‘Birmingham tourism needs street level support!’By Jonathan Berg, Author & Tour GuideHopefully our walking tours are back for good as we restart post-lock down for the third time. We had a team of six experienced guides and assistants before the first lock down in March 2020. We restarted weekend public tours again in mid-April 2021 and are going to be much more reliant on UK tourists for a while. We have taken a cautious approach to the restart. We donate a proportion of turnover to a charity which works on issues of homelessness and street dwellers in Birmingham (see here…). A realistic financial model for the rest of the year is key, as donating on a loss-making venture just feels wrong and is not sustainable. Our post-lock down approach….•Ensure ticket prices reflect the market we are addressing, with lower numbers on tour still giving a chance of breaking even.•Restart public tours with Jonathan Berg, the author of ‘Positively Birmingham’ running them personally. We will bring back more guides as things progress, but training new staff is a big commitment until we confirm the demand is coming back.•Give great value to our participants with a free copy of the 5th edition of our book ‘Positively Birmingham’, and our amazing range of Acme whistles at factory prices at tour end.•Social media: Set up a new Facebook account (we got locked out of the old one) and try and publish to all social media before and after each tour. Experiment with Facebook and Google adverts.•Encourage more TripAdvisor reviews. We have been the #1 city tour for around three years but have not promoted Google reviews and they are increasingly important .So, how has is it going? It is pretty hard to be honest The first six tours saw a total of 20 people, with between two and six people per tour. However, each tour does enable us to promote the fact that we are back and from that we can hopefully grow. Another issue is new entrants to the walking tour market with lottery funded projects potentially impacting on our business with subsidised tours and volunteer guides. The walking tour market, even with normal inbound tourism, was always fragile in Birmingham, and we just don’t know what the footfall in the city is going to be even when all Covid restrictions are lifted hopefully in late June.Private tours are keyLike many walking tour businesses, private tours are an important part of the mix. This was a growing area before Covid-19 closed us down. We have got our first new private tour bookings which is very encouraging. Private tours are difficult to market to directly, with enquiries coming from all sorts of surprise directions. Good internet presence and great reviews on TripAdvisor are important to generate initial enquiries. Private tours often include a lot of back-office work and multiple emails. Setting sensible rates and sticking to them is important in not wasting a lot of time on bad business that never actually materialises.We have over 25 years’ experience of running various types of walking tours in Birmingham and since 2016 have run public tours most weekends throughout the year. The highs are amazing – closing bookings with 30 people on a tour is a great feeling. Then the interesting tours with just two guests in pouring rain, where you pretend it is a private tour and forget about the bottom line! This is not Stratford or Oxford, and believe me trying to run regular bookable tours, even just one each weekend afternoon, is hard work.Birmingham tourism requires work at pavement level….We have published ‘positive’ and tourist related books about the city but we are also very honest about Birmingham on tour. At the moment some aspects of the city are embarrassing to show visitors around and need urgent attention. We can no longer blame it all on Covid-19. In particular, pieces of important public art and tourist-rich features at street level are either still in store from developments that completed ages ago, are not working, or worse still, may have gone forever. In particular: •We are often asked when Antony Gormley’s Iron Man is coming back into Victoria Square. Gormley is huge on the world’s artistic stage and one of the most revered living sculptors in metal. We have one of his earliest major pieces, which pre-dates the ‘Angel of the North‘ in Gateshead and the amazing ‘Another Place’ installation on Crosby beach. Iron Man was a major visitor attraction and much photographed stop on our tours. It is bizarre that the in-place concrete foundations for the return of Iron Man are reputedly hidden under the new slabs beside the Town Hall, while Iron Man remains in store. Gormley was consulted when the artpiece was temporarily removed and agreed to a new position for Iron Man. Iron Man was removed on the 5th September 2017 by West Midlands Metro contractors. Now in 2021 it is time he came back.•The Golden Boys (Boulton, Watt and Murdoch) have their plinth in place but are still staying away. These three pioneers of the Industrial Revolution help us tell the story of the development of the Georgian town so well. The statue also enables us to discuss Black Lives Matter and the clear evidence that people including James Watt and Matthew Boulton were involved in the slave trade. We put up a giant poster while the Symphony Hall extension was being built to help with our tour and mini versions have gone up around the still empty plinth.•Chamberlain Memorial Fountain: There are issues with Chamberlain Square not being a public space any more. However, one of the benefits of this now private square should be that the water fountain should look great and with the money spent on renovating it. Let’s hope that the water feature works into the future.•Broad Street Walk of Stars: Many of this eclectic mix of stars reflecting Birmingham’s great and good of the leisure industry were removed while the Metro line was extended. Now new pavements have been laid and they are nowhere to be seen. All this suggests that the different organisations working on the city centre are just not talking to each other. Someone needs to shout up a little about all this. The drum-beating that we are an amazing and growing tourism and cultural destination will soon restart. However, it is just not tenable with such a clear lack of understanding of basic building blocks of the tourist economy at street level.Joined up thinking pleaseAs we come out of lock down we need to see people coming back to enjoy the city centre and visitor ‘experiences’ can help hugely. Walking tours are just one small part of that - but in most cities with a tourism base they are considered an essential building block. People increasingly comment on tour with us that we are not looking after our public space in the central core. Now major projects have completed it is no longer possible for people or organisations to hide behind old arguments of a city being redeveloped. Public art and basic things of interest to see at street level have had shoddy treatment and urgent action and some leadership is needed now to address this. The root cause appears much more about people working in their own little ‘silos’ rather than any lack of funding or a more sinister reason. Whatever the reasons someone needs to bring people together to sort this out.From the viewpoint of a walking tour guide and author of nine books on the city since 1994, I would like to show off Birmingham for two hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Instead I am ending up as an apologist for a city that does not seem to care about simple but important parts of its heritage.Link to 2020 BLOGLink to 2017-18 BLOGBirmingham Slave Trade
The Boulton, Watt and Murdoch statue plinth has been in place for around 2 years. It was decided not to put the gilded statue back until the Symphony Hall extension was completed…no excuse now.
The first tours after lock down were small but fun
We used a giant poster to show what William Bloye’s 1956 gilded statue of Boulton Watt and Murdoch looks like.
Malkit Singh’s star, the World’s biggest selling Bhangra artist, allowed us to talk about so much good in our city. Now missing along with a number of other stars since a new pavement along the Midland Metro line on Broad Street has been laid.
The Boulton, Watt and Murdoch Statue (William Bloye, 1956) seen outside the old Registry office.
The plinth was constructed at the time Centenary Square was redeveloped.
Black Sabbath Bridge
A copy of John Baskerville’s Virgil on the site of his print works.