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Ep.5 Cheltenham BID with Belinda Hunt

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30 Mar, 2022

Episode 5

Cheltenham BID – what it takes to manage operations in Cheltenham Town Centre with Belinda Hunt

The Regency spa town of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire was made popular in the 18th and 19th centuries as a place the wealthy travelled to – for entertainment and to drink the spa water, said to provide ‘healing properties’.

Today, Cheltenham is a cosmopolitan town with a population of 117,000, known for its horse racing, educational establishments and an enviable position next to the Cotswolds.

The town’s stunning architecture provides a beautiful backdrop for a packed programme of some of the UK’s best festivals and events, such as the Cheltenham Literature Festival and Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

It has an assortment of fabulous restaurants, cafes and bars, plus a high street shopping offer that many towns can only dream of.

It was lovely to find out more about Belinda, how she got to where she is today, and what she likes to do outside of work. It was also wonderful to hear one of her amusing memories of Kevan Blackadder, friend and former director of Cheltenham BID, who sadly died in 2021

We chat about:

>Her job supporting local businesses in the town centre.

>The importance of collaboration

>The type of events that drive footfall and sales for the retail and hospitality businesses of the town.

>The different businesses that grew and changed during the pandemic.

> How the likes of high street retailer John Lewis is doing a great job of supporting local businesses with its initiatives.

Full Transcription
Kelly Ballard
Hi Belinda, it is an absolute delight to be here with you today. Belinda Hunt from Cheltenham BID.

Belinda Hunt
Hi, Kelly. It’s so good to be back with you.

Kelly Ballard
It’s been a while hasn’t it? I haven’t seen you for years, and it’s just so nice to be here and to be able to ask you some of these questions, and find out a bit more about your work. But actually, this is digging into stuff that you just never sometimes get the chance to ask. How long have you been working at Cheltenham BID?

Belinda Hunt 03:34
Well, I joined in October 2016, which was just a few months after the bid was set up. And I’ve been there ever since.

Kelly Ballard 03:43
Oh my gosh, it is quite a new bid, isn’t it? So tell me a bit about the bid, and then we’ll talk specifically about you, Belinda.

Belinda Hunt 03:52
So we went into our second term in August 2021, we’ve had a successful first five years. And then we went through the renewal. We just had an overwhelming response from the businesses, so we were obviously doing something right. A renewal balance is something that has to be done every five years. And we were voted back in with a majority of 87% in favour, which was absolutely tremendous. Especially considering we were all in lockdown at the time. So the engagement was fantastic.

Kelly Ballard 04:37
Wow, that’s so good to hear. You know, I used to help with the bid marketing, as some people will know. But you know, years ago when marketing Cheltenham was set up, it was a challenge keeping everyone happy, and you never know whether you are keeping everyone happy. You were doing some amazing work and I saw the stats in terms of the best footfall, and you had some great new shops open, and the town, you were doing a lot of great work there. So to hear that is really heartwarming. So tell me, Belinda, tell me about what you do. Tell me about what your title is and what you do on a day to day basis.

Belinda Hunt 05:21
I’m the operations manager, my role is so varied, I’m so fortunate. So I do everything from looking after the accounts and invoicing, right through to actually going out, visiting businesses, talking to them, listening to what issues they’ve got. And then if necessary, taking those issues to other stakeholders like the council and trying to work with the council to bring projects to fruition right through to organising events.

Kelly Ballard 05:57
Large and small, so it’s really varied wow. And just for anybody listening that doesn’t really understand the concept of a bid Belinda, what’s the purpose of it? If you don’t mind me asking?

Belinda Hunt 06:09
I don’t mind at all. I’m always happy to let people know what a bid is. It stands for Business Improvement District. A bid is fully funded by the businesses in the town and the area in which it operates, which makes it unique because every town has a different demographic, it has different types of businesses in it with the levy that the businesses pay, we are tasked with improving the town. That might be through projects that we do with the local council, it might be through lobbying. A lot of the time it’s about putting on our own events, events that will attract different demographics to the town that would appeal to different types of businesses. We are there basically to improve the town centre, and work with stakeholders to do that.

