Food’s the new rock’n’roll, people – so why is Coventry’s recently-revealed Tourism Strategy playing it so safe? What bothers me about this slightly nervous vision of the five action-packed years between now and 2023, is its apparent failure to grasp that great food is not simply the garnish on the side of primary tourist draws like historic buildings and arts or sporting events; great food is a tourist attraction in its own right.
And it’s such an easy gain. If report authors are fretful about ‘low levels of visitor spend’ among tourists in the city, why are they waiting until post-City of Culture 2023 for the ‘theme’ of food and drink (to borrow the strategy’s weirdly evasive phrasing) to ‘come to fruition’ and ‘be ready to take to market’?
Because while the choice to visit an entrance-charging attraction like theatre or professional sport is exactly that – a choice – every single tourist who sets foot in Coventry has got to eat. If they’re not offered food that’s worthy of spending their money on, they’ll simply up sticks in search of somewhere that does offer it. Somewhere like Leamington. Somewhere like Brum. Somewhere, in other words, that can offer options beyond a predictable circuit of casual dining chains.
Coventry has got this so wrong. Unique experiences are what the Insta generation craves. And it cannot get them in chain restaurants. So while the Strategy urges that new openings in Cathedral Lanes are a ‘product strength’, in tourism terms the opposite is more likely to be true: they’re a product liability.
They neither attract potential visitors (why would you come to Coventry to eat in Wagamama when you could eat in the exact same Wagamama if you stayed at home?), nor provide incentives to remain here for visitors who are here already (why would you eat in Wagamama Coventry if you’ve already eaten in Wagamama Hometown? Where’s the unique experience in that?).
Admittedly, food is a hard one for Cov. It’s our misfortune to be surrounded by towns and cities that have historically been more attractive to food and drink start-ups. Partly, it’s a matter of perception: places like Birmingham and South Warwickshire are perceived to have larger populations of those affluent, middle-class consumers whose demands have fuelled the explosion of British foodie culture.
For us, the knock-on effect is that businesses that have grown up in (for example) Leamington to cater for this market are now sucking its Coventry-dwelling equivalent out of Coventry. This in turn creates the impression that in the city itself there’s ‘no demand’ and setting up shop here is ‘too big a risk’.
Where the Tourism Strategy has got it right is in identifying that the key to improving food in Coventry lies in persuading those locals who currently get their foodie fix outside the city, to stay here. No restaurant or street food social is going to open its doors on the promise of tourist trade alone. Reliable local support has got to be the bedrock.
Unfortunately, chain restaurants are of little interest to serious food fans. So does the recent chains influx have any upsides? Well, maybe it has one: it could be interpreted as a long-overdue vote of confidence in Coventry as a market for dining. With luck, the more interesting players will be watching from the wings. With more luck, some of them will feel emboldened to take the stage themselves.
The other major take-away from the Tourism Strategy is its recognition of Coventry Retail Market as a brilliant asset. Recognition on its own is not enough however. It’s disappointing that the document has precisely zilch ideas on how to big-up the market’s potential (Market Lates? Market cookery demos? Market business incubator scheme with built-in route to bricks-and-mortar premises for successful enterprises who want it?).
Elsewhere, the Strategy proposes that ‘Coventry needs to find its own voice’. Spot on. But chains can never be a city’s ‘voice’. Their voices are those of big business whose money is behind them, and their modus operandi is pure opportunism. None of them has a shred of emotional connection to Coventry.
And when it comes to food, emotion – heart and soul – is what Coventry is crying out for. It’s begging for businesses that shout it loud and proud: ‘Know what? I f*****’ love this city! And that’s why I’m doing this…right here‘.