Harrogate Christmas Market is almost upon us and there’s food and drink galore available as well as plenty of Christmas shopping opportunities.We spoke to those involved to find out more about the event…
With 200 stallholders to accommodate, and more than 140 coaches expected to descend this year, just thinking about the scale of the organisation needed to put Harrogate Christmas Market together is something that would give most people a headache.
Yet, surprisingly, this feat of festive planning is carried out almost entirely by volunteers.
The team is led by Brian Dunsby who, along with his wife Beryl, took on the event in the late summer of 2012. It had originally been put together by a commercial organiser who pulled out at the last minute.
Brian said: “We recognised the importance of a Christmas market to Harrogate and we didn’t want to see the plans fail.
“As chief executive of Harrogate Chamber of Trade and Commerce, I had heard directly from many local retailers and hospitality businesses that they relied heavily on the increased trade in the run-up to Christmas to keep them going during quieter periods in the year. They were very supportive of the proposal to hold a Christmas market and, when it looked like it was going to fall through, we decided to step in.”
Brian and Beryl pulled together a committee of volunteers to keep the plans on track. They were able to accommodate 130 traders – despite initially only planning for around a third of that number – and were surprised at the response from the public: an estimated 30,000 visitors turned up to browse the stalls and go on to visit local shops, cafes and restaurants.
From that point on, the future of Harrogate Christmas Market became much more secure – and required much more planning. Fortunately, Brian and Beryl’s background in event organisation allowed them to understand what was required and, with the support of a growing team of volunteers, to expand and develop on the first event.
In 2013, two new marquees were introduced, featuring stalls offering food and drink in one, and crafts and gifts in the other. The number of stalls increased to 150, then 200 the following year – and yet they still sold out.
“It seemed as though we could continue expanding indefinitely and there would still be more demand,” said Brian.
“The natural restrictions of the site – which is on the Stray and slopes up towards West Park, as well as having public roads on three sides – mean we can’t really expand any further. What we can do is become more selective about our stallholders and make it a unique event for visitors.”
With so many German and continental Christmas markets being held in towns and cities around the UK, the organisers of Harrogate Christmas Market focus on Yorkshire, encouraging traders from across the region to take part.
That selectiveness has proved popular: an estimated 52,000 people visited the event in 2014, and that number could well rise this year.
Among those who have taken part over several years are some businesses based in Harrogate itself. Jane Harvey, from Yorkshire Trails, will be in the craft and gift marquee once again this year, making the most of the chance to meet customers face to face.
She said: “The market is a fantastic opportunity for us to show the trails first hand to the public and as well as sales on the day, we have had many subsequent online sales from customers saying, ‘I saw you at the Harrogate Christmas Market’. We also had several visitors to our stall who said, ‘My friend saw you here yesterday and told me to come and have a look!’
“At the 2013 and 2014 markets, we had lots of customers who had bought in 2012 returning to tell us how much they enjoyed the trails and wanting to see where else they could explore.
“We are in the same spot in the craft and gift marquee each year so people know where to find us. Plus, it’s a great market with lots of top quality local products on offer so it’s a great chance for me to do some Christmas shopping myself!”
Even businesses which already have a shop in the town centre take part. Scandinavian cafe Baltzersens will return for the third year, this time selling hot coffee and waffles.
Owner Paul Rawlinson said: “I’m not over-egging the pudding when I say the Christmas market is our most important weekend of the year now. That is credit to the organisation that goes into it.
“It’s the local businesses and the volunteers that put so much time into setting it up that really provide the point of difference and set Harrogate apart from all the other Christmas markets around.”
As well as its voluntary organisation, the one thing that makes Harrogate the most remarkable is that it is run on a not-for-profit basis. Any surplus made from the annual four-day event is used to support organisations which encourage visitors to come into Harrogate throughout the year.
In its first three years, an impressive £50,000 has been ploughed back into Harrogate’s tourism economy as a result.
“That is something many people don’t realise,” said Brian.
“Harrogate Christmas Market has a very professional feel – but nobody is profiting from putting it on. We want the impact to be felt year-round, so we support events like Harrogate International Festivals and groups like Visit Harrogate.
“Their contribution to bringing visitors into town is absolutely vital, not just for our hotels, restaurants and shops, but also for the many businesses they work with.”
Of course, what makes the event most successful is the enjoyment of visitors. As well as the stalls, families particularly appreciate the small, affordable children’s funfair on site – and the chance to escape occasional showers inside the marquees.
The festive atmosphere has been increased with the introduction of a ‘busking’ area in the heart of the market. Far from being an ad hoc chance to perform, the schedule is carefully planned and a wide range of soloists and small ensembles are booked in to keep the music flowing across all four days.
The icing on the cake for younger visitors was the introduction of an official opening ceremony in 2013. On the first morning of the market, Santa arrives on a sleigh pulled by real reindeer, officially opening the market with the Mayor of Harrogate, before taking up residence his grotto for the next four days.
“That’s a really special part of the event for everyone,” said Brian.
“It’s open to local schoolchildren to come along, as well as parents, grandparents and anyone else with youngsters who want to see Santa arrive. It’s also a good time to have a look around the stalls and the nearby shops while it’s a bit quieter.
“On the Saturday and Sunday, the aisles are busy all day and the town centre is bustling too. A lot of shops have told us they have their busiest weekend’s trading while the Christmas market is on, so we know we’re making a real difference to the success of our town centre.
“As long as local businesses, our stallholders and our visitors are enjoying themselves, we know we’re doing something right.”
This year’s Harrogate Christmas Market takes place from Thursday 19 to Sunday 22 November around St Mary’s Walk, at the bottom of Montpellier Hill in central Harrogate. The opening ceremony takes place near Santa’s grotto at 10:00 on 19 November.