Kelly Ballard 07:12
Wow, okay. Thank you. That’s a really, really good description. And it makes me think about Cheltenham and reflect on Cheltenham as a place. I’m talking to you now and we’re talking during race week, which is a massive time for Cheltenham isn’t it? But I think before the bid was set up, and before I arrived, it was getting to a point where Cheltenham was just all about the races. And that was it. I think that there’s a lot of businesses that prospered during those times because there was the Gold Cup week, and there’s also a November race. And there’s various different races throughout the year. But it was getting to a point where there were only a few weekends, and actually, this was about a year round experience for a spa town that has so much more to offer. Obviously, you’ve got all the other festivals, you’ve got the Cheltenham festivals, the Jazz Festival, and the music festival, and then Literature Festival. And you know, where does the bid fill that gap if you like?

Belinda Hunt 08:16
It’s about working with other partners to support them. So as you say, you know very well with marketing Cheltenham, it was identifying what brings people to the town. So what types of people are coming for the other festivals? And are there other events going on, that we can help to support in many different ways, and turn those events into something more festival like and sort of take away from the fact that Cheltenham is the festival town, known for the races, and take those words and make people realise that we are the festival town because we have more festivals than any other town.

Kelly Ballard 09:09
It has got an amazing amount of festivals. When you sit down and you look through the programme, it’s amazing. But I guess it’s also about making sure that those festivals work for everyone, isn’t it, and it’s not just the main drag and those businesses on the outskirts not getting the benefit from that. And I know that you help with some of that, don’t you?

Belinda Hunt 09:32
Yeah we do. So through supporting marketing Cheltenham, and the work that we do with them. They’ve done some amazing things and worked with local hospitality businesses and those in the leisure industry to put themselves out there a lot more as well. So not just put themselves out there as accommodation for the races or a comment relation, because you need to be there when you’re visiting the concert box. It’s about making an offer that is going to bring people to the town and to those venues for the sake of those venues.

Kelly Ballard 10:18
Yeah, which then restricts the times in which people will come. And there’s just so much money. I mean, the food and the hospitality businesses in Cheltenham are fantastic. But the standard of restaurants, from someone who lives in Bristol, it really is first class.

Belinda Hunt 10:36
Yeah, we’re really spoiled. And I think after a while, you start to take it for granted.It’s not until we have engaged with one of those businesses who are asking for some support, or they’ve got a special event going on, you kind of think, wow, we’re so lucky to have all of this right on our doorstep. I think that’s where the BIDs relationship with destination marketing entities comes into its own. So making the connection between the business itself and someone like marketing Cheltenham, and helping them to create that relationship, and then work together.

Kelly Ballard 11:30
It’s good, isn’t it? Because it is a partnership, everyone’s working to the same aim at the end of the day. So yeah, I think it’s really important, to go from promoting yourself, to encouraging international tourists to support, the pavements, all the bins and things as well as the hygiene factors that are really important to you. I think having an organisation such as Cheltenham BID, can really help make that easier, so that they can get on with being a great business.

Belinda Hunt 12:06
Yeah, absolutely. And the pavement is a perfect example because, especially during race week, we have a lot of requests for help with cleaning up the pavement, as you say, it’s so that the business can just get on and do their business. It’s really rewarding, being able to do that, knowing that they feel confident enough to phone up the bid or get in touch with one of our ambassadors to say, I’ve got this problem, can you help me sort it out? And that’s it, they know that we’re going to do it, and let them get on with what they’re best at doing, welcoming people to the town.

Kelly Ballard 12:54
Just talking about welcoming people to the town, you mentioned the ambassadors there, but how many people have you got working as ambassadors and what do they do?

Belinda Hunt 13:03
We’ve got two ambassadors at the moment, they’re both part time, we’re actually about to go through the process of recruiting another ambassador. Their roles are twofold, one is to meet and greet and help visitors find their way around. The other which is, there’s probably more emphasis on this it’s to be an ambassador for the businesses. So they are the main link between the bid and the business. They go in and they do regular visits to all of the businesses. They’ll just pop in and say, “Hi, how are you doing? What was business like last week?” They’ll listen to any issues they’ve got. So if the retailers don’t necessarily do so well out of the festival or race week, then they’ve got more time to talk to the ambassadors. They will engage with them. So they are the link between us in the office and the businesses. They’re the face of the budget.

