Amy Beckett is the Senior Economic Development Specialist for Stroud District Council and Amy Helliwell is Tourism Officer. Stroud District lies in South West England and comprises eight towns and many outlying villages. In this joint interview, Amy and Amy talk about some key opportunities and challenges for Stroud District, and describe the evolving role that digital technologies are playing in the district’s economic development strategy. They discuss their latest visitor experience, the Discover Stroud Trails app – powered by the Place Experience Platform, and share insights about the importance of engaging the Council, businesses, residents and visitors.
Can you give an overview of Stroud District and its local economy – where does tourism factor and what are the economic development strategies?
Amy B – We’re really lucky that the district of Stroud is quite an extensive space and there are tourist information offices in all our market town locations, run by the parish councils and volunteers. We’re a district that sits within Gloucestershire; half of our district sits within Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty so we have a strong connection with Cotswold tourism; we’re closely located to Wye Valley and we have really good connections north and south, up to Birmingham and down to Bath/Bristol.
We’re positioned in a really touristy location and we’ve got a lot of opportunities. We predominantly see walkers and visitors that are a bit more focused on sustainability than other areas of tourism. Sustainability is a really strong ethos that a lot of our larger businesses and smaller tourism businesses share, so the businesses we support care about the impact they have. It’s really exciting to be able to work alongside them to develop and continue that offer into the future.
As placemakers for the Stroud District, what are your key opportunities and challenges?
Amy H – We’ve got a really enthusiastic town and parish connection who want to collaborate on many of our projects, such as developing different visitor trails on the district’s new Discover Stroud Trails app, because it affects them immediately. We have a positive partnership with them, which is a really good opportunity.
A challenge is how we connect with and across our hinterlands. We’ve got our market towns such as Dursley, Wotton-under-Edge and Stroud Town, with whom we work very closely, but the question is how do we connect wider in the district – to get to those smaller niche locations? How can we encourage those parishes to join in with us and how can we encourage people to go to those areas?
Also, we’re a very sustainable district but there are a lot of challenges that come with that, especially when it comes to tourism and sustainability. With an increased tourism offer, is there going to be a negative impact on our sustainability and environment? The challenge here is making sure people are respecting those areas, like the locals do.
Digital technologies are playing an increasing role in the lives of Stroud District’s residents, visitors and potential visitors. How is this influencing the ways that these groups engage with Stroud District?
Amy H – Recently we have launched a brand new and exciting digital experience for Stroud District (Discover Stroud Trails app) and we created a social media campaign to promote it and engage with our audiences better. It’s great that we have this ability to use social media as a way to market the app and in particular to interact with new audiences.
Discover Stroud Trails is a mobile app that lets us highlight the town’s offer, via visual means. Having the visual aspect is why the app has worked so well, because you’re not just looking at a map that you follow around. Having a digital experience makes it more exciting for visitors as it engages them with the location in a deeper way and gets them to think about what they’re doing and interact with what they’re doing. Hopefully, we can evolve the offer and create more digitally-enabled visitor engagement with other areas of Stroud District.
Amy B – It’s been exciting to work on something that’s quite innovative for local authorities. Being able to use the placemaking app to support a broader age range of visitors that are accessing our space is inspiring. Predominantly, our visitors are a slightly older generation, so a goal of the Discover Stroud Trails app is to appeal to Gen Z and help them to find out about us using their preferred methods and devices. We’ve got to be really proactive with that approach and do so in a way that is user friendly – supporting older generations to utilise the app.
Your Discover Stroud Trails app uses Calvium’s Place Experience Platform – can you give the background to your involvement with the platform and what value you anticipate it will bring to Stroud District?
Amy H – The app was originally funded by the government’s Welcome Back Fund to increase visitors numbers into towns after Covid-19, so we worked very closely with the towns of Berkeley, Dursley, Nailsworth, Nailsworth, Stonehouse, Stroud Town and Wotton-under-Edge to get the initial trails out there. The trails are designed to guide people around the town and reveal a range of interesting stories about the place.
“We’ve undertaken some preliminary research that shows a positive correlation between an increase in footfall in our towns and the promotion of the app on social media.”
Increasingly, the analytics indicate that when we promote the app through our social media accounts, there is a positive correlation on the increased numbers of users downloading those trails or just generally downloading the app. From what we’ve seen so far, there has been a nice value added already. Now it’s about the opportunity to increase that and see what we can add to the app to make the user experience even better, and how we can retain these visitors.
Amy B – Cost of living is impacting our businesses – and our businesses are our residents and communities – so we’re focusing all of our walks on the app on how we actively encourage footfall past our tourism destinations, whether that’s a museum or coffee shop. It’s a really holistic approach to supporting economic development and our businesses. I’m proud of the fact we can offer this solution, with an aim to improve the spend at our businesses while encouraging that inward spend from residents, especially at the moment.
Can you describe the Discover Stroud Trails app and its visitor experience?
Amy B – The mobile app provides walking routes that are town-focused, such as for Nailsworth and Stonehouse, as well as district-wide. So we have really localised walks and opportunities that take you through specific places, and also larger walks that go across the whole of the district. When you pick a walk, it will highlight where you’re going and some key focus points as you’re walking. In Stroud Town, for example, we’ve highlighted some of our historical monuments or buildings and the app gives you information about them.
In future we can also include different features that enable visitors to engage with the towns in alternative ways, historic maps and treasure hunts for example. We’ve got lots of historical societies and are keen to work in partnership with them to design new ideas and content for our placemaking app.
Amy H – One of the things I love about this digital experience is that there are so many hidden bits and bobs in Stroud District that you wouldn’t know about – even if you live in the town – so it’s a great support to our visitors when exploring the area, and it is also really beneficial to our local residents.
