As City of Culture reaches the halfway point, I was recently asked how I thought it had gone so far. I had various thoughts, good and bad, but as I spend so much of my time on the streets in the city centre and at various events talking to people who have different views about things, I decided the best thing to do would be to ask people what they thought.
So I went onto various Facebook groups with two deliberately simple questions: “What do think has been the best thing so far?”; and “What do you think has been the worst thing so far?” I’d asked for one word, or at most a sentence to try and keep things simple and to stop long whingey rants and took the answers gathered over the weekend of the 6th and 7th of November. This means events since then such as Abundance on the evening of the 7th and House is a Feeling and Random Strings the following weekend are not included.
But you know what? I think it’s all pretty positive, even the negative bits, because they are all fixable. Well, the main one is. Whether fixing easily fixable things which should already have been fixed by now will actually happen though, well that’s the question.
First though, a quick note about the methodology. Clearly joke answers were discounted, and as this wasn’t a controlled experiment, if people gave more than one answer I let that slide and accepted them both, though there weren’t enough of those to really influence the overall outcome. It is also the case that some of the answers given such as Gaia and Little Amal, weren’t things that happened as a result of Coventry being City of Culture, though there may have been some support for them.
The first positive was that there were 28 different things which people rated as their best thing, but only 13 things rated as the worst, which shows that there are more things which people see as good than bad. In fact there were over a dozen people who only answered the ‘best thing’ question, far more than the handful who only answered ‘worst thing’, which meant there were 146 responses to the ‘best thing’ question, but only 127 answers to the ‘worst thing’.
As for the actual best thing, the runaway winner was the Assembly Festival Gardens with 27% of the vote, which goes up to 37% if you add in the votes for specific events which took place there such as: Choir of Man (8%); Circolombia (1%) and Last Night of the Proms (1%). The improvement to the City Centre got 10% of the vote with the public domain street art such as ‘In Paint We Trust’ getting 6%, so adding those together with the work of the Business Improvement District makes 17%.
The slightly ambiguous answers of “All of it” being the best thing and “Events” got 6% and 4% each, with Observations on Being the best rated non-Assembly event, getting 5%. ’Passionate People’ and City Hosts got 3%, as did the Fire Gardens and Local Events, with six items all getting 2%: The Litten Tree Buildings; Little Amal; National Media Coverage; Faith; Gaia; and History Tours (I don’t care if they were mine or someone else’s, we got three votes!!). Finally, the other things getting just over or just under 1% of the response were: Contains Strong Language; The Caribbean Festival; Castaway; the trees in the Cathedral; Two Tone Lives and Legacies; the Bubbles; the Turner Prize; the City Centre Godiva Procession; and finally, someone thought ‘nothing’ was the best thing…..
The thing to take from that is that there is a massive variation in what people have thought was the best thing so far, which shows that City of Culture is providing a lot of different things which a lot of different people appreciate. And further good news is that in terms of the worst thing, there weren’t lots of answers.
The slight worry is that the Assembly Festival Gardens was a ready-made bought-in solution to fill a hole in the programme. It was effectively an exclave of the Edinburgh Festival which hadn’t needed so many tents this year due to Covid, which is why besides the residencies like Choir of Man and Circolombia, it was pretty much all comedy. Acts appearing at Edinburgh simply added nights in Cov on their way up to or down from Scotland that, acts which under normal circumstances may well have been at the Warwick Arts Centre. So how that programme gets filled when the tents come back in spring and the Edinburgh Festival tap has been turned off will be interesting, but a challenge that Assembly themselves will most likely complete. Lots of people have said they’d like to see the Assembly Festival Gardens added as a permanent attraction, and whilst the area is set for another new university building, it’s questionable whether that will ever be needed (or affordable) as it is very, very clear to anyone who spends any time in the city centre that the students just haven’t come back this year. It has to be asked if they ever will come back in the numbers they did before, making having a sustainable legacy from City of Culture even more important.
As for what was the worst thing, it will not come of a great surprise to anyone that with over half of the vote, the lack of/late publicity came top with 56% of responses. But it’s actually worse than that. It’s 69% when you add in the 13% who went for the second biggest answer; the infamous four-month-out-of-date booklet which was sent out to households in Coventry in September, doing an impression of Jim Bowen at the end of Bullseye when he’d say “Just look at what you could have won”! It is impossible to over-emphasise how much of a disaster the Jim Bowen booklet was, because for thousands of people in the city, this will be the only thing they ever remember about City of Culture.
So that’s 69%, over two-thirds saying the worst thing has been publicity. And it’s still worse as if you asked people who spend less -or no- time online it is highly likely that the lack of communication would get a higher response.
As for the other things people thought had been the worst thing: a lack of community involvement and engagement got 9%; City of Culture Management 5%’ ticketing and pricing 4%; the opening event, ignoring Coventry history, and the website all got 3%; on 2% were the lack of local (non-central) events and that the whole thing is a waste of money; and getting one vote each were the Turner Prize not being open in the evening, the ribbons in Broadgate, and building work like Drapers and St Marys not being finished on time. Taking all those into consideration. the communication/advertising/publicity gets even worse as at least the website has to go into that total.