Kelly Ballard 14:18
A really important role, isn’t it?

Belinda Hunt 14:21
It is very important, because they’re the face of the town as well. I can’t say they’re particularly keen on their purple jackets. And they really are there to help the visitors, locals, people who work in the town, the businesses, they help artists events, so they’re a great team.

Kelly Ballard 14:52
Yeah, I’m sure you could do with about another 18 of them.

Belinda Hunt 14:57
Yeah probably, there is never enough.

Kelly Ballard 15:00
I can imagine, especially at the moment when it gets really busy with race week. Before we move on to talking about your role, when we’re talking about the business itself for the past two years, for a town it’s no doubt been very difficult. How have businesses been affected by the pandemic in Cheltenham?

Belinda Hunt 15:22
Actually, Kelly, we’ve been really impressed with a lot of the businesses and the way they’ve adapted. There’s been independent businesses who had very little social media presence, and are now in a position where they’ve got their online business as well as their bricks and mortar, offering click and collect online sales. Just keeping connected with their customers, even though they weren’t able to sell and, just adapting their business models so quickly, and those are the businesses that have really thrived. They’ve put them on the map for places where businesses can thrive.

Kelly Ballard 16:23
Great. Could you give us some examples, Belinda?

Belinda Hunt 16:30
Well, one of them is a business up in Montpellier, we’ve got pink vintage work, they were tremendous. So they couldn’t open but they were sharing the stories about what they were doing so that people were still able to engage with them and interact with them.

Kelly Ballard 16:51
And they’re a lifestyle shop, is that right? They sell homewares? Or do they sell cakes?

Belinda Hunt 16:59
They do, they sell the most amazing cakes. And they’ve also got antiques and collectibles alongside it. It was just so good to know that they hadn’t just disconnected themselves from the world. And there were so many businesses that did that type of thing, who went online. And then and also, they partnered up with other businesses. So they made a connection where you wouldn’t have thought that there was a connection before.

Kelly Ballard 17:43
Wow. It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because I know that one of your high street staple businesses, Keith Scarrett shoes, was so successful at its online business, it’s now moved out of the High Street. Which is a real shame because seeing that on the high street is great. But it’s obviously doing so well online, and it couldn’t afford not to

Belinda Hunt 18:09
Yeah, absolutely. And things changed and things moved on. As Keith Scarrett shoes was an example of how a business can just drive and fly with things. It was really good, actually, to see them in a pop up in John Lewis a few weeks ago. They were working with one of the local Miliner’s just before race week. So yeah, they’ve had a pop up in John Lewis, which brings great footfall. But then they’ve got those partnerships, there’s a Neal’s Yard pop up in John Lewis at the moment. So their customers get to know about other local businesses, and then become loyal customers.

Kelly Ballard 19:05
That’s really nice. I remember when they first opened, because what was it in 2018? And, it was amazing what a beautiful shop it is. One of the main approaches was that whole experiential thing, and also to bring in local people who could provide services and crafts, and really engage people with the products that they were selling on a different level. And it’s nice that they’re staying true to their word.

Belinda Hunt 19:37
Yeah they are, and beyond. So the experience isn’t just a John Lewis experience. It’s about sharing their audience with other businesses in the town.

Kelly Ballard 19:50
That’s really good. And I’ve noticed, you’ve got Sweaty Betty, for somebody that loves health and fitness, to see a brand like that opening up, I’m like, wow. You’ve got Urban Outfitters, you’ve got John Lewis, you’ve got Marks and Spencer. Loads of great places, it really is a shopping destination that I think people want to travel to.

Belinda Hunt 20:18
Definitely, Kelly, you know how long I’ve wanted a Sweaty Betty. JD sports is opening up on the high street as well, the cinema, superdry have opened up another store as well on the promenade.

Kelly Ballard 20:44
Is that what I was reading about? Is that like a new concept store?

Belinda Hunt 20:50
Yeah, it is. More active wear.

Kelly Ballard 20:55
That’s right. Weren’t they testing out some new type of fabric with an organisation in Gloucestershire somewhere? That was really amazing.

