Seaside towns must reinvent themselves or risk going under

First published in the Guardian Small Business Network.

Nostalgia for the era when seaside resorts were the British holiday destination of choice, combined with memories from childhood breaks, mean seaside towns hold a special place in many people’s hearts.

In 1920, one in 10 Brits took their holidays in the Lancashire resort town of Blackpool. But today, battered by the loss of custom to resorts abroad and of brain drain to the cities, many seaside towns are shadows of their once illustrious selves. As this week’s deprivation data reinforces, many such towns are now characterised by high levels of unemployment, welfare dependency, education deficiencies and weak aspirations.

This week the Centre for Entrepreneurs published a new report entitled, From ebb to flow: how entrepreneurs can turn the tide for Britain’s seaside towns. In it, we suggest that unless seaside towns reinvent themselves and find new relevance, they will continue to fall behind the rest of the country. A passive reliance on tourism is not enough to revive seaside towns and overcome their challenges – what’s needed is a transformation in the way the towns view themselves, and how they attract entrepreneurs and visitors alike.

To compete, seaside towns need more than a beach. They need to develop individual identities that, literally, put themselves on the map. More than ever, people look to visit and settle in places that reflect their own unique interests. In a time of ever-proliferating identities, the search for personal authenticity and what one might call the “boutique experience” has become increasingly important.

Seaside towns – with their rich heritage, proximity to nature and local flavour – have a natural advantage. They can market themselves to young and edgy entrepreneurs and holidaymakers looking for their own “undiscovered” haven. They should be encouraged by a continuing shift in preferences towards frequent, shorter breaks over longer ones and domestic staycations – which is creating a whole new pool of demand for specialised getaways be they art, food, culture or sport-related.

The larger towns of Bournemouth and Brighton have successfully developed creative and digital industries to complement tourism income. Creative agencies in Bournemouth now attract talent from London-based competitors offering a relaxed, seaside lifestyle.

Blackpool and Scarborough remain perhaps the best known resorts that still profitably trade on the long-standing bucket and spade image of a seaside holiday. Blackpool beach is Britain’s favourite and attracts 13 million people a year, while Scarborough’s vast 413-room Grand Hotel regularly hits 90% occupancy rates.

Following the reopening of the iconic art deco Midland Hotel in 2008, Morecambe-born designer Wayne Hemingway has helped the town draw in tens of thousands of people a year with his Vintage by the Sea festival. This September more than 40,000 people visited over the long weekend, with entrepreneurs following them to offer vintage themed pop-up salons, tea rooms and much more.

Padstow has long been known as a destination for excellent seafood thanks to Rick Stein’s impact – over four decades he has built several ventures that employ well over 300 staff in the town. The McAlpins have had similar impact in Portrush, Northern Ireland – employing 300 people and serving over 1,000 people a night across their family food empire of restaurants, bistros and bars.

Art lovers have been flocking to St Ives to see The Tate for over a decade now. More recently, the Turner Contemporary in Margate attracted over 500,000 visitors in its first year, boosting the economy by nearly £14m and creating over 130 jobs. Margate also teamed up with Hemingway to reopen Dreamland – the oldest amusement park in Britain.

So what about other seaside towns? What can they be known for? Could Weston-super-Mare build on the success of Dismaland by becoming known for hosting edgy art installations?

As the above illustrates, there are plenty of examples of seaside towns that have identified their strengths and forged unique identities – attracting entrepreneurs and visitors alike. For those that haven’t, it should be the joint initiative of local entrepreneurs, politicians and citizens that achieves this.