Coastal tourism in time of corona

Pieter-Bart Visscher, editor HZ Discovery

The HZ Knowledge Centre for Coastal Tourism (KCKT) has been part of HZ for over 14 years and has a solid position within the HZ Economic Domain. The practice-oriented research that the KCKT carries out continued at full speed during the corona crisis, in fact: it has never been as relevant and visible as in the recent period. Time for an interview with inspired founder Margot Tempelman.

When the country went ‘in lockdown’ due to the corona measures on March 13, the tourism sector was hit hard. Just three weeks later, on April 2, the KCKT published a study into the (financial) consequences for the sector. This research formed the basis for a letter to State Secretary Mona Keijzer from Tourism Enterprise Zeeland. How did you manage to act so swiftly and do the research? “Everything was closed, with enormous consequences and this was also noticed by Tourism Enterprise Zeeland, which we have been working with for quite some time. We wanted to interview as many entrepreneurs as possible as quickly as possible. The affiliated sector organizations coordinated the research request with their members, so that we received the highest possible response and the best possible insight. Of course, we knew a thing or two about cost structure and margins, but we had never gathered that insight at company level and translated that appropriately into an industry image. And that was essential for this urgent publication to the ministry. It was our close cooperation with the sector organizations and coordination with the companies that made the results valuable.

The sector used the knowledge acquired to deliver their message. That is how we should work. We must be the reliable knowledge partner in the region focused on conducting research, providing data and insights. That is how we have now done it; we have delivered the results and insights and the sector has used that in its approach to the Ministry.

That research went very well, but it was a hectic period. Everyone still had to get used to working from home, while it was hands-on for all during those first weeks. That was the situation while at the same time speed was paramount. Others had to lend a hand in other research topics. Fortunately, all was done without further ado.”

Margot Tempelman

KCKT’s strength during the corona pandemic has been remarkable. So much so that the Province of Zeeland asked KCKT to research two other - albeit related - themes. This led to two studies into the impact of corona on the Zeeland labour market and into a study into the impact of corona on Zeeland’s inner cities. “Because of our agility and the good results from previous research, we were asked for the follow-up study. This dealt with source research, literature study and devising future scenarios. The timing was great, just before the summer, the new juniors immediately delved into it. They partly worked through the holidays and after the holidays we held several meetings and we went to the press. Despite the team’s expansion and the various expertise, we did not work in isolation. Two or three people would work simultaneously on each project, with one person being ultimately responsible and the others working on sub-questions. Corona also presented us with challenges on the work floor; we therefore held a stand-up every day. It helped enormously to speak with each other briefly on a daily basis and as a result we see each other quite a lot online.

How is the sector doing, what are the challenges? The picture is different for each sub-sector, but every company has noticed the consequences. All distant destinations and the bus and air travel are hit hard. In Zeeland, the bungalow parks and campsites missed the entire preseason, which could not be made up during the rest of the year. Just when the weather became pleasant, they had to close. And it was bad weather at the beginning of the late season. The summer was very good. But actually Zeeland is ‘full’ every summer; you cannot offer more than you have available. This was accommodated by slightly higher prices and where the last spots in other years were filled with discount campaigns, that was not necessary this year.The hotels are also significantly behind on their regular turnover. The catering industry has done reasonably well in the summer period, thanks to the eased outdoor policies. And now everything is closed again, including restaurants, which were well organized in terms of table distance, so it’s hard on them. We saw a fairly quick, creative switch to take-out and meal boxes from many entrepreneurs, but this requires hard work.”

Margot expects that the consequences of the pandemic will trigger a wave of bankruptcy. She indicates that 60% of entrepreneurs do not expect to get through this corona crisis. “We will hardly see any positive figures in the sector in 2020.” She notes that an increasingly higher quality level also requires the necessary investments and that the banks are very cautious with financing. There is a limit to what entrepreneurs can do and there will be a takeover boom by wealthy foreign chains that are now making their move. Zeeland family businesses are taken over. “A foreign chain is not necessarily bad, but with it future profits will go to faraway places. We have to be aware of that.”

