Business groups aim to develop the tourism brand of west Suffolk's Wool Towns so they can compete with the Cotswolds
PUBLISHED: 12:52 16 March 2018 | UPDATED: 13:13 16 March 2018
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When those not wholly familiar with the county think of Suffolk, what is it that springs to mind?
Is it the coastal zones with their wild beauty and charming communities, such as Aldeburgh, Southwold and Orford? Or, maybe, the major towns of Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds or the rolling landscape of Constable Country on the Essex borders?
It is a question that has been exercising five business organisations in west Suffolk who have come together to form an unlikely alliance with the aim of putting their towns and villages firmly on the tourist map.
Clare Business Association, Hadleigh Chamber of Commerce, Lavenham Business Forum, Long Melford Business Association and Sudbury Chamber of Commerce have worked together to establish a Community Interest Company called the Wool Towns Association (WTA).
The name has been chosen because these places share a common history, whereby in the late Middle Ages they were home to a thriving woven wool industry that brought wealth to the area and led to the creation of a number of elegant churches and many colourful timber-framed houses that still typify the locale today.
It is a very distinct corner of west Suffolk and the intention is to develop a tourism strategy that boosts the profile and brand of the Wool Towns, and packages them as one destination in a similar way to how areas like the Cotswolds and the Broads have become established.
Developing a brand
The group has been working on this project for several years with the aim of not just enticing more visitors to the area but also persuading them to stay longer, spend more and to visit out of season.
The association has gone as far as developing the Wool Towns brand, building and registering a website - http://wooltowns.co.uk - and formulating a business plan. This early work has got people talking about the concept of the Wool Towns while the county’s tourism body, VisitSuffolk, now includes the Wool Towns as a discrete section on its website and puts the logo on its map of Suffolk.
But, according to David Martin, chair of the Long Melford Business Association and a driving force behind the WTA, the most significant progress is the fact that the business groups representing the five different towns are working together on a tourism project.
“In a tourism environment, each of these business associations has felt for years that they are in competition,” he said.
“The people in Lavenham have wanted the visitors to come to Lavenham and those in Long Melford have wanted visitors to come to Long Melford.
“Businesses in Long Melford have been quite jealous of Lavenham because of its history and high-profile image; the businesses in Lavenham are quite jealous of Long Melford’s long high street and two stately homes.”
But, says Mr Martin, by working together the towns can become greater than the sum of their parts. Whereas most people coming to the area are day trippers, maybe visiting one or two of the places, the hope is more people will make a long weekend or mid-week break of it and tour the entire Wool Towns area.
He added: “It’s not until you start talking together that you realise that we aren’t in competition.
“If the aim is to bring in more visitors and to get them to stay for a few days or even a week we need to work together.”
The benefits for tourism businesses of converting day trips into overnight stays is underlined by VisitSuffolk statistics that show on average a day visitor to the county will spend just over £40, while an overnight visitor will part with in excess of £170.
The research says that the key target market for Suffolk is mature couples who are looking for a short break that offers good food, culture and country walks.
But just how do the Wool Towns build a profile that approaches anything like the widely known tourism destinations of the Cotswolds, the Lakes and the Broads?
“It’s a branding issue,” continued, Mr Martin.
“The Cotswolds, for example, has established a very solid brand but the Wool Towns is very much like how the Cotswolds was some time ago.
“If you had asked someone about the Cotswolds then – they would have known roughly where it was in the country, they might have known some of villages that are included in it, that it was nice place for a few days away and that’s about it.
“You could say exactly the same thing about the Wool Towns – but we just have to establish the brand.”
With this in mind, the WTA is planning a number of activities over the next twelve months to mark phase two of its project and to grow the Wool Town brand further.
These include producing a guide to sit in tourism offices around the country and which will include a map detailing walks and cycle routes that connect the villages and towns.
It is also in the early stages of planning an “academic event” around the history of weaving in the region, taking in the 600 year history of the wool industry and latterly the silk weaving industry in Sudbury. The plan is to convene a meeting of the different history and archaeological groups from the five towns and encourage them to collaborate and decide on the content and format of a formal conference to take place in 2019.
There are plans to apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund to finance some of these initiatives.
Mr Martin said: “There are wool towns and villages all over the country, such as in Yorkshire, but we are the first to work together and build a brand.
“The objective is that when people are thinking of a place to spend some time that they will consider Suffolk’s Wool Towns alongside the Broads, the Lakes and the Cotswolds.
“That’s the ambition - to try and get into that cluster of well-known leisure breaks destinations.”