An Interview With Neil Rami

Essay Interviews  

There is a clear clue as to what Marketing Birmingham does hidden within its title, but who specifically do you market Birmingham to?

Our focus thus far has been on promoting Birmingham’s visitor economy,that is both business and leisure travellers. Our remit will broadennext year as we will actively support Locate in Birmingham in its mission to attract inward investment.

Marketing the city is a key job as visitors account for 10% of the City’s economy, which is an unusually high proportion. The majority of this trade is in the business, conference and meetings market but the value of City Break travellers is increasing. Each year some 32 million people visit Birmingham.

Our strategy involves undertaking quite sophisticated research into customers interests and market segmentation. We need to identify who is interested in what Birmingham has to offer and then seek to target these people. In order to reach as many people, as cost effectively as possible, we tend to target consumer and trade media, but also increasingly the social media and use them to talk to people about what we’re about in Birmingham. This City is still misunderstood nationally and our job is to get people to visit because once they do that then generally the City takes care of itself.

What place does the Arts have in marketing the City?

The arts play an increasingly important role. The cultural visitor market is an important one. People will come to a City because they want to ‘do stuff’. This desire often includes a broad range of interests, museums, shows, exhibitions and other performances. People are increasingly looking for original work, which Birmingham is obviously well placed to provide.

In purely economic terms the Arts can play a crucial role in extending people’s stay in the City. Visitors may come for a conference and be persuaded to stay on for an extra night or two in order to take in the City’s cultural offer. This is key for us as it is significantly easier to extend someone’s stay than to get them to come here in the first place.

During times of economic austerity, such as now, the Arts become more important. If you look at periods of great artistic activity they often coincide with moments of great turmoil. This is because of the stories they tell of a place, it’s journey and the lives of the people who live there. The Arts help give people a relationship with the place they are visiting.

Increasingly people are looking for a sense of authenticity from the places they visit. So the pre-packaged offer featuring culture that can be experienced elsewhere is becoming less attractive. Instead people are looking for those events that offer them a window on a different world, that strongly relates to a place and tells a story about that place. These events can help give the City a level of authenticity that makes it more appealing.

And how do independent arts organisations fit into this picture?

Much of the mass market will focus on ‘transportable culture’, shows that roll out across the world, exhibitions and collections that travel from city to city. There’s nothing wrong with these, but in order for the City to work as a visitor destination its cultural offer needs to include Range, Quality and Originality in equal measure. The independents help us to fulfil this offer.

Independents also attract a different type of tourist, including people who follow a particular genre no matter where it goes. These events are clearly a way of drawing people to the City who don’t currently visit.

Birmingham’s core values are around being a city that is Youthful, Cosmopolitan and Welcoming and clearly these values work well alongside the independents who broaden the range of offer we can give. Independents improve the visitor experience. They tend to use spaces and locations that are more in the public realm and strike up more of a conversation with people.

Also the independent sector nurtures young talent and gives it the chance to gain traction and resonance within the City. These people often move on to do other things within the City and enrich it in other ways. It is not a conveyor-belt but unless you have a strong independent arts sector it can be difficult to generate a strong mainstream arts scene. If you want to be a cultural destination you have to have the independent sector.

Talking ruthlessly and commercially, what we try to do is to tell a story about Birmingham and the independent arts scene provides us with news hooks on which to hang this story. The art of the new is interesting, newsworthy and it gives us a fresh way of talking about everything else.

Which cities have marketed themselves effectively through culture?

The danger of this kind of question is that it tends to promote a ‘me too’ strategy. Most successful cities don’t bother about what other cities are doing and tend to focus on what they are doing. But, purely as a voyeur of these things, there are four cities that interest me.

1: Barcelona, for it’s pure chutzpah and ambition. It set out to establish a culturally led leisure offer that it would ultimately be able to commercialise. It started with the Olympics but it’s not a high end cultural offer, it’s about investing in artists. It’s extraordinary the amount of artists they have living above places like lawyers and bakers shops, in this way they challenge the commercial model that pushes artists out once they have softened a neighbourhood up for regeneration.

2: Berlin, because it uses the arts to tell perhaps the most difficult, challenging and interesting story of modern times and it is quite honest about that. It has the museum island and all the big stuff that you would expect and yet juxtaposes those with areas that are still regenerating and it doesn’t try to hide them, it treats them equally on artistic terms. They are using that evolution effectively in their marketing.

3: Rotterdam, as they have come from nowhere. They have spent eight years capacity building their ability to host festivals and in that time have gone from something like 8 each year to 109. They saw festivals as a way of building a career for an artist and for telling a story. They now import festivals, poaching them from other cities as well as starting their own.

Finally 4: Glasgow, it’s a predictable choice but I like it because they thought very carefully about the economic advantages that could come from engaging with the arts. So, for example, the Celtic Connections Festival is deliberately placed in January as it’s a traditionally quite month for visitors.

What are your greatest challenges in marketing Birmingham?

Ironically diversity can be a weakness as well as a strength. ‘A City of a Thousand Trades’ generates a very diverse cultural offer which is difficult to encapsulate. When people ask me “What’s Birmingham’s cultural offer?” my reply is “What’s London’s?”. The richness of what goes on is fantastic but in marketing terms it becomes a challenge. In some ways it would be easier to point to one big thing and say it’s all about that. Like theGuggenheim in Bilbao.

Obviously tackling misconceptions is another big challenge. People who were here twenty years ago have no idea how much the place has changed. Getting people here is the main challenge because if people spend time here then they definitely leave with a changed impression. We’ve had four thousand journalists here in three and a half years and only one didn’t like it. It’s an interesting and intriguing city in all sorts of ways and once people are here it tends to sell itself.

A third challenge is just dealing with the bureaucracy of a big City. It’s a big Council with lots of big public agencies and lots of people working for them, it makes getting decisions made difficult. It would be the same in London or Dublin.

How Do Independent Arts Organisations Take Advantage Of Their Value To The city?

People need to do their homework before coming to talk to us. They tend to tell us all about what they’re doing and never ask what we are doing. Last year we did a big campaign in Ireland. This year it will be in with The Netherlands. There are immediately opportunities to collaborate if this is an interest we share.

People need to talk to us early and give us a sense of their vision, if we know far enough in advance we can often work things into our plans. We also like collaborative projects as it is easier for us to support a group of collaborations rather than lots of smaller things.

Ultimately we are trying to sell a new story every day and so we are more interested in news stories than anything else. It sounds selfish but if there is an interesting way to engage the media and promote Birmingham and your organisation simultaneously then it works for everyone.

Birmingham, 16th December, 2009.