Comment: Let’s be led by the locals

Angela Heaton, AC Group managing director, reveals what tourism can learn from online start-ups such as Airbnb and EatWith, to showcase Britain’s personality to the world.

With VisitBritain forecasting 41.7 million visits in 2018 – an increase of 4.4% year-on-year – Great Britain is without doubt a popular destination for international tourists. Furthering this trend, the Great British Tourism Survey showed domestic trips were up 1% year-on-year, with holiday trips in England reaching 47.25 million, its highest level in the last decade.

As tourists continue to explore Britain in record numbers, what can operators and the industry do to provide them with a unique experience – one that not only meets but exceeds their expectations and encourages them to return and recommend Britain and Ireland as destinations?

The growth in domestic holidays in 2017 was driven by those aged 25 to 34 – up 7% year-on-year. This digitally native demographic has grown up seeing travel as a necessity, not a luxury.

They’re vocal about what they want when travelling – it’s not enough to simply see the sights, they want to experience life as a local.

Cheap package holidays as children provided them a taste of the exotic, and the shrinking of the world through globalisation and the internet have encouraged them to seek out tailored experiences when travelling.

They set the trend for experiential travel by looking for ways to engage with local cultures and make new friends on their journey.

Peer-to-peer networks

Combining this ‘right’ to travel with their online savvy, digital start-ups that encourage peer-to-peer networks and ‘At Home’ experiences are flourishing.

Airbnb may be the biggest name in this field – including their 2016-launched Trips service for local tour guides – but the Supper Club scene earlier this decade also set a marker, feeding tourists and residents alike in the lounge rooms and backyards of locals, before sites such as EatWith and MealSharing launched, making it easier for people to plan before they travelled.

Brits aren’t known as the warmest of nationalities – polite and friendly but not regarded as terribly welcoming.

However, this stereotype is one that has been challenged over the last decade, particularly when even hardened Londoners let their guards down welcoming international visitors during the London Olympics, even engaging in random conversations on the tube!

Showcasing personality and not just places is key for Britain to continue its appeal as a destination.

We know – both anecdotally and from extensive industry research – that travellers are increasingly looking for a genuine experience. It’s not just about ticking off ‘must see’ locations; it’s about experiencing the destination as a local.

Local knowledge

And that’s where local knowledge is essential – it’s something that can’t be faked and must continue to evolve as restaurants and attractions fall off and climb up ‘hot lists’.

Encouraging your teams to get out and explore – not only meeting existing partners and seeking new business but visiting areas as a tourist would – is key to selling a destination. It’s essential to work with others who understand and activate local-led customer experiences, such as one of our suppliers Celia Brooks and her London Gastro tours, is essential.

Combining the knowledge of destination experts with localised suppliers gives operators an edge in appealing to clients who want a tailored experience.

Tapping into the in-depth ‘At Home’ experiences offered in some countries particularly throughout Asia may not be fully possible just yet as UK regulations can often scare away someone who would otherwise love to show a visitor from Canada around the best pubs in London or take a family from Greece to a quiet hamlet on a Cornish beach.

Government help

But the government could help facilitate a way forward, by training potential hosts and encourage operators to utilise local guides and diverse itineraries.

As the industry continues to seek answers post-Brexit, looking towards the future of tourism is vital.

Diversifying product to involve more locals could broaden the appeal of Britain as a destination as well as provide business opportunities for Britons keen to open their home and share their experiences.

Drawcard attractions such as the Tower of London and the Shard will rightfully remain of interest to visitors, yet pairing these with intimate local-led experiences such as Sunday lunch at a Cotswolds home or drinking a pint in a Belfast pub, provides a real glimpse of how great Britain and Ireland can be.

Places will continue to appeal, but it will be personality that drives holiday-makers’ destination decisions and leaves them with lasting memories.