Peter Elson speaks to Chris Brown, the new marketing boss for Liverpool
ON first meeting this voluble Scot with an engaging personality, it’s a bit of a surprise to hear that Chris Brown had intended to become an accountant.
Instead this son of a railway man got the hospitality bug while working one summer in a hotel at his home town of Troon, on the Firth of Clyde.
From that modest start he is the new head of marketing at Liverpool Vision, which is the city council’s economic development agency. This means he is effectively in charge of the city’s marketing, including the crucial tourism sector.
Mr Brown, 54, said: “I really enjoyed the people interface and social aspect of hotels so I ditched the accountancy idea.
“Every day is different in a hotel and I’d learned the dynamics of how to run them so when The Mersey Partnership (TMP) wanted a director of tourism I moved into destination management.
“This is all about the marketing and shaping of a destination with the public and private sector so I saw both sides of the coin. Neither side can do it on their own. Both have to work together for the mutual benefit.”
From 2004 he was chief executive of the new Visit Chester and Cheshire tourist board which focused on expanding the visitor economy via public-private sector partnerships.
He said: “I was always interested in how the place in which a hotel was located functioned – in other words the reason why people come to a hotel was the result of something else.”
He had worked for six years in London with British Transport Hotels, which in those days had one of the strongest UK hotel portfolios.
“London opened my eyes to so many things: the sheer size and breadth of the place gave me an important grounding.
“It was a different world back then. The Scottish resort hotels like Gleneagles and Turnberry would only open for six months a year and the staff would come down to London for the other six months at properties like the Great Western Royal, Grosvenor House and Charing Cross Hotels.
“It was great training and there were some really strong and brilliant characters among the senior chefs and general managers.
“During this period I had six months at the Adelphi, in Liverpool, when it still had the French a la carte restaurant. These were the days of big expense accounts and three or four-hour business lunches powered by the insurance industry and Ford at Halewood.
“Back then Liverpool hotels were busy in the week and empty at weekends – now it’s the other way round.
“I found Liverpool to be a very similar city to Glasgow. They seem to share the same DNA with a passionate, proud people. There’s a slight edge about them that allows them, shall we say, to easily evoke emotions.
“It was very interesting working in Glasgow when it became European Capital of Culture in 1990. Glasgow had thrown its hat in the ring as a response to Edinburgh bidding.”
He believes that winning the title had a massive impact on the city especially in the aspect of self-confidence and reuniting the city.
He said: “Although it’s a tough city it was suffering from the sense of being a poor neighbour to Edinburgh. There are parallels in the renaissance of Liverpool (also in regard to Manchester) and both cities are dear in my mind as they’ve helped shape me a great deal.
“Working in TMP after Liverpool won European Capital of Culture raised a number of question marks, such as what does it mean and will the product be good enough? This made marketing it much more difficult.
“What I’ve picked up coming back to work here in 2013 is that the confidence factor is so different in terms of ambitions for the city’s future.
“The product is very strong but there’s still a significant story to be told, which is what it’s all about.”
His next big marker is the forthcoming International Festival of Business in 2014. He thinks the work to be done between now and then is similar to the run up to Capital of Culture.
“It’s a position where Liverpool has attracted a UK event and this is a sign of how far we’ve come forward.
“The big question is how do we do it in the climate of a reducing public sector? It means we have to work much more cleverly with the private sector and use their methods of marketing and new digital technology.”
Although refreshingly free of quango management speak he can’t resist a few marketing sound-bites.
“We had the aspiration and now we have the assets; we’re taking marketing Liverpool from concept to construct in a wider world.”
But then Liverpool does have to beat the drum to ensure that the city is a showcase when the cream of UK plc comes to the International Festival of Business. He also believes the success of this event will lead to international business recognition, with the obvious caveats of a realist.
“The rest of the city regions are moving very fast and Liverpool must not rest on its laurels. The competitiveness factor is sacrosanct,” he said.
Can you imagine a Labour city council chief saying this 30 years ago?
For good measure he added: “We must co-ordinate better enterprise partnerships and not navel gaze and forget the outside world.
“That’s why we’re working with Easyjet’s new service from Manchester to Moscow. Russian visitors aren’t bothered coming 30 miles further to visit Liverpool, home of the Beatles.
“Liverpool has raised itself to be a high profile and cultural visitor destination in the UK and abroad.
“We need to translate this into economic success, which is why the Business Festival is vital to entice more businesses to settle here.”
“One thing that Liverpool has is distinctive products that sit within it – the waterfront (including the growing cruise market), Hope Street Quarter, Ropewalks and the retail centre.
“These are strong areas that come together to find their place in a broader tapestry. It’s a marketeer’s dream. Any city would die for that.
“We’re lucky to have football and the Beatles, but our product is about so much more than those two things.”