By Simon Baldwin, Director of Destination CMS
Portas Pilots. The very two words conjure up so many different images for people: David Cameron having a cuppa with Mary. Mary hugging retailers old and new in her pilot towns. Kiss me Quick hats in Margate. Chas (or was it Dave?) in the same town…
Each of the pilots — existing and planned - made an original bid for the pilot cash. I'm naming no names, but here are some of the ideas: local market stalls for a tenner, community use of empty shops, street art and theatre, a bicycle rickshaw service, a High Street facelift by local builders, tackling vandalism and crime, developing a food and cultural quarter, public information programmes (whatever they may be?), launching a school for shopkeepers, improving signage, pop-up shops, a job club, guerrilla gardening, a community café, free parking, better branding (oh good), shop local campaign, open-air screenings, a new parking strategy (eh?), live entertainment, evening markets, town criers (OMG) and mentoring programmes aplenty for students, schools, colleges, youth groups, community groups.
The town whose plan included "encouraging new businesses to the area" should be on Mastermind with a specialist subject of 'Stating the Bleeding' Obvious'. Really? Is that as good as it gets?
The one things missing from almost every plan is the shopper and the retailer. I wonder how many towns sat down with shoppers to ask for their feedback? I wonder how many spent time with their retailers to ask for their input? Oh, I'm sure they did as part of a box-ticking exercise, but I mean really drill down to any substantive level to ask and then to run their plans by folk for scrutiny. I can't quite see the conversation that went: "Yes, as a shopper, what will really make me come back to the High Street is a rickshaw service and I feel the brand is somewhat lacking."
I have highlighted it elsewhere. Almost every pilot to date has been woeful in their lack of understanding regarding digital and social media interaction. The last C4 programme covering Liskeard was a classic case. The town's team tweeted a handful of times in an hour long programme. I enquired "where were you" - meaning, what an opportunity missed for high profile interaction during prime time TV. The response? They read it as 'where were they in the programme' and they were naturally disgruntled that Mary had taken the limelight and their Mayor (and others) had been left on the cutting room floor. DOH!
Over the last three years, I've helped DestinationCMS research and develop digital and social media delivery for shopping destinations across the UK. I helped to launch Mall-to-Mobile which is now in use in retail destinations to best support day-by-day interaction between shoppers and retailers. In 2012, I (and 81 other volunteers) were appointed mentors for the Portas project. To date, no one has been in touch to tap me for more than 20 years experience in the industry. Instead, my efforts are helping those in the real world. Those in the commercial sector who best understand what shoppers want and what retailers need.
I sincerely hope the next phase of pilots are not shot down in flames. I and many others in the industry are passionate about how we can support towns and cities up and down the country. We are here to help. My fear is that many will be as the ideas are, just lip-smacking pies in the sky.
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