Although a lot of trails don’t overtly highlight local businesses, it might be the case that a particular walk guides people past five businesses and so it is very strategically placed. The additional information then might say ‘there’s a great coffee shop here’ or ‘did you know this is the first vegan cafe in the UK?’, so it’s a great opportunity for us to be able to promote these areas in subtle ways.
How did you go about imagining and creating the experience and content?
Amy H – The first trails we had were town centre-focused given the funding, so when I joined it was six market towns that were going to work together to create this app. It was super having that expert knowledge from locals from the get-go.
We work very closely with our destination management organisations who are good at highlighting key dates and events, and so we cater certain walks around those. We aim to publish two trails every month, whether that’s a generic one we have pre-planned or if it’s themed to other activities. This might be around Christmas or Halloween, to highlight a local food or film festival, or where best to see bluebells and snowdrops in the Spring.
It also depends on what our customers have asked for on our social media. We ask them every now and then what trails they want to see and if they like certain content, which helps us to decide what’s going to come next and how we want to build the visitor experience.
Have you had any feedback to the Discover Stroud Trails app yet from your communities – e.g. businesses, visitors, residents?
Amy H – We had a really nice review from a local saying they had found out loads of things they never knew about! Our towns and parish councils are really supportive – especially with our initial trails because it was all trial and error. Because the trails are so quick and easy to upload, we get a lot of quick feedback from the usage of the app and how it works.
Talking to different people using the app – the council, visitors and businesses – it’s always people asking what they can do with it. On social media, people sometimes suggest little edits they’d like to see, which we can take to Calvium and ask if this is an upgrade we might be able to do in the future.
The feedback in general has been very positive and it has all been constructive criticism about how we can improve and have this amazing visitor experience for all people.
Amy B – Amy Helliwell has been speaking with the businesses, not only introducing her role but also the app. Many of our larger and smaller businesses are happy to have a QR code in their reception area or coffee shop to encourage users to download it, which is testament to the quality of the app. It’s a win-win situation: we highlight their destination and they in turn highlight the app, so it should have benefits for everyone.
What have you discovered/encountered working with digital technologies and information/content – has it changed the way you see future storytelling and visitor experiences?
Amy B – This is a really nice addition to what is already done. There is still a long way to go with some people, whether that’s residents or visitors, and the trust in the digital apps. Also the understanding of the wider support that it can offer in the economic development strategy and that focus on trying to increase footfall and spend in our areas. It’s just one prong on a lot of things we’re still responsible for that is really seeing an increase in a positive way.
So I don’t want to say we’re just going to do digital stuff, because that is not what our audience wants; some of our customers and businesses still want to see different approaches, and rightly so, and we have to be very mindful of the speed with which we do these things. But it’s an excellent way to start enhancing the offer that we have, and pulling some of that work and those opportunities into modern-day technology.
Amy H – We don’t want to go in all guns blazing and it either not work as well as we want it to, or have backlash to anything we do. It’s about easing people into it and showing the benefits that digital technology can have. For example, with the key threats of the future – the environment and sustainability, etc. – technology can help with that and there are ways we can use it as a means to educate the people on what they can do.
“The app allows us to highlight different aspects of a destination that might not be good for somebody with a particular disability, such as raised areas or cobbled streets.”
Technology also helps us to cater for everybody with regard to accessibility. Whereas the accessibility of certain places might not be obvious on paper resources, the app allows us to highlight different aspects of a destination that might not be good for somebody with a particular disability, such as raised areas or cobbled streets.
Are there any words of wisdom that you would pass on to other Councils or places seeking to create their own digital placemaking experiences?
Amy B – If you have the opportunity and there’s the appetite within your local area, just go for it. Calvium have been brilliant; the team has been so hands-on and are so passionate about the work they deliver, it’s hard to not be excited by all of the opportunities.
Amy H – Trust the process. It’s one of those things that is about trial and error, which sounds a bit scary. You have the option and freedom to try different things with Calvium, to go back and forth and make something that is intrinsically your town and works for what you want it to be. Make sure you’ve got a really good support network behind you as well – your parishes and councils – and make sure you lean on Calvium and their knowledge.
Calvium are specialists in designing digital placemaking systems and are keen to develop innovative solutions for people, place and planet – are there any aspects of your environmental development strategies that could benefit further from digital innovation?
Amy B – Within the district and our local authority, we’re working really closely with a number of different departments in the council to look at how the app is of a benefit to a wider reach than just economic development and being a placemaking opportunity; from teams responsible for sustainability and net zero to those working on canal restoration, communities and wellbeing, and cultural strategy. We will look at the legacy with a really holistic approach to make sure it is fit for purpose and does reach multiple audiences and deliver multiple priorities for the district.
What was it like working with Calvium?
Amy B – It’s been excellence from beginning to end. It’s great to work with an organisation that’s passionate about what they’re delivering. You can trust what they’re saying and doing, and how they’re supporting you.
The team would like to thank all the contributors and the towns of Dursley, Wotton-under-Edge, Nailsworth, Stonehouse, Berkeley and Stroud Town in bringing this project to life.
Amy Beckett, Senior Economic Development Specialist
With 10 years’ experience in supporting local areas to grow their economic development offer, Amy joined Stroud District Council in September 2020 to establish and develop an economic strategy for the district. As part of her remit, tourism and placemaking was highlighted as one of the key opportunities for the district.
Amy Helliwell, Tourism Officer
Having always lived in Stroud District and previously running one of the top tourist destinations in the district, Amy joined Stroud District Council in 2022. Amy’s role is focused on enhancing Stroud District Council’s contribution to tourism, and thinking about how the Council can collaborate with other parishes and tourist destinations to promote tourism in the area.