Ruth Connor - Why you should all visit Lancashire

Ruth Connor, Chief Executive at Marketing Lancashire (photographed at Hoghton Tower)

Ruth Connor, Chief Executive at Marketing Lancashire (photographed at Hoghton Tower) - Credit: Archant

Tourism is starting to be really big business in Lancashire with more than 60 million visitors. Ruth Connor who is leading the charge talks to Roger Borrell

It’s one of those statistics that takes you a little by surprise. In the red rose county we tend to think that tourists belt up the M6, rarely pausing to give Lancashire a second thought, before turning left at junction 36 to squeeze themselves into the Lake District.

The reality is very different. When the last figures were compiled, Cumbria had 20 million fewer visitors than Lancashire in the year to 2013.

Visitor numbers to Lancashire grew by a million to 63.16 million and while they were here they spent £3.5 billion. That underpinned well over 56,000 full-time jobs.

It demonstrates the potential Lancashire has and, perhaps, our innate reluctance to blow our own trumpets. That will all end if Ruth Connor has her way. She is the chief executive of Marketing Lancashire, the umbrella organisation for tourism and inward investment.

‘Nationally and internationally, we need to start a conversation about Lancashire for all the right reasons,’ says Bolton-born Ruth, who has held senior positions with household names in the leisure industry, such as Butlins, Thomas Cook, Shearings and Gold Medal Travel.

It’s a conversation she launches into with the relish of someone who is proud of her roots. ‘Our great assets are our people – their openness and warmth and their reputation for welcoming visitors.’

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Ruth, a mother-of-four, reels off a catalogue of more tangible assets giving reasons why Lancashire has the potential to be a powerhouse in the hospitality industry.

‘Food and drink is a major factor,’ says Ruth. ‘The quality of our hotels, inn and restaurants is unquestionably excellent, we have great chefs and the local produce is exceptional.

‘You could argue that we just haven’t had the facilities to cope with an upsurge in visitors but people are now recognising the potential. We have some accomplished entrepreneurs and they are expanding…people like Nigel Haworth, the Seafood Pub Company and many others.’

She also cites our great outdoors. There was a time when the word Lancashire conjured up images of chimney pots in Coronation Street. ’But the word is getting out now – from cycling in Bowland, to sailing off Fleetwood and walking in Pendle and the Ribble Valley. Our countryside is a match for anyone.’

The third key factor is heritage. ‘Our story goes from Lancaster Castle and the Pendle Witches to the Industrial Revolution and beyond. This is a real strength.’

So big, in fact, that Ruth and the team convinced Visit England to make Lancaster one of the country’s top ten heritage cities and that places them firmly on the ‘to do’ list for American tour companies. ‘That gives us huge strength in the US – Lancaster was part of a presentation to 400 tour companies in Las Vegas.’

Finally, we have become a county of festivals and they have played a huge role in boosting visitor numbers. The Preston Guild and The Open were major factors in the most recent figures and growth will continue thanks to events such as events like as Morecambe Vintage Festival, Blackpool’s enduring appeal, Lytham’s 1940s weekend and The proms, plus the Clitheroe Food Festival, which brought in around 18,000 hungry people. Perhaps what Lancashire needs next is a Tour de France moment.

Marketing Lancashire does not match the old geographic boundaries of the County Palatine but Ruth sees beyond the old borders. ‘I’m not hung up about boundaries – our aim is to get people to visit the region. If they go to Manchester, they might venture out in Lancashire. So long as they are coming to the north west I’m happy.

‘I think there’s a lot of pride in Lancashire but there are parts of the county that even Lancastrians don’t know about. Our goal is to is to spread the word at a local, national and international level so people come here and appreciate the quality we have.

‘It’s about having a confident, ambitious voice. The majority of the 63 million people come here for events and festivals. We have so many great days out and if people come once they will come.

‘If you can get people here they are always surprised – they realise this is a county with a real wow factor.’

Blackpool’s still bright

The summer of 2014 saw Blackpool grow its overall visitor numbers by more than 200,000 – and also saw the number of overnight stays increase by 30 per cent. The latest Omnibus survey revealed the resort attracted 3.51m adult visits in the May to August period compared with 3.3m over the same period last year.

Ruth’s CV

Born: Bolton, where she still lives

Education: Degree at UCLan in French and Italian

Work history: Butlins, Shearing, Thomas Cook and Gold Medal Travel, where she was part of the senior management team.

Family: Married with four children and a Yorkie dog.

Typical weekend: A family walk in the country, a pub lunch and a visit to a Lancashire event.

Mentor: ‘My dad, Frank Peacock, who played for Stockport County. He was my greatest supporter.’