The business champions making Plymouth proud

The problems Plymouth faces are not unique: increased competition from the internet, dwindling footfall on the high street and shop closures. But it’s a combination that has led to rising unemployment and affected the community’s pride in its city. Year one of Business in the Community’s Healthy High Streets programme has shown what can be done to tackle this.

In July 2014 Elaine Bleazard (Santander), Claire Thomas (M&S) and Jenny Jasper (Boots) were appointed as Plymouth’s first Healthy High Street Champions. Their first year has been a busy one, including identifying and prioritising challenges to working out how best to utilise their individual strengths.

Sustainable funding for the next five years

The challenge which took up most of their time initially was how to support Plymouth City Centre Company Business Improvement District (BID) plan, which has now been renewed for a third five-year term and will help raise £8.6m for projects to support businesses and provide a cleaner and safer city centre.

“Our major involvement was to champion the BID and shout about it,” says Elaine. “So when seeking independents who have bank accounts, Boots and M&S spoke with some of the big players in the shopping centre to explain the benefits the bid offers. It’s positive to have big brand champions sitting behind those messages.”

Community spirit and business interests align

BID aside, though, the Champions also set about working out how to improve community spirit while hopefully boosting footfall. They focused on two charities: Jeremiah’s Journey, which helps families and children deal with bereavement, and Shekinah Mission, a drop-in centre providing a range of services for homeless, addicted, socially excluded and /or otherwise vulnerable adults.

The Champions inspired a Christmas Jumper Day, with retail staff, students and teachers at Plymouth University raising £10,000 for Jeremiah’s Journey, and in the process raising its profile. They also worked hard to bring businesses together and educate them in what the homeless population in city centres need through Shekinah. Their main involvement was in organising a community day, providing and cooking Christmas lunch for the charity’s clients: The Co-operative donated food, Boots and Santander money.

Plymouth business using innovative campaigns

Will these activities directly impact footfall? “Not necessarily,” says Jenny, “but building the stuff around the community definitely does.” And this is where the Champions have come into their own, because they have worked with people like Greg Lumley, general manager of Drake Circus Shopping Centre and Stefan Krause, the former Plymouth City Centre Company manager, to interweave such initiatives with more focused retail campaigns which are generating traffic.

Take the ‘Plymouth Loves’ campaign, a concept devised by Greg. “We worked with him to see how it could be brought alive throughout the year,” says Jenny. So Plymouth Loves Christmas turned into Plymouth Loves Fashion, and then Summer, and so it goes on.  The Christmas campaign, involving TV, radio, social media and posters, marked the city’s first joined up marketing campaign to encourage shoppers to visit the big chains and independents.

And it carried on after Christmas, with an outdoor skating rink and markets in the quiet winter months, giving people a reason other than sales to visit the centre.

Recognising the individuals who are helping the community

The Champions’ encounter with Penny Mordaunt, then minister responsible for coastal communities, helped her with developing Plymouth’s BID, while the relationship of Santander’s university branch with Plymouth Your Space has breathed new life into empty shops and spaces, and picked up two major awards in recognition of its contribution to improving the quality, diversity and distinctiveness of the city in the process.

Individual Champions have also been recognised. Elaine won branch director of the year in 2014, and “a large part of that was down to the community work we do within Plymouth, the Healthy High Streets programme being one strand of that,” she says.

The past year has taught the Champions what can be achieved, and what their individual strengths are. Santander, for instance, has proved its worth when interacting with the local community, at providing great contacts with local charities and being able to top up donations. The programme, meanwhile, has taught each of them the value of teamwork, planning, how to give staff pride in their company and the job that they do – not least their ability to give a little back.

Spreading the word

One of the hardest tasks the Champions faced from the beginning was going out and talking to retailers, trying to reach the right person and getting them to understand what they were trying to achieve when they were on a learning curve themselves. Their achievements in their first year, though, have made a tangible difference. Next, for instance, asked what was involved in becoming a Champion and whether they could come along to a meeting. Barclays is also now on board, in the form of Claire Geraghty, plus a soon-to-be-confirmed independent.

Work has already begun on activities for the second year of the programme. “Our plans for the future are to engage with up to 50 of Plymouth’s largest high street businesses and encourage them to get involved,” says Elaine.  “We will start working on this over the next month.  We will also look to support and get the high street to support a chosen charity each quarter, starting with Derriford Hospital’s Special Care Baby Unit.” Charities who work with Child Poverty in Plymouth are also likely to benefit, while Boots is already working with the Mustard Tree organisation there.

The Champions are focused: they believe their path is about community and getting other retailers involved in the community aspect of Drake Circus and the City Centre. A recent campaign, which involved retailers sending staff from different companies to get training, aimed to raise awareness about dementia across the City Centre. “We hope, in time, to be a dementia-friendly city,” says Jenny.

It could be yet another first.