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22 December, 2011
T'IS the season to be jolly.
Yes, we may be in the middle of one of the worst economic downturns of modern times, but businesses across Hampshire are hoping that the Christmas spirit will bring some financial relief.
Many firms are relying on a festive spending spree to help them make it through the dark times.
But are our towns and cities doing enough to lure custom needed to spread a slight smattering of economic cheer?
Across the county, thousands of people have been descending on special seasonal celebrations, with towns and cities vying with each other to make themselves the Christmas destination and entice people in.
Among them, Winchester has transformed itself into a traditional winter wonderland – branded as the country’s Christmas capital – while Portsmouth has hosted a three-day Victorian festival and a publicly-funded major lights switch-on.
But Southampton has opted for a different route.
The city centre didn’t have a big event to celebrate the lights being illuminated – not least because there are barely any Christmas decorations to turn on.
There have been events throughout the city, including those in Bitterne, at WestQuay and The Marlands, and last night in Bedford Place, but unlike in Portsmouth, all those individual displays are organised solely by firms in those areas.
However, the city centre precinct and Below Bar have been given over to what Southampton City Council describes as “the UK’s premier festival market”.
It boasts stalls filled with traders from Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, Italy, Spain, South Africa and India, as well as an outdoor ice rink.
It is the seventh year running that the city has hosted the market, but it is not financed by the council. Instead it is organised and paid for by the Southern Market Traders Cooperative.
Its chief executive, Paul Lewis, said he doesn’t believe it would be right to ask the council to spend public cash on lavish events or decorations.
He said: “Whereas before, when things were more rosy, they could support things like that, there’s no money now, so it’s about businesses doing it for themselves, because they’re the ones who benefit from the extra footfall.
“There are probably more important things [for the council] to worry about, and spending money keeping jobs is probably more important. You’ve got places like Ringwood that are still paying for last year.
“We’re trying to amalgamate things for next year so we can have some lights, but we’ve got the ice rink and we’ve got the market and it’s about taking things in stages. It’s good for the town, whether you like it or not, because that’s bringing thousands [of people] to the town – the ice rink is constantly booked up, and we’re full up in the market. We’ve got a waiting list because people want to trade in Southampton.”
The few decorations in the city contrasts greatly with Winchester, where the historic city centre has been draped with glistening white lights, while the ice rink, set against the stunning backdrop of Winchester Cathedral, is nestled among popular stalls.
Heavily publicised, the Christmas market draws in about 350,000 shoppers every year, and last month’s event to mark the lights being switched on proved as big a draw as ever, with thousands descending on the city for the evening.
Amy McCartan, marketing manager at Winchester BID (business Improvement District), said the organisation has teamed up with Winchester Cathedral to combine their Christmas campaign, with spectacular success.
Their extensive advertising includes a giant billboard at London Waterloo train station, while Winchester City Council has set up and runs a website dedicated to promoting Winchester as a destination for Christmas trips and shopping.
Amy said: “We’re actively promoting the city as England’s Christmas capital because there’s so much going on. We’re lucky because we have a unique offering.
“The city council heavily supports it, and we’ve achieved as much as we can this year. Last weekend the High Street was absolutely packed, and a lot of businesses are saying they did exceptionally well. One said takings were up 31 per cent on last year.”
Over in Portsmouth, organisers of a three-day Victorian Festival of Christmas at the city’s Historic Dockyard are celebrating after 26,500 visitors flocked to join the fun.
The event combined shopping and entertainment to transport people back in time to get in the seasonal mood, and provide a boost to local traders.
Alongside the baby reindeer, celebrity cookery theatre and Dickensian characters, this year saw an indoor vintage market hall, showcasing retailers from the city. This year’s visitor numbers were five per cent higher than expected.
Robert Bruce, managing director of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, said: “It’s always a joy to see so many smiling faces over the three days, it really showed that the Historic Dockyard has so much to offer and the Christmas spirit is alive and kicking in Portsmouth.”
The dockyard festival followed a number of events in the city paid for in part by Portsmouth City Council, including lights switch-ons in Southsea, the city centre and Cosham, all of which featured fireworks displays and other entertainment.
But Southampton’s council leader Royston Smith said he believes the authority’s role is to support businesses, not pay for them.
He said he wasn’t aware of any plans for events like Portsmouth’s Victorian festival, and the council isn’t looking to create one because it spreads its limited funds on attractions throughout the year.
Councillor Smith said: “We don’t put in a great deal of public money for two reasons – we don’t have very much and the money we do have we don’t get to generate for economic development reasons, so we have to be careful how we spend it.
“Our people facilitate the markets and the ice rink, and there’s a value to that, and we publicise all the events.
“We encourage the businesses to put up decorations and provide the ice rink or Christmas market, and I think they’re doing a pretty good job.”
Available from the Hampshire CHronicle: http://www.hampshirechronicle.co.uk/archive/2011/12/05/Features+-+News+Features/9402412.How_does_Southampton_compare_to_rivals_this_Christmas_/