes, superb pubs and restaurants. Its holds a famous food festival, lots of street parties, festivals and events and has a strong and vibrant local community.

In 2015, Alcester won a Rising Star in the Great British High St awards, an incredible achievement for a small Warwickshire town. The press coverage this created both nationally and regionally was extraordinary, everyone wanted to know more about Alcester!

It was quickly apparent that the town website and paper based marketing material was hopelessly out of date and there was no presence on social media.

As Chairman of Alcester Chamber of Trade my role was to support the local business economy. Armed with a keen interest in marketing, I set out on what turned out to be a hugely interesting and engaging journey. I discovered the Regional Destination Management Plan, the District Council’s Core Strategy, and a very dated Town Plan. I then pulled these together to create a formal plan for Alcester. I later set out in search of strategic partners, stakeholders and community engagement. I soon had the Town Council, District Council and Warwickshire County Council on board. The support from WCC in particular astonished me! Their town centres and tourism team are forward thinking, dynamic and professional. On the back of my plan, they invited me to join the Warwickshire Towns Network, funded the installation of “state of the art” town centre Wifi with integral footfall counting software and coupled this with a comprehensive programme of both digital and offline marketing training for our independent retailers. I joined 15 of Alcester’s retailers in the training sessions, which were run by Clockwork City and Decisions by Design. It was with their guidance that I became “we”, the Alcester Retail, Tourism and Hospitality Partnership was formed and the brand “Visit Alcester” was born. We now have a strong and clear sense of place, a logo, a strapline, a very healthy presence on social media and are a good way through the process of building a new town website.

So in answer to your question, the inspiration came from our victory in the Great British High St Awards 2015. We are now registered for 2018!

Can you tell us about the work you do with the Warwickshire Towns Network?

The Warwickshire Towns Network is the brainchild of the Warwickshire County Council Town Centre and Tourism team. All the Bid manager’s, Place Managers and Town Centre Champions from all towns in the County are invited to meet quarterly with each of the towns taking turns to host. WCC invite speakers and suppliers from across the industry spanning a wide range of subjects/products. We all share ideas, tips, triumphs and even discuss things that haven’t worked so well so that we can learn from each other. This year saw our second Warwickshire Towns Conference and a second roll out of digital and offline marketing training, this time being offered across the entire county. The latest excitement being WCCs’ new partnership with civic crowdfunding platform Spacehive, giving us all the opportunity engage with our local communities to raise funding for projects that we feel would benefit our individual towns. Aaron Corsi, the digital lead on the WTN team supports, engages with and shares all the towns’ activities via both Facebook and Twitter under the @WarksTN handle and our new countywide community continues to grow on a daily basis. Wouldn’t it be amazing if every county in the Country formed a Towns Network. Think what could be achieved!

How do you think we can attract more footfall to local high streets?

With so many high streets, all of them unique, all with their own individual sense of place, applying a one size fits all solution is an impossible feat… Therefore, to answer this question I’m going to focus on a change that we could all look to make…admittedly not a change that will happen over night, but a change I firmly believe would make an sizable difference to the town centre economy countrywide.

My concern is that our retail high street has become so institutionalised by the UK’s tradition of shopping 9-5, that it has failed to keep up with its consumers. The majority of households now require two incomes to make ends meet and the majority of our high street shops are only open whilst they are working. If high streets are to look to “future proof” themselves they urgently need to recognise the benefit of looking to engage with the shoulder/ early evening economy.

At a conference I attended a few months ago, I heard some interesting statistics that show that retail sales between 5pm & 8pm are up to 50% higher than between 9am & 12am. I failed to reference the source in my notes, however I doubt very much that they are far wrong! If high streets were to review their retail trading hours and look to open and close later it could see a potential overall increase in sales of 10-15%, giving a significant boost to the economy. Add a click & collect service for those that wish to purchase online and pick up after work, and sales revenue would almost certainly increase by an even higher percentage. Think also of the positive knock on effect it could create for the local hospitality sector.

We often hear concerns from business owners, what’s the most effective way to have their voices heard within their local community?

A collaborative voice is always more powerful that one so I can answer this in a single sentence! Get together with other local businesses and join or form a town centre or high street partnership, engage with your local, district and county councils and head out in search of organisations like SaveTheHighStreet.org.  

What is the biggest issue facing independent business owners today that you feel is not being spoken about, or addressed properly?

There is a huge voice for reform of business rates; online shopping taxes and more, however, the smaller towns and independent filled high streets in particular, are in my opinion, suffering most from bank and post office closures. Neither is being held sufficiently accountable for the decline in footfall on our high streets.

Where can we find out more about you and the organisations you work with?

Follow @visitalcester on Twitter; Facebook and Instagram

Follow @WarksTN on Facebook and Twitter

Given the mix of voluntary and consultancy based projects I am usually working on, I tend to be wearing several hats at any one time, you can keep up with me by following me or connecting via LinkedIn. My twitter handle is @ladybassett (it’s a long story!) and I’m always delighted to engage with my followers.