The retailers, the Jazz Festival and the future

Written by Bob Holman & others on .


There appears to be a great deal of miss-informed comment, conjecture and a few straightforward inaccuracies about Marlborough retailers and road closures in general, so we thought we’d try and ‘square the circle’ as it were, so that everyone interested in this matter can make an informed decision.

Firstly, it is important to clearly understand that all the retailers are not (and never have been) against the Jazz Festival.

However, any road closure in the town, be it an event or a planned council repair, reduces the number of locals and visitors that can easily gain access to our town if it is not planned properly.

What is not commonly known is that all retailers lose money (and yes, even the ‘chains’ - we know this as we speak frequently with them too) whenever the high street is closed - or when the predicted visitor volume is managed unwisely, or when other roads are closed which in turn affects the High Street. With ever increasing costs, it’s very difficult for businesses to lose a good days’ trading (i.e. a weekend), especially in these volatile trading times.

And no, the volume of visitors coming in for events doesn’t make up for our regular customers staying away in their droves.

Marlborough High Street Retailers Association (MHSRA) is a collection of (currently about 70, but getting fewer as some simply can’t afford to continue in business any longer) mainly independent retailers, gathered together primarily to share best-practice in our business dealings, but also to speak with one voice - as and when the need arises.

Frequently in the past we’ve tried to discuss this subject in an adult and sensible matter with any local association or body that plans to have a road closure, in order to affect an agreeable and mutually satisfactory solution, for all concerned - and for the town as a whole.

It should be known that Marlborough Arts Association (MAA - the Jazz Festival organisers) consistently did not agree to any meeting we requested in 2015. Neither did they all turn up to a meeting managed, chaired and co-ordinated by Marlborough Town Council, in order to try and affect a compromise solution for next year.

In addition, MAA did not turn up at last year’s ‘wash up’ meeting – organised by Wiltshire Council - where all partners (police service, fire service, Wiltshire Councillors and Marlborough Town Councillors etc.) and ourselves were in attendance, to work together for the good of next year’s (2016) event.

This year, Marlborough Town Council Planning Committee (all councillors voted and the chairman abstained) voted to reject the MAA's yearly road closure application. It was resolved: that Marlborough Town Council objects to the application. It would support a compromise with any road closure beginning at 5pm.

Wiltshire Council undertook an investigation. This was carried out by the same team that investigates and helps plan logistics for the vast numbers of visitors to our county for the summer solstice in Avebury and Stonehenge. Wiltshire Council (on the advice of their assessment) recommended a simple compromise of a road closure from 5pm until midnight on the Saturday of the event.

It is important to know that MAA had also produced a substantial, colourful and lengthy risk assessment to justify their road closure application. This was carried out by the internationally reputable Health and Safety Support Team at NFU Mutual. It is interesting to note that MAA chose to use NFU for their festival insurance.

To have a road closure at 5pm would allow all the retailers in the town to have a full day’s trade, with no interruption to visitors and locals to reach the high street, and then the Jazz Festival could move into full swing and party the night away. It was a beautifully simple compromise.

MAA rejected it out of hand.

Confusion reigned in the town. Would there be a road closure or not, for the few days leading up to the festival? This alone may have put off many people from coming to the town for this event, as they’d be unsure how snarled up the traffic would be.

In the end, MAA alone and nobody else, decided not to have a road closure.

One vital point has been unsaid until now: MAA have beaten the ‘public safety’ drum every year in their road closure application. So why would they decide not to close the road at 5pm until midnight, when this is the busiest time of the festival weekend and more people would have been drinking alcohol for a substantial period and so there’d be more risk of a pedestrian accident?

By having a delayed road closure, it has been claimed that

  1. the Community Bandstand (situated in the road directly by the road closure) could not go ahead and the “Free all day music for everyone” has had to be cancelled.
  2. Visitor attendance will be lowered and thus income to the MAA will be less

We dispute these two points thus:

  1. The Community bandstand (a brilliant idea) can be placed at one of many other attractive (and safe) sites around the town. These sites have been identified to MAA – every single one of which they have rejected out of hand (see a pattern here?) All the venues identified would still allow visitors and locals, who may not be able to afford a full Jazz Festival ticket, to enjoy free music, all day long.
  2. The vast majority of the tickets, by the time MAA had decided not to make the road closure, had already been sold - and the money received by MAA. These patrons will be coming anyway.

Additionally, there was never anything stopping MAA from providing the Community bandstand from after 5pm, so that:

  1. Local artists could still perform and have their excellent exposure.
  2. Children and the infirm could watch the excellent display.
  3. Those that couldn’t afford a ticket could still benefit from excellent performers.
  4. Complete visitor safety is assured, as the road is closed to traffic.

MHSRA have recently spoken to many retailers (both independent and ‘chains’) in the town to gauge how their business was during the Friday and also over the weekend, and to compare this business with past Jazz Festivals in the town, where a road closure happened.

The answers to the question make for interesting reading. The vast majority of retailers had an increase in business on the Saturday. Sales increases, compared to last year, ranged from +17 per cent to a staggering +400 per cent. And all of them confirmed that their Friday was ‘as normal’ – i.e. they weren’t penalised for a Friday road closure as in the past. One retailer reported a reduction on their normal Saturday trade.

Retailer comments included: “The best days trading we’ve ever had.” “Customers have found us for the first time, and have said that they’ll be back.” “We were planning for a quiet day as usual, but ended up with a fantastic day of trading.” “Excellent takings.” “We were expecting a slow day, as normal for this event, but we were pleasantly surprised at how well we did.”

The biggest retail employer in the town Waitrose, stated “Trade from Mon-Friday was largely unaltered from that of last year’s Jazz Festival week, however it was on Saturday where we saw a shift with a 13% increase on the Saturday, with many customers commenting that they welcomed the later road closure which maintained footfall and produced the favourable sales outcome”

Visitor comments on the day included “What a delight to arrive in the town without having to queue for hours.” “Parking was very easy – congratulations to the organisers.” “Great buzz in the town.”

All of this positivity in the town happened without a road closure – although we feel that there should have been one at 5pm, as recommended by Wiltshire Council.

We also remember that there was no road closure for the Civil War re-enactment and many more people in town than for the Jazz Festival with many walking between the Common and The Priory. There were no casualties in the High Street and shopkeepers were happy.

We think it’s about time that with an event of this magnitude in the town (especially in the view of declining ticket sales – source: Charities Commission) it should become more inclusive, with more collaboration between everyone in the town.

Here’s a thought. How about retailers selling Festival tickets to their own database of customers? We could probably contact a greater number of potential customers in an easier and more efficient manner. Independent retailers are by their nature entrepreneurs. Wouldn’t it be sensible to use this expertise in the planning and management of an event like this? And just think of the level of marketing that is underutilised by these same people?

As a town, we should be working together on events of this magnitude. How epic Marlborough Town could be seen to be, should this collaboration ever happen for an event like this in the future?

Bob Holman – The Food Gallery

David Dudley – David Dudley Jewellery

Hamish Watson – Susie Watson Interiors

Peter Davies – Marlborough Photo Services

Writing on behalf of over 70 Independent Retailers in Marlborough Town