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Outdoor events have been key to attracting tourists to Kent’s coastal towns and driving culture-led regeneration, says Sarah Dance.

Photo of four women in red & black posing on steps

Clod Ensemble - Red Ladies. Image by Manu Palomeque.

As British tourism is forecast to grow to £257bn by 2025 and the UK’s culture brand is globally recognised, bringing the tourism and arts sectors together makes sense both financially and in audience development terms. Arts Council England and VisitEngland recognised this when they came together to launch the Cultural Destinations funding programme in 2014.

Artworks were placed in unconventional settings, such as a 30-minute film celebrating the weather and its moods across the straits of Dover

In Kent, culture-led regeneration has had a significant impact on the county. Since 2011, Turner Contemporary in Margate has welcomed over 2.7 million visits and contributed over £67m into the local economy through tourism and inward investment. Creative Foundation in Folkestone has created more than 500 jobs and restored 90 buildings to transform the old town into a creative quarter, making the town a better place to work, play, study and visit.

Culture in Kent

So, it made complete sense that Turner Contemporary and destination management organisation Visit Kent embarked on Culture Kent, a project to reposition Kent as a top creative county outside London from 2014-17. It aimed to:

  • showcase Kent’s cultural assets through a series of experimental pilot initiatives, led by partner organisations, that were unique to each place;
  • create new strategic relationships between the cultural and tourism sectors, delivering transformation through cross-sectorial working; and
  • conduct new research into cultural tourism in Kent.

The pilot projects ranged from outdoor arts festivals to new outdoor art installations, audience development experiments and embedding culture in tourism marketing.

Artworks in new places

Over 12,000 people came to Turner Contemporary’s Summer of Colour festival in Margate from May to September 2014. Comprising 72 programmed events and new artworks, including those supported by Culture Kent, the festival marked a new level of collaborative partnership working in Margate and Thanet.

A total of 45 different organisations and individual artists came together to create a real sense of Margate re-emerging as a destination. The whole town worked together to create a welcome for visitors and draw them into the experiences on offer. Twenty greeters were trained to provide a reception to visitors to Margate and inform them about the cultural offer – an innovation that has carried on since.

Dover Art Development’s Chalk Up encouraged visitors of Dover’s heritage attractions to discover new ways of enjoying and experiencing places such as Fan Bay and the White Cliffs. Artworks were placed in unconventional settings – a 30-minute film celebrating the weather and its moods across the straits of Dover was seen by over a million passengers on the DFDS Dover to Dunkirk ferry crossing. The Chalk Up project has since evolved into a long-term project.

Joanna Jones of Dover Arts Development said of the partnership with Culture Kent: “For ten years we’ve been trying to get the arts included from the planning stage of major projects in the town and district, so this has been a real stepping stone for us to achieving that.”

The Historic Dockyard Chatham and Turner Contemporary partnered to create links between heritage and culture and cross-fertilise audiences. The focus of this activity was the co-commissioning of a contemporary outdoor work by artist Jyll Bradley that featured as part of the dockyard’s commemorative exhibition ‘Breaking the Chain’ on the Dutch Raid on the English fleet at Chatham in the Battle of the Medway, before moving to Turner Contemporary’s terrace in 2017.

Research and development

We worked with Canterbury Christchurch University tourism and events research hub and Visit Kent to conduct in-depth research and evaluation. The research highlighted that Kent is now recognised as a UK cultural destination and that this pays economic dividends for the county.

54% of those surveyed associate Kent as a cultural destination (above the VisitEngland average of 35% for Great Britain). A higher proportion of existing Kent cultural tourists are more likely to go on short breaks or mid-length breaks than existing leisure tourists (51% go on short breaks, 21% go on mid-length breaks), and the longer they stay the more they spend.

Visitors don’t make a culture and heritage distinction – they just want to visit and be immersed in both the contemporary and historical culture of a place to feel they understand and know it better. And interestingly, 36% of Kent cultural tourists are aged 25 to 34 years (higher than the national average).

As part of Culture Kent we developed a new definition of a cultural destination: “A cultural destination is a networked space delivering a total experience to visitors that helps them understand a location and its people, through history and contemporary culture.”

By working together with a holistic offer of a place, we can attract more visitors and encourage them to stay longer. By immersing themselves in a place, they will develop a long-lasting memory that they can share with their friends, colleagues and families – becoming our very own ambassadors. Collaboration brings exposure to new markets, new visitors that businesses may not have been able to reach before.

New partnership

Which is why we’re now working on a new Cultural Destinations project, funded by Arts Council England and the Government’s Discover England fund administered by VisitEngland. Led by Turner Contemporary and Visit Kent with partners across the arts and tourism sectors, a new cultural journey will span East Sussex, Kent and Essex, with installations commissioned across the region alongside new tourism itineraries and ways to book a complete travel package (where to stay and eat).

Towner Art Gallery, De La Warr Pavilion, Jerwood Gallery, Creative Foundation, Whitstable Biennale and Metal will collaborate with their local communities to explore what their locality means to them and develop work, real or virtual, enabling visitors to uncover stories and delve deeper into what it is like to live there.

It’s about making the most of our creative coast across South East England and growing the international market (particularly for French and Dutch visitors). We plan to link to new visitor trends such as health and wellbeing, by inviting them to explore the great outdoors with a digital treasure trail and cycling from place to place, and offering immersive, authentic experiences. We aim to drive a 3% growth in the visitor economy, creating a real legacy and reputation for world-class art and new culturally driven tourism experiences.

Director of Turner Contemporary Victoria Pomery said: “By truly putting arts and culture at the core of the project, we aim to create a unique, cohesive visitor offer which celebrates our distinctive coastline and significantly grows the visitor economy for the region.”

Sandra Matthews-Marsh, Chief Executive of Visit Kent (Go to Places), said: “More than 44% of visitors to Britain in 2016 stated ‘cultural attractions’ were their main motivator for choosing Britain as a holiday destination, and visits to museums and art galleries accounted for £889m of visitor spend that year alone.

“Our goal is to inspire international visitors who are interested in cultural adventures to go out and explore our coastline, and discover new art installations, stunning galleries and incredible characters and communities on the way.”

Sarah Dance was Project Director of Culture Kent and now leads the new Cultural Destinations project.
Tw @sarahcdance; @culturekent; @TCMargate

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Photo of Sarah Dance