Face-to-Face: Deirdre Wells, UKinbound

UK tourism boomed in 2016 – what are the key factors driving this growth?

Deirdre Wells OBE
Deirdre Wells OBE

I think it’s our wonderful tourism product, and our collaboration with the great campaign our national tourist board, Visit Britain, runs; our tourist boards have been working really hard to capitalise on the awareness that such campaigns have had. Tourism has been growing year on year for some time now, particularly post olympics, but we had a helpful boost last year by the drop of the Pound, which for inbound is obviously quite significant and our members have been ‘making hay while the sun shines’. The key thing for us is that we have a number of very strong markets, the EU countries make up about 62% of our business and the American market has always been really strong but we’re seeing really strong growth from markets like china, 18% growth for several months now, which is fantastic. I think what has also helped is that, even though London does dominate the market a bit as it’s deemed such a world-class city, there are a number of destinations that are starting to come on stream in terms of being inbound destinations. We’ve seen an interest in visitors for something a bit different, heritage and bucket list destinations, beautiful coastline, local food, heritage and culture. We’ve had a really nice few years and key events also do really tend to drive that, I’ve mentioned the Olympics but we’ve also had the Rugby World Cup and various cultural events. They do a huge amount to promote the destination and then you get a tail effect out of that interest. Film tourism has also been driving a lot of interest and awareness in the destination. That has been particularly helpful in driving tourism to areas that perhaps wouldn’t necessarily have been in mind for visitors; Poldark, Call the Midwife, Sherlock, they all have an impact, they’re a fantastic shop window for the country.

How do you intend to capitalise on this in 2017?

I think the key thing is the fall of the Pound and, as it is still relatively low, one of the things that is happening downstairs is my members will be agreeing packages and itineraries now for next year and the year after to try and set prices now while the Pound is low because, as I say, it does make us quite a competitive destination.  Also, one of the messages we’ve been sending out loud and clear to the industry is that the expectations of customers’ are going up but ultimately you can’t bring people over here if you haven’t got enough beds. So it’s fantastic that Plymouth are investing 35 million into the city, including building a number of new hotels, which immediately opens up the wider South-West as a destination. I also think it’s really important that we do a lot of work with government to get our messages across. Concerning issues of infrastructure, whether it’s new routes into regional airports or rail and road improvements, we need to ensure that we are able to get people into and around the country as efficiently as possible and that these routes are as good as they can be. As an industry we’ve been very successful at innovating. One of our jobs at UKInbound is to help people spot trends, whether it’s new markets coming in or film tourism. These often enable small, niche tourism businesses the chance to capitalise on the inbound boom. There is real potential. Our members are always looking for what’s next and that is why this conference is so important, it gives them the space to actually get together and think about what is next. We have everybody from very mainstream operators, that bring huge coach loads of international tourists, to companies that are much more bespoke; this diversity does tend to fuel quite a creative environment .

What key markets are you looking to for growth in 2017 and why?

First and foremost would be America. We were losing market share with the US for a while but it has been coming back over the last few years. One of the great things about the convention being here in Plymouth this year is the build up to the Mayflower 2020 and that will be a really important opportunity that enables our tour operators to start talking to businesses here about how they can capitalise on that, both in the run up to and beyond. So back to my point about events, those big events are really key in terms of just providing a catalyst for that sort of expansion. There has been a lot of work done over the summer in the US around capitalising on the exchange rate but equally we are looking at doing more in China, a number of our tour operators are Chinese specialists. We’ve seen some really significant growth there and we are really pleased. We’ve been lobbying quite hard for a reduction in the cost of a Chinese visa and an enhanced processing time and that has made a real difference. But it is also down to working in partnership with Visit Britain to make sure that our businesses are ready for the needs of Chinese tourists, all those little touches that suddenly make that market want to stay in your hotel, but also understanding what they want to do. They are big shoppers and we have a number of retailers in our membership, Bicester Village, who absolutely nail the Chinese market, West End Company and Westfield. These retailers are also a big draw for Gulf markets, likewise football clubs who are in membership with us too. Those big iconic brands, whether it is a football brand or a handbag brand are the things that people want to access, experience and buy while they’re here.

You recently praised the government’s new industrial strategy? How will you capitalise on this movement? Where are the gaps in terms of infrastructure and jobs/skills that need plugging to further develop the UK’s tourism industry?

It was great to see tourism mentioned in the industrial strategy. It gives us a hook to have a conversation with government about what we need as an industry, we are obviously very different from a hard manufacturing industry but we are the seventh biggest export earner in the UK. We are about people looking after people and I think from an employment perspective that is really positive since we have created 1 in 3 new jobs since 2010. Therefore, in terms of providing employment across the UK tourism has that ability to plug the gaps that perhaps former manufacturing industries left behind. However, we do have some specific needs, we need a lot of people; this is why are anxious about Brexit concerning how we will mange our EU workforce. Part of the solution will be to keep encouraging young people to join the profession. We created the hashtag #mytourismjob, which is about celebrating what the tourism industry has to offer. We are delighted to collaborated with schools and colleges to help inform young people about all the opportunities that are available. We have been working with Plymouth College over the last few days, we had students there bake our 40th birthday cake for us and doing our meeting and greeting, providing them with the opportunity to see what it is that we do. There are also some very specific needs that we have around language skills, which as a country we don’t really do very well on. People have poor language skills and that is one of the main reasons why we have such a large EU workforce in our industry. We need people to be able to speak languages, whether they’re dealing with a German tour operator or clients B2B or they’re meeting and greeting in a hotel. I think to achieve the Prime minister’s goal of being a global trading nation again we have to have the support of language skills.

What do you believe are the main challenges and opportunities facing the UK’s inbound tourism industry now and in the future?

I think the key thing will be the outcome of Brexit. Making sure that we end up with a system that allows for as much free trade as possible is very important. I would be very concerned if we left the Customs Union because providing smooth access through our ports and airports, with the volume of visitors that we get and are hoping to get, is really critical. 70% of our visitors come by air so access to the single Aviation Market is also vital and as I have said, there is a workforce issue. We need some reassurance for our EU workforce, because many of them now, in the absence of a formal decision by government, are making their own minds up. Understandably people are thinking, ‘well if I’m going to have to go in three years, should I go now?’, that is a concern since the more we grow, the more people we are going to need. Therefore, the sooner we can get some reassurance on that the better.

What planning/strategy do you have in place to help the industry combat Brexit impact?

I’m a member of the government’s Tourism Industry Council, I alongside my colleagues have been pulling together the key concerns for the industry. Although the result did not go our way and we were very disappointed, I think we do take heart in the fact that our industry has coped with 9/11, ash-clouds, and foot and mouth; we are quite resilient and we will find a way to make this work. The government can help us do that, not just by making sure that the new arrangements with Europe are as smooth as possible, but by actively supporting us in accessing new markets. They do can this with better visa arrangements for emerging markets like India, as they did with China.

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