Ten years ago, Welcome to Yorkshire was launched with the aim of raising the profile of God’s own county both home and abroad. Chief executive Sir Gary Verity tells beyond why the best may be yet to come.
On the wall of Welcome to Yorkshire’s first floor offices there is a large map. It covers the whole of the county, together with the surrounding area. For the organisation’s head honcho it also represents his battle plan.
Every so often chief executive Sir Gary Verity can be found standing in front of that map, carefully plotting a new route for the Tour de Yorkshire, the cycle race which has become the county’s biggest sporting event.
The annual race was born out of the successful hosting of the first stage of the Tour de France in 2014 and it has earned a reputation for gruelling climbs, fast sprints and the impressive crowds which line the route, regardless of the weather.
This year’s event in May, will again see the four corners of Yorkshire represented, beginning in Doncaster, ending in Leeds and taking in the likes of Bridlington, Harrogate, Barnsley and the Wolds along the way.
“This is going to be tough,” says Verity, pointing to the A road, which leads from Whitby to Sandsend. “I discovered Lythe Bank when I was driving back from the coast a couple of years ago.
“As often happens, I immediately rang the team back here and said, ‘I’ve got a great climb for the Tour in the bag, write it down’. I have since ridden it on a bike and let’s just say when I got to the top I wasn’t looking too pretty.”
In a few weeks’ time Tour de France winner Chris Froome will be testing himself against Lythe Bank alongside some of the sport’s biggest names. Confirmation the Team Sky cyclist will be heading to Yorkshire was a bit of a coup for the event which now enjoys HC international tour status, making it one of the premier races in the world.
“To be a competitive race the four stages need to have two distinct characters,” adds Verity. “You need routes which ware designed for sprinters and routes which are more attritional where the climbers can test their mettle.
“We are really fortunate in Yorkshire that we have such a variety of landscape that was can do both. In fact, the only downside is that the county is so enormous that you can’t possibly include it all in one event. We’ve got a pretty long waiting list of the places which want to be part of it. It may take a while, but we will get to them because we know what it means to them.
“There’s an immediate economic impact from bringing the race and the spectators to an area, but there’s also long-term benefits. Yorkshire is known all over the world now as a cycling destination and that keeps people coming throughout the year.”
Verity has become close friends with Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme, who he also credits with inspiring his own passion for two wheels. While Leeds-born Verity has always been a life-long fan of cricket, football and rugby it was only when wooing Prudhomme to bring cycling’s biggest race to Yorkshire that he really began to fall in love with the sport.
“I do live and breathe cycling, but I think the Tour de France coming to Yorkshire did that to a lot of people,” he says. “Wherever you go in the county now you will see people out on their bikes and that just didn’t happen before.”
The increase in cycling and the economic boost events like the Tour de Yorkshire bring to the county are two of Welcome to Yorkshire’s greatest legacies. The organisation was born out of the old tourism board in 2009 and Verity, who was at the helm from the start, soon became known for doing things a little differently, whether it be launching its own cycle race or taking a garden to the Chelsea Flower Show.
“I am not sure where these last 10 years have gone,” says Verity who will unveil the next set of ambitious marketing plans at the Y19 tourism conference in April. “When we started Welcome to Yorkshire is was with the aim of getting out there and telling people how wonderful this county is.
“It was about saying we deserve to host these major events and having the confidence to do it. When I first suggested we bring the Tour de France here, a lot of people thought I was mad, that we wouldn’t have a chance, but we did and now there is more of a sense of belief and ambition.
“I definitely think that we can expect to see more high-profile events coming to Yorkshire because we have shown what’s possible.”
Having enjoyed a successful career in the City, Verity, who lives on a farm in rural North Yorkshire, brought an unashamedly business approach to tourism. It has paid off. Last year, research showed international visitors to Yorkshire had reached record levels, however the impact of Brexit may yet deliver a hammer blow to British tourism. Verity though is, as ever, unconcerned.
“These are uncertain times and it is impossible to predict the future, because no one seems to know what we are dealing with,” he says. “However, I have always been pretty pragmatic. Whatever cards we are dealt I think Yorkshire will make a good go of it.
“If you ask me for one word that sums up Yorkshire I would say authentic. It’s a word that informs everything we do. It always has and I reckon it’s one that should serve us pretty well whatever the future holds.”
Tour de Yorkshire takes place from May 5th to 9th.