News that Hoopers is to close in Carlisle later this year should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who ever visited the city, or at the very least those with an interest in promoting the place.
Hoopers, if you didn’t know, was the upmarket city centre department store off English Street, selling everything from Armani to Juicy Couture…premium leather goods, high end cosmetics and exclusive lingerie.
It was for the well-heeled, certainly. Part of the “New Carlisle” with a centrally-located, stylish modern café on the first floor commanding a great view of the Cathedral; just a short stroll from the nationally-important collections of Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery.
I sent the Rough Guide To England and The Guardian to Hoopers when they were visiting the county on press trips – they loved it and raved about it.
Essentially, if you wanted to impress anyone visiting Carlisle, you took them to Hoopers (or John Watt if it was busy.) Hoopers might have been upmarket but without the thinly-veiled veneer of snobbishness that can happen in some posh cafes.
I know little about the circumstances of Hoopers’ impending closure and it’s no secret the high street is struggling.
But from a purely promotional point of view, Carlisle’s losing Hoopers constitutes another drop back into the relegation zone for the city’s image.
Or as a mate of mine who lives in the city put it in a text: “What odds will you give me that when Hoopers goes, Primark moves in? We have Brighthouse, Sports Direct, Poundland, Poundstretcher, Home Bargains and B&M. Surely that’s proof we only cater to one socio-economic group….”
Now he doesn’t say that as spiteful criticism of the bargain market or belittling the fortunes of his fellow neighbours. He says that purely from a tourism marketing perspective.
He is trying to make the point: How do you promote Cumbria’s “capital city” and share the significance of this historic Roman stronghold to a well-heeled, well-read tourist, when all you have is the same string of bargain basement emporiums you can find in any humdrum Northern town?
The problem with cities and coffee shops these days is that they’re pretty much all the same. The usual identikit rows of Costas, Starbucks and Caffe Neros etc. Nothing wrong with them of course, I was in one today.
The point is Hoopers was part of a small regional chain with sister stores in Tunbridge Wells, Harrogate and Torquay. See what I mean?
It added a touch of class to Carlisle that’s necessary to balance out the impression that its high street is dominated by budget stores. Don’t get me wrong, Carlisle has other upmarket stores like House Of Fraser and many independents too.
But if I were a tourism “mortician,” the demise of Hoopers could be viewed as something more seriously wrong happening in Carlisle (which has been a “work in progress” as a tourism destination for years.)
There’s either not enough Hoopers-type customers living in the city or not enough Hoopers-type customers coming to the city. Or both.
And to succeed it probably needed the latter.
Because the type of visitor who visits its (very good) Debenhams, probably wouldn’t visit Carlisle on a break because with the odd exception, Romans and history will hold little fascination for them.
Whereas the type of visitor who likes Roman history would go to Hoopers. They would also be more likely to stay somewhere nice, eat somewhere with a good reputation and explore some of the city’s historic tourism connections. More importantly than all of that, they’d spend money. Proper money.
Carlisle has long had an image problem from a tourism point of view. I happen to like Carlisle. The in-laws moved there and even that hasn’t put me off! I know it well, but many potential visitors don’t know its secrets and need to be converted.
The good places in and around the city, and I include the outer-lying villages in this – are some of the best you’ll find. The tourist information centre, in my opinion, is the best in Cumbria. I love the Hallmark Hotel, The Gilded Lily and a wander round The Lanes. The Castle is the best outside of Edinburgh, Bitts Park is brilliant for kids, I’d happily live on Warwick Street.
The problem is if you say the word: “Carlisle,” to people from OUTSIDE of the area. There is clear evidence from research, to prove that it conjures up negative images. I remember mentioning Carlisle to a national travel journalist on a decent publication who remarked: “Stop there! We’ve already featured Scotland this year!”
This is part of the problem. And it’s this that needs to be addressed by real investment in marketing and promoting the city and its public image.
The kind of things people said in the focus groups about Carlisle are not complimentary or accurate: “Industrial, remote, dirty, Scotland,” bits of it are, I suppose, but where isn’t? Few associate it with a 2,000-year-old heritage and second only to London as one of the most important Roman strongholds in the history of Roman Britain.
In today’s times, Carlisle is also associated with a poorly performing football team (a view that will surely fluctuate season-by-season, Blues fans hope!)
I must stress, these are not my views, but those of a focus group looking at Carlisle.
Yet when I was part of the party to show high-ranking BBC staff around the city, they were visibly floored. They genuinely hadn’t realised how beautiful and historic it was. This was not the Carlisle of their imaginations.
They hadn’t understood how compact it is, how easy-to-get-too and get around. They were bowled over how friendly the people were – a resident picking up one of the guys’ wallets in a busy bar and following him down the street to give him it back! We all know every city has its rough edges and bad eggs. Put Carlisle’s into any major city and they soon vanish in comparison.
Carlisle’s problems are not always of its own making but sometimes it has a habit of shooting itself in the foot. After the extensive floods and the highly-publicised collapse of Carlisle Renaissance, the final straw was the quiet dismantling last year of the organisation behind the city’s revival in recent years – the Carlisle Tourism Partnership.
A combination of national and regional cuts by a new Government and money-saving from local politicians coupled with a behind-the-scenes “re-organisation” of the city council, all conspired to a break up of the expertise that had been successfully converting new people to all that was good and unique about Carlisle. And that included places like Hoopers.
The partnership team bowed out on a high (tearfully for some) at Radio 1’s Big Weekend this time last year.
So it’s hard to believe, we are only a year down that road. Hard to believe that just a year ago Carlisle was trending on Twitter – for something positive!
Hard to believe that Carlisle’s profile had rarely been higher than last year when Hadrian’s Wall was illuminated from end-to-end by flaming torches and 12,000 people poured into the city.
Hard to believe when just over a year ago over 40,000 visitors were watching Lady Gaga, the Foo Fighters and the Black Eyed Peas – at Carlisle Airport!
And every room in and out of Carlisle was booked out. A work of magic.
And a year on Hoopers is closing. A real shame for Carlisle, or is it shame on Carlisle? You decide.
They reckon it’s cursed, you know.
Published: May 9, 2012
Have your say
The type of visitor who visits Debenhams means that the Romans and history will hold little fascination for them.
The type of visitor who likes Roman history would be the type to go to Hoopers.
I take no pleasure in saying that Carlisle is the most apathetic, lazy city in the country. From the top to the bottom you get the impression that nobody cares. Of course most of the city residents rarely venture further than Penrith. They have no idea what a vibrant 21st Century city looks like. As long as this attitude remains, Carlisle is destined to remain locked in this downward spiral.