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Tourism has been in decline in England’s seaside towns for years, but now a network bringing world-class circus and street arts to the coast is enticing the tourists back. Joe Mackintosh tells the story.

Performance shot: man in boat under a raining umbrella
Acrojou's 'All at Sea' at Clevedon in Somerset

Marie Dominique Demers King

The Coasters Touring Network brings circus and street arts to coastal towns around England and aims to enliven the culture of coastal towns for residents and tourists. It is a three-year audience development project, led and coordinated by SeaChange Arts and supported by Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund.

We want to get the word out that there are world-class, free outdoor events taking place around our coastline that are worth travelling for

Coasters began with ten partners – local authorities and independent arts organisations already running successful events and festivals. The geographical spread takes in Blackpool on the west coast, extends down to Dorset and north Somerset, across to Hastings and Worthing and then up the east coast to Margate, Great Yarmouth, Lincolnshire, Hull and Tyneside.

Although isolated from each other by distance, the network enables the partners to share resources and experience, and choose outdoor and indoor touring shows from a pool of selected companies.

For example, in Hull, Coasters has helped its Freedom Festival broaden its programme with more family-friendly events in areas of low engagement. Worthing Theatres has been able to show outdoor work for the first time and introduce contemporary circus to the town, helping it engage with changing demographics in the area, reach new audiences and boost tourism.

Audience likes

Our year one evaluation tells us that visitors like what we are doing, with 96% rating their overall experience as good or very good. Coasters events also appealed to a wide range of attenders, but have been particularly effective at attracting people who are only occasional attenders of the arts (over 50%). And the majority of visitors (87%) came as part of a group of friends or family, highlighting the importance of our mostly free outdoor arts events as social experiences that people want to enjoy together.

The Mouth of The Tyne Festival reported that its Coasters events attracted a wide range of residents and tourists to the area and that they were interested enough to stay and watch multiple diverse performances.

Here in Great Yarmouth, the Out There festival helps extend the summer season into mid-September, with a demonstrable impact on the local economy. Almost 60% of our audiences are day-trippers and short-stay tourists. The festival accounts for around 1,500 nights of accommodation over the weekend, and directly attracts almost £1.2m visitor spend to the area.

Integrated programming

So where do we go from here? This year sees a more integrated approach to programming. The partners know each other better and have selected ten associate companies they will programme over the life of the project. This will help build relationships with audiences and artists, and develop stronger links between the partner organisations and touring companies, some of whom will also be delivering a national programme of professional development workshops and masterclasses.

We’ve also begun to support the development of new work with a pioneering collaboration between two of Europe’s most in demand outdoor arts companies: Germany’s Dundu, which specialises in giant puppets; and the percussive Worldbeaters from the north of England. Together they are creating a 60-minute night-time promenade, in which giant illuminated puppets roam and interact with the audience to a musical soundscape inspired by Latin America and West Africa. They will perform to large audiences of up to 5,000 and will tour to Coasters events and other locations and events.

The network can only benefit from an expanded partnership and this year we are joined by East Suffolk Council. We’re also talking to several other areas keen to come on board, and the consortium is discussing how we continue the partnership beyond the life of this project.

Tourism is vital to the economies of all Coasters partners. Building on the success of year one, we’ll be forging closer, reciprocal links with local and regional tourism agencies to support the promotion of events, and thus attract more day and short-stay visitors from surrounding areas.

In Great Yarmouth we are exploring ways in which Coasters can further boost tourism and help support the local economy through programming work in the less busy ‘shoulder months’ of the year. We’re also looking at enhancing existing local events, such as the Christmas Lantern Parade, by providing Coasters shows.

New experiences

The Coasters project also looks to support each partner location in reaching new visitor audiences. Targeted digital campaigns and press activity will build on, and fill the gaps, in the work they are already delivering. We want to get the word out that there are world-class, free outdoor events taking place around our coastline that are worth travelling for.

The traditional seaside offer is popular and proven with many, but is it enough to keep people returning or to draw new audiences to the coast? “The festival is the only thing that might persuade me to return to Great Yarmouth… I can’t see myself travelling there for any other reason,” one visitor claimed last year.

That is indicative of the power of dynamic cultural events and festivals. They provide a quality and variety to tourists’ experiences, evolving and changing each year, and are a powerful motivator for those not content with repeating the same tourist experiences.

Joe Mackintosh is Director of SeaChange Arts.

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Photo of Joe Mackintosh