‘Mad Hatter’ guide angry at city tours ‘monopoly’

Alasdair de Voil in character as the Mad Hatter tour guide

Alasdair de Voil in character as the Mad Hatter tour guide

First published in News thisisoxfordshire: Photograph of the Author by , Council Reporter, also covering Oxford city centre. Call me on 01865 425429

A TOUR guide is in a battle with Oxford City Council and Visit Oxfordshire over what he says is a monopoly.

Alasdair de Voil – better known to tourists as the Mad Hatter tour guide – has said he will take both bodies to the Local Government Ombudsman because of the way walking tours around Oxford are promoted.

The city council has given Visit Oxfordshire about £600,000 over the last three years.

But Mr de Voil says the company gives preferential treatment to one tour run by the Guild of Guides.

He previously took Visit Oxfordshire to the LGO in 2012,.

Last August the Oxford Mail reported that investigator Victoria Miles agreed with him that an agreement the company has with the Guild of Guides “confers an advantage without being transparent and could be seen to be unfair”.

But Mr de Voil, who has been a tour guide for about three years, says nothing has changed since then.

He wants to see improvements before the summer season begins.

He said: “Visit Oxfordshire says they are all about quality, but competition usually raises quality.

“It is a monopoly.

“I have no problem with them making money from selling tours as long as it is done fairly.

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“Nothing has changed since the LGO ruling and I am going to go to them again.

“I don’t see why we should have to compete with a service that is supposed to help us.”

Visit Oxfordshire runs a partnership scheme which allows tour guides to pay £360 plus VAT a year for standard membership.

Membership includes benefits such as having leaflets stocked at the Tourist Information Centre in Broad Street.

But Mr de Voil says the amount of prominence given to the tour run by the Guild of Guides – which does not subscribe to the partnership scheme – means that the return on this investment is “minimal”.

Colin Cook, the council’s board member for city development, said: “My understanding is that amount we contribute is declining and the amount of money from the private sector is increasing to take over.

“We do fund bodies like Modern Art Oxford and the Playhouse, but I expect that in the longer term we will not contribute to Visit Oxfordshire.”

Giles Ingram, director of Visit Oxfordshire, said the organisation had met the Ombudsman last year and had met his recommendations “in full”.

He said a quality charter had been introduced which all walking tours were asked to sign up to “to make it clear that they will respect the other operators”.

He said they could not reach an agreement with Mr de Voil and he had offered a refund of his membership.

Comments (2)

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10:39pm Fri 14 Mar 14

The New Private Eye says...

Maybe not leaving his bikes advertising his tours chained in the way of pedestrians might help his cause. Or he could even do what other tour guides do, and PAY for advertising.
Maybe not leaving his bikes advertising his tours chained in the way of pedestrians might help his cause. Or he could even do what other tour guides do, and PAY for advertising. The New Private Eye
  • Score: 14

7:59pm Sun 16 Mar 14

ILoveOxford.com says...

Dear 'New Private Eye',

Thanks for your comment and I would like to respond to what you said.

I want to clarify that the reasons why the bike signs are chained up and also why there are many people touting tours in the town centre and especially near the visitor info centre, is precisely because the visitor information centre does not operate for and on behalf of either the interests of independent tour operators or the general public!

If the visitor centre were run fairly and professionally without their own blatantly gross conflict of interest to do not much else than market their own selected 'Official Oxford walking tour', then the marketplace would be much more accessible to us.

Like nearly all other enterprising local individuals who have paid Visit Oxfordshire Ltd, a partnership fee (its starts at almost £400 upwards annually), we are EXTREMELY UNHAPPY with how Visit Oxfordshire Ltd delivers the visitor information service- which is supposedly a public function tendered to them by the local councils.

I invite you to take a look outside the visitor centre and inside its window and at its counter and on its website (visitoxfordandoxfor
dshire) and I can promise you that you will see little evidence of anything other than their own selected choice of day time Oxford tour. When however someone has something to sell in another locality or different time of day from their own select preferred and directed official tours, you may just find the centre and its staff are informing you about such other services. That is because it is fundamentally clear that the visitor centre has an agenda, as far as possible to them, to only market and sell tickets for plus to inform you about their selected tours (which they happen to earn commission on).

