A complicated national picture

Bernard Donoghue, chairman of The Tourism Alliance and director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions on his impression of last week’s English Destinations Forum.

Last week saw one of the largest gatherings of English Destination Management Organisations (DMOs) for some time, brought together for a one-day forum facilitated by VisitEngland.

I attended for Alva and the Tourism Alliance but I was fascinated to hear the presentations and the discussions from the perspective of being a former chairman of a DMO myself, VisitManchester.

I left VisitManchester in 2010, but the topics last week could have come straight from our board agenda six years ago. Actually even 15 or 20 years ago.

Complex system

Another striking revelation was the sheer diversity of funding models and structures for DMOs. I think it’s fair to say that there were as many models as DMOs present, all funded, organised and owned in different ways by different stakeholders.

While this diversity no doubts reflects local priorities and imperatives, it does make for a complicated national picture. I can’t help thinking that if we were to write the blueprint for the UK’s fifth biggest industry, from scratch, it would not look like this.

Although the structures are different there was at least unanimity about priority issues: the need for DMOs to be better funded; the need for LEPs to better understand and appreciate their local tourism economies and, therefore, to support them politically and financially; and the need for collaboration between DMOs to harness energies and leverage effort.

VisitBritain/VisitEngland

Pointedly there were also calls for greater clarity as to the roles of VisitEngland and VisitBritain, especially since the changes of earlier this year in their structure and functions.

There were wistful calls for VisitEngland to beef-up its lobbying role in championing tourism, not only with DCMS but across the Whitehall landscape, and to invest more of its effort and money in the national brand work and marketing it had previously undertaken.

Such calls are understandable if an echo of a former time.  VistEngland was given very clear instructions as to its role by DCMS ministers this time last year. No lobbying, no work overseas, limited domestic marketing activities and, instead, a focus on product development and intelligence gathering and dissemination.

We at Alva and the Tourism Alliance would like to see a national tourist board for England with the same roles, functions and proportionate funding as the national boards in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

That’s not because we like our devolutionary landscape to be as tidy as possible, though goodness knows that would help, but because our fragmented industry requires public investment, co-ordination and national coherence. Until that time we work with all partners to ensure that we get the best for our local, regional and national tourism economies.

Forum conclusions

And here are some of the key messages from the day:

Be customer focussed.  Use their language and understand what they want and where they want to go. The customer does not recognise local authority boundaries; it’s tourism on their terms not yours.

Collaborate. Share insights and trends, data and information between DMOs in order to improve the customer experience and realise economies of scale in co-marketing and event planning.

Be critically honest about what your destination is good at and what it isn’t. Accentuate the positive, as the song goes, and improve the negative but accept that you can’t be all things to all people.

Be assertive. To win political, private sector and local public support for your visitor economy and the work of your DMO – indeed the very need for a DMO – you need to collate and curate some killer facts.

Treasury ministers began listening to the Tourism Alliance differently when we told them that overseas visitors to the UK last year paid approximately £5 billion in taxes (like VAT and APD, for example). That could pay the wages of around 137,000 NHS nurses on an average nurse’s salary. Nearly half of all nurses in the NHS. What’s your local equivalent?

And lastly, as DCMS tourism minister Tracey Crouch MP reminded the audience last week, tourism is everybody’s business. The government created the Tourism Industry Council and the cross-Whitehall group of ministers from all government departments which have an influence over, or responsibility for, policies that affect tourism.

These were two of the Alliance’s key requests in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. There is a strong appreciation in government of tourism’s importance, from Number 10 downwards. It seems now that the real task is to convince those LEPs who have yet to grasp fully tourism’s all-pervading economic, social, skills-creating, job-creating, and educational power, to do so.

Every DMO will tell you – regardless of their apparent differences – that they subscribe to the same mantra: a good place to visit is a good place to live, is a good place to study and to work. Tourism’s virtuous cycle begins locally.