Experience Oxfordshire has announced that Oxford Visitor Information Centre on Broad Street in the city will remain closed permanently.
Experience Oxfordshire (then Visit Oxfordshire), the Destination Management Organisation for Oxfordshire, took on the running of the visitor information centre in 2011 after entering into a contractual agreement with Oxford City Council. The City Council announced in its 19/20 budget that it would be withdrawing financial support for Experience Oxfordshire, which included the operation of the VIC.
A 2017 Economic Impact Report for Tourism in Oxfordshire revealed that the county welcomed 27.6 million visitors who spent £2.04 billion across the county – an increase of 4.4%. The study showed that the visitor economy in Oxfordshire supports 34,856 jobs in the county. More visitors were staying overnight with overnight trips increasing by 3.4% to 2.7 million and the number of nights spent in the County rising by 3.3% to 9.8 million.
Hayley Beer-Gamage, the Chief Executive of Experience Oxfordshire said: “It is with a heavy heart that the decision has been made to close Oxford Visitor Information Centre. It provides a vital service and welcome to the city of Oxford and wider county of Oxfordshire and supports many local businesses. The team that work at the VIC are incredible and have continued to offer award-winning services year after year. We have invested significantly in this service over recent years and we are extremely disappointed to see its closure. Experience Oxfordshire will however be continuing to support all of our partners and stakeholders through our ongoing destination management and marketing work and help our visitor economy recover post Covid-19.”
When the DMO was established it was 100 per cent public sector funded from both Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council. There was always an aspiration for it to be a joint public and private sector organisation and in light of continuing pressures on the public sector and subsequent reduced funding, the DMO was able to expand commercial services to replace such reductions. However, Experience Oxfordshire has said that the new business model and the rate of growth or services is not sufficient to cover the removal of all City Council funding.
The information centre welcomed more than 500,000 visitors a year into the centre and deals with an additional 200,000 email and telephone enquiries. It supports local businesses and partners and helps to ensure that visitors can make the most of their time in the city and county.
Oxford is not alone in fighting to keep its tourist information centre open. Dozens of Visitor Information Centres across the UK are currently fighting to stay open as public sector funding trickles away.
Experience Oxfordshire took on the operation when it was making substantial losses which it has managed to reduce significantly over the years through offering retail and ticketing services for visitors. However only 1 in 6 visitors that come into the centre make a financial transaction, so their main reason for going to the information centre is just to ask for information. There is a cost to providing this service and welcome proposition in operational and staffing terms, a cost that was previously totally funded by the City Council.
There is additional financial risk involved in opening the VIC in a post Covid-19 environment as with lower visitor numbers anticipated in the city and the necessary social distancing requirements the information centre would be operating at a predicted volume of between 15% and 40% of its usual footfall which puts further financial pressures on the overall business.
Experience Oxfordshire has approached public sector stakeholders for additional funding to be able to continue the service however all organisations are working in a challenging environment currently, so it has not been possible to secure this.
Christopher Wigg, Board Director of Experience Oxfordshire and Chair of the Finance and Resources Committee commented: “We are extremely disappointed that the City Council have taken the decision to no longer support Experience Oxfordshire and that the immediate result of this is the closure of the VIC. It is simply not viable to operate an information centre without public sector subsidy and there is no information centre in the country that operates without a level of public sector support. As a not for profit organisation, Experience Oxfordshire cannot continue to run a loss-making service. The entire board would like to thank the team at the VIC who have run the service so well for so long. Oxford should be investing in welcoming visitors and we do hope the Council will review this in the future and Experience Oxfordshire will be able to work with them again.”
Experience Oxfordshire will now move to using digital channels, and subject to further investment in the organisation, hops to be able to provide more of an information service using multi-channel technology platforms. However, finance is not yet secured to undertake this work. Visitor Information and inspiration will also continue on the DMO’s existing social media platforms including facebook, twitter and Instagram, that already have a strong following.