With the demise of quango South West Tourism ahead, Robert Camp urges people not to forget to support the region’s food and drink producers….
Let’s face it, when you choose a holiday destination it’s as much about experiencing the local food and drink as it is about enjoying the sunshine and location. Take for example, countries like Italy or France – both renowned the world over for their passion and enthusiasm for using the freshest, great quality local produce. It’s taken a while, but we’re finally catching up and over recent years there’s been an explosion in the popularity of the Westcountry’s own food and drink.
Savvy farmers and landowners across the region have diversified, becoming far more business-like and entrepreneurial in their approach. A certain professionalism and recognition of the importance of good marketing has crept in and an understanding that the Westcountry label can add a premium to the price. There may have been a drop in organic sales in recent times and margins may continue to be squeezed, but there will always be a place for quality that people are prepared to pay for.
True provenance is something of which consumers are increasingly aware – they know that just because the label says it was ‘made in’ that it’s not necessarily true. Generally we’ve been slow to catch onto PDOs (Protected Designation of Origins) and should be pushing hard for this ‘world-class’ recognition – it gives much more credence and value to a product.
Locally produced food and drink is now a massive retail industry in the South West, employing an estimated 37,000 in over 3,000 workplaces. Businesses in the sector turnover around £5bn and punch above their weight nationally, contributing six percent of the country’s food and drink exports. The industry has changed dramatically over the last ten years and there’s been a huge momentum of support which we can not let wane. Take for example, the Western Morning News’ own long-running ‘Think Local’ campaign – hugely successful at making people do exactly that. It’s also encouraging to see Mole Valley Farmers picking up the baton with its ‘Great Taste’ initiative to back local producers and reduce food miles.
These days the consumer is much more discerning and wants the whole package – you’ve got to have the quality of both product and service and if you have these, reputation naturally follows. To my mind, companies like The Well Hung Meat Company and Pipers Farm ‘get it’ – they’re leading the way in realising the market potential for out-of-region sales, people who want to experience the Westcountry when their holiday finishes. Riverford Organics, Darts Farm, Mary Quick and Luscombe are also champions showing others the way to go. We’re also very supportive of Pebblebed Partner Vineyards, who are putting their business on a national platform following on from the success on Dragons’ Den.
It’s also fantastic to hear top chefs like Michael Caines talking about his dream that Devon and Cornwall should be the ‘larder of Britain’ where people come for holidays and experience top-quality, award-winning locally produced food and drink at the same time. After all, we have a phenomenal wealth of ingredients on our doorstep and lots of healthy competition for products like cheese, cream, meats, beers, ciders and wine – the list goes on, there is really no need to look anywhere else.
As a board member of the Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink and managing partner of Stephens Scown with strong links to Devon and Cornwall’s rural economy, I care passionately about the industry. We’re committed to supporting local businesses and the region as a whole and I can see that if we’re not careful, the demise of quango South West Tourism may well have a long-lasting impact.
Over the last eighteen months or so, the organisation was beginning to use locally produced food and drink as a major selling point for the region. When you’re trying to target markets outside of the South West, counties on their own don’t have as much clout. The recent spat over cream teas, pitting Cornwall against Devon is humorous and has brought much publicity for the two counties, but we have to be careful that it doesn’t go too far or become too divisive.
I do think we should continue to work together for the greater good of the region and keep the flame burning with a South West partnership to promote tourism. I think this is the right approach and a new organisation like the one being proposed could be even more effective, free from the shackles of Government policy – a place where business can give something back for the benefit of the region. I also think it would place us on a more equal footing and we can get back to promoting the real South West – Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset. Let’s not forget that ‘Taste of the West’ also does a good job in promoting the region’s food and drink and I very much hope it continues to help raise the industry’s profile.
But it’s not just about tourists visiting the Westcountry – we all have a part to play. We’re the people who live and work in the region every day, we’re all consumers and we all buy food and drink, so next time you’re heading to the supermarket because it’s easy or convenient, stop and ‘think local’. My message is clear – let’s work together, stay together and keep our focus for the sake of our food and drink producers across the South West.