How did the knowledge centre start at HZ? “We were a small, independent player that had already existed for a number of years within VVV Zeeland, but ultimately had no future there. That is why we found accommodation at HZ as one of the first knowledge centres fourteen years ago. The first years were tough. We took a few small assignments from the Province of Zeeland with us to HZ, which we gradually expanded, partly by securing the Pieken in de Delta subsidy from the Ministry of Economic Affairs. Fortunately we had a large network, which helped us survive the first period. We went for the slow development. We never pursued rapid growth. We have focused on knowledge building and impact for the sector. A few years ago we experienced a huge growth due to a number of assignments from the Province of Zeeland, and from Europe ... For example, the subject ‘mobility’ where we had already carefully built up a network with a number of regular partners and paid assignments. If an opportunity arises for a research grant, you will achieve much more with what you were already doing.”

Margot describes in her characteristic way, passionate and outspoken, how she leads the team. She likes clarity and transparency, speaks her mind and has an eye for the composition of the team, but also for individual needs. She indicates that she has been lucky enough to be able to build a team from day one and that trial and error is part of that.

“I wanted steady growth, with a permanent core of employees and flexibility around it. I wanted to expand the permanent core in consultation with the team members. So we choose the right people together. There is a lot of intuition in that, because I have no scruples whatsoever to follow my intuition in this. But you must always put a lot of energy into it, so you know fairly quickly whether something is working, but also quickly decide if it is not the case. Our team consists of many different types of people who are now well attuned to each other. It works well with multiple age categories, a good gender distribution and room for new, young recruits.

I like a bit of resistance and I like to give responsibility to each team member. There is also room for emotions such as anger, as long as it does not become personally addressed at someone. I don't like sulking. If you get frustrated and start grumbling about everything and everyone, then you have to leave and look for a job elsewhere.”

You want your work to ‘make an impact’ what do you mean by that? “HZ invited us to embrace the policy term ‘valorisation’, but I found it difficult to get a good picture of what that is. As a knowledge centre, we were constantly working on what the sector needs in terms of practice-oriented research. We succeeded in this because we came from ‘outside’ of course. After a difficult start, we gained increasingly more relevancy, but the sector has developed, has become better organized and better represented in associations. Moreover, it has become more common for universities of applied sciences to play a role in tourism research. The establishment of the Centre of Expertise was valuable to the sector. We also make every effort not to compete with commercial research firms. Finding that balance is sometimes difficult. The big difference is that we provide knowledge, analyze data and draw up conclusions, but do not end up with advice and recommendations. It is precisely the gathering of knowledge that has become very important to us. Now the commercial research agencies are knocking on our door to get regional knowledge. We provide that knowledge that everyone can gather from the website.”

What are your plans for the future, has the knowledge agenda already been filled in? “There is still so much research possible. For example, we want to look at the role of tourism in the quality of life in Zeeland. Can the level of services be maintained by tourism? Which negative elements are associated with tourism? What are the consequences for waste flows, water and energy use? The sector will benefit from investing in sustainability, preserving the value of the landscape and spatial quality in Zeeland and with a good connection with the Zeeland people. If the Zeeland residents are happy with tourism, then tourism is an extended form of hospitality and there is no negative talk going on at the baker’s.

We have also been closely involved in the Kustvisie (Coastal Vision). It is a strategic development that is given attention by the province and by many municipalities. We talk about this independently. The tricky part is that the interests and intentions of the parties are not always the same. At first sight the same words are used, but the meaning is not always the same. We notice this and we steer on this. I have already been around for a long time and can therefore easily call parties to order. If a councillor makes incorrect statements, I can easily say something about it. Keeping up-to-date, having a say in knowledge, we have acquired and earned that role in recent years. I am proud of that role and I think that this is also the added value of practice-oriented research for HZ. And all thanks to the team.”