Tour operators like myself have paid them partnership fees and seen almost no return on investment at all. We have also sent random people inside to check out what their staff are telling the public. They usually won't tell you about any other tours unless you ask them to do so and because the centre's signage and windows and reception counters only offer you one choice (their tour), most people never realise to ask otherwise.

In any business, one has competition and as guided tours is an unregulated industry, there's also unfortunately lots of false advertising dominating our marketplace opportunity today too (the use of describing a service as 'free', while nevertheless soliciting for money). Trading Standards agency never shows any serious regard to protecting and upholding trading standards unless you are a consumer. In fact, the local trading standards says that they won't intervene in this dispute unless Visit Oxfordshire Ltd which runs the visitor information centre, promises in writing to be impartial. It should obviously be a given, that if they choose to call themselves a visitor information centre and to receive as much as £300,000 per year in public funding from the council, then surely they should be delivering an impartial information service. Yet they don't!

Oxford's small businesses are struggling enough without having to compete with a publicly funded public service, whose remit, most anyone would have assumed is to support and benefit businesses like ours. Instead, we have to compete with them. This is not fair and it's corrupt use of public money to be propping up a monopoly interest!

If anyone would like to send me or the newspaper or the council, your opinions, please write back! I will be standing for the Carfax local ward (as a protest vote for the Monster Raving Loony (tea) party in the May 22 local election and I am therefore especially keen to respond to public proposals and queries.

Yours sincerely,

Alasdair de Voil, Oxford's Mad hatter guide
Dear 'New Private Eye', Thanks for your comment and I would like to respond to what you said. I want to clarify that the reasons why the bike signs are chained up and also why there are many people touting tours in the town centre and especially near the visitor info centre, is precisely because the visitor information centre does not operate for and on behalf of either the interests of independent tour operators or the general public! If the visitor centre were run fairly and professionally without their own blatantly gross conflict of interest to do not much else than market their own selected 'Official Oxford walking tour', then the marketplace would be much more accessible to us. Like nearly all other enterprising local individuals who have paid Visit Oxfordshire Ltd, a partnership fee (its starts at almost £400 upwards annually), we are EXTREMELY UNHAPPY with how Visit Oxfordshire Ltd delivers the visitor information service- which is supposedly a public function tendered to them by the local councils. I invite you to take a look outside the visitor centre and inside its window and at its counter and on its website (visitoxfordandoxfor dshire) and I can promise you that you will see little evidence of anything other than their own selected choice of day time Oxford tour. When however someone has something to sell in another locality or different time of day from their own select preferred and directed official tours, you may just find the centre and its staff are informing you about such other services. That is because it is fundamentally clear that the visitor centre has an agenda, as far as possible to them, to only market and sell tickets for plus to inform you about their selected tours (which they happen to earn commission on). Tour operators like myself have paid them partnership fees and seen almost no return on investment at all. We have also sent random people inside to check out what their staff are telling the public. They usually won't tell you about any other tours unless you ask them to do so and because the centre's signage and windows and reception counters only offer you one choice (their tour), most people never realise to ask otherwise. In any business, one has competition and as guided tours is an unregulated industry, there's also unfortunately lots of false advertising dominating our marketplace opportunity today too (the use of describing a service as 'free', while nevertheless soliciting for money). Trading Standards agency never shows any serious regard to protecting and upholding trading standards unless you are a consumer. In fact, the local trading standards says that they won't intervene in this dispute unless Visit Oxfordshire Ltd which runs the visitor information centre, promises in writing to be impartial. It should obviously be a given, that if they choose to call themselves a visitor information centre and to receive as much as £300,000 per year in public funding from the council, then surely they should be delivering an impartial information service. Yet they don't! Oxford's small businesses are struggling enough without having to compete with a publicly funded public service, whose remit, most anyone would have assumed is to support and benefit businesses like ours. Instead, we have to compete with them. This is not fair and it's corrupt use of public money to be propping up a monopoly interest! If anyone would like to send me or the newspaper or the council, your opinions, please write back! I will be standing for the Carfax local ward (as a protest vote for the Monster Raving Loony (tea) party in the May 22 local election and I am therefore especially keen to respond to public proposals and queries. Yours sincerely, Alasdair de Voil, Oxford's Mad hatter guide ILoveOxford.com
  • Score: -1

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