Belinda Hunt 21:06
That’s right, and to see them open up on the promenade as well is fantastic to see them branch out like that.

Kelly Ballard 21:23
It’s a real vote of confidence in the High Street isn’t it, and their home. So that’s brilliant. So just moving on to you, you’re obviously not British, you have at least spent some time overseas. So can you tell us, have you always been in the visitor economy? And where did you used to live? And how did you come to work where you are today?

Belinda Hunt 21:52
So no, I haven’t always been in the visitor economy. And I’ve got to confess that when I joined the bid, I didn’t even realise the visitor economy was a thing. So growing up in Zimbabwe, I always knew that there was a tourist trade. And I always knew that the tourist trade was absolutely vital to our economy. So everyone who lives in Zimbabwe, we’re passionate about our country, and about what it has to offer. So everyone who lived it was an ambassador. In some sense, we were always making sure visitors were welcome, giving them advice. It’s something I’ve sort of carried over. It can come across as a bit bizarre in England, where you’re used to just walking up to somebody who looks lost, and saying, “Are you okay, can I help you? Are you looking for somewhere?” It’s not a terribly British thing to do, but i’ve done it all my life, you know.
So I now get more about what the visitor economy is, and the importance, not just to a local economy, but to the whole economy, because it’s what keeps us ticking. It’s what keeps us going. If you’re not getting visitors to town, and your businesses aren’t thriving, you’ve got no employment. So it goes on. It was quite interesting. It wasn’t just it wasn’t just to visitors from outside the country, so if you had someone that was coming to your home to visit, you would always go out of your way to make sure that they saw as many places as possible, went to as many places as possible to eat, there was none of this, “Oh, yeah, come around to my house for dinner”. It was like, “Right, which restaurant are we gonna go to today?” Because you just want to show them that. Going back to being so lucky in Cheltenham, when I have friends come to visit , I always think, what can I show them? So, no, I haven’t always worked in the visitor economy. But I think the visitor economy has always worked with me

Kelly Ballard 24:18
Yeah. Oh, that’s nice. That totally makes sense. So what did you do before? What kind of roles were you in before then?

Belinda Hunt 24:27
Well, when I left Zimbabwe, I was actually working for the safari company. But not out in the bush. So I was sort of the central operations for Safari company in Zimbabwe. And then when I came over to the UK, I was lucky that I had some old fashioned operational office skills. And I understood that I would have to start at the bottom and build myself up, which I did. And then the role I had before I came to the bid was actually in corporate social responsibility, which wasn’t a thing in Zimbabwe. I didn’t get what it was, and then I read about these businesses who help their employees to engage with the local community. They don’t just help them, they actually reward them for doing that. So it was a new concept, but a really exciting concept, too. And then, when I saw the role advertised at the bid, I read it, and I thought, Oh, my goodness, there’s an organisation funded by businesses to help businesses. What an awesome job, I want to work there, it’s just it’s for me.I’ve been really fortunate since I came to this country, to find roles where I can carry on using my skills as an operations manager, and also be really passionate about what the organisation is trying to achieve.

Kelly Ballard 26:27
Sure. That’s really good. I’m sure you bring so many other skills. There’s lots of skills that are involved in this industry. Operational, project management, all of those things that you do are just so important. So at that time, when you started at the bid, I guess, we can’t not mention Kevin Blackadder, it was Kev that took you on?

Belinda Hunt 26:50
It was indeed.

Kelly Ballard 26:53
I just want to take a moment really, to acknowledge him and his loss, and what he brought to the bid and you as a colleague. It was a tough couple of years when we lost Kev. So I’m gonna ask you without wanting to dwell on the sadness, because it is very sad for a lot of people who knew him, what is one of your favourite memories of working with him?

Belinda Hunt 27:24
I think one of my best memories was, we went to an award ceremony. And we were all absolutely convinced that our project should win, absolutely convinced. To the point where Kevin made the speech readily prepared. But it became evident quite early on that the bid wasn’t going to win, so it didn’t really matter how much we took advantage of the hospitality shown. Then I gave them a lift afterwards. And he was determined to deliver a speech. So we had to listen to it. He was such a good speaker, I couldn’t help but want to listen to what he was saying. It was really funny.

