A countywide scheme is being launched to support tourism and visitor-centred businesses in Somerset in the wake of the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The visitor economy plays an important part in the wider Somerset economy and coronavirus restrictions have hit businesses and employment hard.
Now Somerset’s County and District Councils have put in place the Visitor Economy Support Programme (VESP) to help businesses strengthen and build their competitiveness. The programme has been designed to provide help and support so that small and medium size businesses in the sector are more resilient and ready to recover and grow.
The VESP initiative has been developed in partnership; local authorities in Somerset have worked closely with business representative bodies and wider local stakeholders, including Visit Somerset, Visit Exmoor and Exmoor National Park Authority.
The £250,000 first phase of the programme will focus on sector specialist and county-wide marketing, coronavirus-safe advice, business support and digital skills. Beneficiaries will be able to work directly with industry experts to identify and develop their business model and customer experience.
It is being funded through a Business Rates Retention pilot scheme that allows councils in Somerset to retain a proportion of the business rates income locally to invest in developing the economy and improving the way local authority services are delivered.
Councillor David Hall, Somerset County Council Cabinet member for Economic Development, Planning and Community Infrastructure, said: “Tourism plays a significant role in Somerset’s economy, and there can be no doubt that many businesses in this sector have been feeling the impacts caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Visitor Economy Support Programme has been developed to help businesses adapt and enhance their offer so that Somerset’s tourism industry can recover as quickly and safely as possible.”
Cllr John Clark, South Somerset District Council’s Portfolio Holder for Economy, said: “All the businesses that make up our diverse Visitor Economy have suffered an extremely challenging year and sadly will continue to do so as we head into 2021. We hope that this package of locally developed support will complement the central government grants and go some way in helping businesses across South Somerset not only survive but grow by adapting their business models where appropriate. The scheme should help to build resilience and also enhance the visitor experience whilst also connecting more effectively with customers, which all will, in turn, strengthen our overall Visitor Economy for Somerset.”
Cllr Gill Slocombe, Sedgemoor’s Portfolio Holder for Inward Investment and Growth, commented: “We know that many of Sedgemoor’s tourism businesses give such a welcoming and positive impression of the area to the many thousands of our visitors. Unfortunately, we have witnessed first-hand how many of them are struggling in the face of the Covid-19 restrictions.
“We are pleased to have worked with partners to put in place measures that will help them, particularly through greater and wider promotion of Somerset as a destination.”
Cllr Marcus Kravis, Executive Member for Economic Development at Somerset West and Taunton District Council, said: “We welcome the launch of this programme to support the future viability of our tourism-based businesses, which we know have suffered greatly due to the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. The initial funding will help these businesses to bounce back, equipping them with the tools necessary to ensure that both the district and county at large, remain attractive as a destination to visitors.”
Cllr Simon Carswell, Portfolio Holder for Economic Development, Mendip District Council, said: “Mendip, within Somerset, has such a diverse and vibrant tourism offering which has been hit hard by the pandemic. We have so much to offer visitors and we need to do all we can to help this vital sector recover. This initiative is both needed and welcomed.”
The first phase of the programme will run until December 2021, and a second phase of activity is under development.