But I very much take this as a positive, because the biggest issue is so big it’s like it’s the only thing. And it is not just solvable, but it is solvable within the six-month timescale left for City of Culture to make a difference before May 2022, with a will to solve it. What worries me is it won’t be solved, because many of the issues have been there since the start. It is almost as if there is an attitude that the important thing is to be able to say that events were put on, without really being too worried if people attend them or not.
One of the main problems I can testify to is understaffing in important areas, as I can say without much fear of contradiction (it’s exactly where I have been operating since July) that one of the reasons for many events have been publicised at the last minute, has been the lack of staff in the ticketing department responsible for doing that work. It very much seems like focus of the organisation has become about the rather indeterminable task of creating a legacy. But if you don’t do everything you can to involve people in the city and the wider area, listen to them, include them and let them know what is going on, then how on Earth can you expect to possibly build a legacy? People have to feel ownership, belonging and be inspired if they are to be part of making a lasting cultural legacy. That can’t happen without a plan to make things self-sustainable and that doesn’t happen without effective communication and widening out the pool of those locals involved in creating and attending events.
This is not about having a whinge, that’s lazy. The same way that there are people who say City of Culture is a wonderful thing (which it of course is) but don’t want to listen the criticism, that’s lazy too. This is about accepting that there is an issue and tackling it, with the belief that it can be tackled. Because the problem is that these mistakes aren’t being learned from, they keep getting made. Abundance the other week where a fair wedge must have been paid to external performers, but poorly delivered yet expensive publicity for the event saw fewer people attend it that its predecessor in 2019, is sadly far too good an example of this.
For a long while when people have complained to me about City of Culture communications, I have told them that what they should do is sign up for email updates. Last week I was talking to someone and decided to send them the actual link to make it easier, but it wasn’t easy for me to find. It ended up with me sending this email:
“With CCoC publicity I was just telling people that in my experience, the best way to stay in touch with what is happening is to sign up to the weekly email updates, as you get the new headlines and below that all the rest of the events in a digestible and well-presented space.”
“However, the yellow box ‘sign up’ link at the bottom of the news page actually takes you to Cov Points (the white text link does work), but there is no way of signing up for email updates on the home page or what’s on page that I can see. I had thought the sign up thing would have been part of a standard footer, but it doesn’t seem so.”
“Anyway, thought you’d at least want to know about the broken link.”
That email got sent on to the website team, and at what was the result? Has the broken link been fixed? Has the footer been added to all the pages? No, the link to sign up for email updates has been removed altogether from the one page I could find it on! The only place I can find it now (with a different type of broken link in the yellow box) is the external City of Culture Merchandising page. So what happened is: I went out of my way to try and help City of Culture with communications, the number one complaint they have, and it’s actually made things worse!! In case you were wondering, you can sign up for email updates via this link. If you haven’t, you really need to.
As I started writing this article there were 114 different events, many with multiple dates advertised on the City of Culture ‘What’s On’ webpage. Of course to get to that point, you have to click on the what’s on page then go to the bottom of the first block of 12 events and click ‘Load More’, though more often than not (using Chrome on my PC) the second block of 12 events is actually exactly the same as the first block of 12 events, sometimes even the third block too. When that happens, I’m pretty sure many people don’t bother clicking ‘load more’ again. If you did bother to keep clicking at the time when I did, it’d be 10 clicks altogether to get the full list of events, normally presented in a totally random order and of course peppered with events that have sold out, though that’s often because capacity has been set too low.
As probably the only person who has had ticketed events on the what’s on page of the City of Culture website since the end of lockdown, I can say it is very clear to me that when one of my events is there in the first block of twelve (back when there was hardly anything else on), it quite simply sells loads more tickets as a result. As I run two walks it is even more obvious, because the walk that has been selling the tickets has kept switching as the one that is placed higher has switched. This much is surely obvious and a direct result of this ‘twelve results per click’ policy.
This is why I hold out hope that this communication issue can be solved, because so much of it is so simple and obvious, you know, things like telling people in advance when there is a parade due to come past their house! It was a massive mistake not attending the Godiva Festival with anything besides merchandise, as this is something you have to attend not just to give out information, but to be seen at and these things are useful even if you just treat them as data capture exercises to get people to sign up for email updates. Because events like this give you an opportunity to reach out to thousands of people you might not normally reach, all at the same time. So surely this lesson has been learned and there will be a big presence and the shop on Hertford Street will be open late for the Christmas lights switch on this week? Surely?
There are so many simple solutions to what is really just one problem, and while I could go on, I’ll end with one essential. Many people don’t know that City of Culture is only halfway through, they still think it is just running for the calendar year. That needs to be communicated now, and that logo needs changing to say 21-22 immediately. Not after setting up a committee and endless online meetings, immediately.
None of this is impossible. It just has to be accepted and prioritised. And my consultancy rates are very reasonable!