Kelly Ballard 28:35
Did you have to park up and listen, or were driving when he read this speech?

Belinda Hunt 28:39
No, I was driving whilst he was delivering the speech.

Kelly Ballard 28:43
And how long was this speech?

Belinda Hunt 28:48
10 minutes. It probably went on for around 15 though.

Kelly Ballard 29:01
That’s excellent. I have such good memories of Kevin, not least going to the races with him every year. He’s sorely missed.
What exciting things have you got coming up for the year ahead with the bid?

Belinda Hunt 29:20
Well, one of the things we’ve been looking at clearly is how we deliver events, and what events we deliver. So when you deliver an event and you look at your audience, and you think well, it’s this type of event, are we going to have that audience? When they’re just delivering an event, you’ve got a much wider audience because it’s not just pleasing the people who are coming, but it’s building the businesses who are ultimately funding it. And we need to be able to say in the event that we’ve delivered benefits to them. So when we were planning the Christmas lights switch on, we looked at the feedback from the businesses and bringing massive crowds to top them, or to a town is fantastic. The footfall figures were great, but it doesn’t actually necessarily benefit the businesses themselves. So a lot of the feedback was actually on Christmas lights. Right. And it was mostly because they were crowds, they’d come for the switch on. And interestingly, they then leave town. So hospitality businesses weren’t benefiting. So we’re looking at putting on a series of smaller events that attract different demographics, that benefit different types of businesses, and importantly, are held in different areas of the town. So we’re looking at really spreading the love across the whole town. So we’ve got some really nice stuff planned for the summer. Obviously, with it being Jubilee, working with partners, we have again partnered with the festivals, which helps them to actually deliver around the town for jazz music, science and literature, which takes free entertainment for each of those into the streets of Cheltenham. So that’s the type of thing we’re looking at delivering this year.

Kelly Ballard 31:40
Well, the round town programme really is good, isn’t it? And I think historically, you’ve got the best marquees, of some amazing speakers and performers at the festivals, but it was all in one place. And that around time programme is so good. And it’s also the buzz that it creates in town. People are able to just sit around and listen to music. Are you still doing the literature trail? Because I know that was done for a couple of years, where you would go into different pubs. Does that still happen?

Belinda Hunt 32:17
Yeah, it does, that still happens. There were eight or nine businesses involved in that last year, so it’s still happening. Same as the Jazz Festival, it has three stages, but then there’s also entertainment in different venues around the town. And so I’m quite surprised at the venues, not necessarily bars or restaurants. But some quite surprising venues. So yeah, that definitely helps the businesses.

Kelly Ballard 32:54
I like your idea of that, it makes sense. I’ve heard it lots, and experienced it a lot. High footfall is not always the best result in sales, because people like to just pass through if it’s just too busy. So therefore, people are not buying, they come in and out because they just can’t be with the crowds of people all the time. So to target specific audiences, is absolutely the right way to go, and make sure the businesses can put things on specifically. For example, for families, and to make sure that families know that all of these businesses are doing children’s menus, or have children’s experiences that are happening at different times. If you focus on a specific audience type, then that’s hopefully going to be much more fruitful for the businesses.

Belinda Hunt 33:48
Yes it does seem to have been. So for the Christmas lights, we didn’t do a massive switch on. We worked with a fantastic organisation called Bakehouse, who had roaming characters, because we have the ice rink in town. And the characters were all dressed in festive, frosty costumes. And they were in town all day. We had switched on in one area, and then the next area and then the next area. So people could follow the switch on if they wanted, but they didn’t have to. Yeah, and that works a lot better. It increases dwell time as well. And then we were able to bring them back every weekend during the festive shopping period. So creating smaller events, and street entertainment, and interaction so that people would be returning each weekend and there was a reason for them to return, not just for shopping. Then having that into action with the characters meant that they stayed a little bit longer in certain areas, and therefore, perhaps became aware of businesses around them that they wouldn’t otherwise have been looking at.

Kelly Ballard 35:13
You just reminded me of the ice rink. I know that that was something that you’ve talked about many years ago. And Kev was a big advocate of having that. Was it as good as you hoped? Did it bring what it needed? And you don’t have to give away any trade secrets, because I know some of these things can be a bit sensitive, but how was it?

Belinda Hunt 35:35
It was absolutely brilliant. And I’ve got to say the bid wanted to bring it but it was just too big a project for us to take on our local council so Totland Borough Council picked it up. And it was just so popular. It was done so well. We know Gloucester and other local towns nearby have ice rinks, and I think that’s what was missing from Cheltnham.

Kelly Ballard 36:10
Was it an open ice rink, or was it covered? It was covered, right? Because it wasn’t in one of the squares where you’ve got the Regency buildings, I’m just trying to think. And I can imagine the photographs of that would just be stunning with people ice skating with the backdrop of the Regency houses. Maybe you can get them to take the roof off.

Belinda Hunt 36:38
They open up the sides once, just for various reasons, but mostly because there were COVID measures. But then as you know, the weather wasn’t all bad to close down the sides. But having one of the sides open, and people being able to look in, but also then the skaters being able to see Regency buildings and the Christmas lights twinkling. Really brilliant.

Kelly Ballard 37:08
Lovely. Lovely. So when you’re not working, what do you like to do?

Belinda Hunt 37:17
I love gardening, growing things, and making things.

Kelly Ballard 37:23
That’s right, you used to make jams and chutneys and things. Lovely. What’s the latest thing you have made? What have you been making recently?

Belinda Hunt 37:38
I think the most recent was at Christmas. I did some charms with a harvest. So we took on an allotment during lockdown. So I could make my preserves from things that we’ve grown, which is absolutely incredible.

Kelly Ballard 38:02
Well done. So I’ve got three quickfire questions for you now. What’s your favourite film?

Belinda Hunt 38:11
Oh, Out of Africa. I’ve watched it so many times. And I still cry.

Kelly Ballard 38:17
Oh, does that remind you of home?

Belinda Hunt 38:20
It is a little bit about that. I think it’s also a fact that Meryl Streep is just an incredible actress. And the story behind it. But it probably is because it’s Africa.

Kelly Ballard 38:34
Your favourite book?

Belinda Hunt 38:36
Oh probably not one you’re too familiar with. It’s called The Power of One by Bryce Courteney.

Kelly Ballard 38:45
I have heard of that. Okay, what’s that about?

Belinda Hunt 38:49
Well, it was made into a film but not nearly as good as the book. It’s about et cetera, et cetera, in South Africa. And it’s about how one person can change the attitudes of others, about a young boy who grows up in South Africa, but just never really understands why. It’s about the things that he does throughout his life and how he commits to making the changes.

Kelly Ballard 39:28
What a powerful story. Favourite music genre?

Belinda Hunt 39:33
Jazz. Yeah, I was brought up to the sound of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and the Fitzgeralds, my parents were big jazz fans. So me and my sister, we just love them. Can you imagine?

Kelly Ballard 39:59
Yeah. Amazing. So what advice would you give your younger self? If you were starting out today?

Belinda Hunt 40:11
I think to be more fearless. Just go for it, take that chance. Don’t wonder what might happen, do it. I think that’s the advice I give myself.

Kelly Ballard 40:26
Do you live by that today?

Belinda Hunt 40:33
Not as much as I should, but I do take a lot more chances than I used to when I was young. But when you’re young, you’ve got those opportunities, but when you’re older, you kind of think I should have taken that opportunity.

Kelly Ballard 40:49
So true, isn’t it? It is so true. Okay, thank you so much. It’s been absolutely amazing to hear from you and have a little bit more of an insight into who you are, what you’ve done, and where you’ve come from. So where can people connect with you Belinda?

Belinda Hunt 41:06
Probably best through LinkedIn or through the BIDs social channels.

Kelly Ballard 41:10
Yeah. Okay. So we’ll put that in the show notes of the Cheltenham BID. And so LinkedIn and Cheltenham BID on Twitter. And LinkedIn, Facebook. Okay, brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time. And I hope I’ll see you in real life soon.

Belinda Hunt 41:33
I hope so too Kelly, thank you.

Kelly Ballard 41:35
Thank you.

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