Special Report: Deirdre Wells, chief executive of Go To Places

Deirdre Wells moved from UKinbound earlier this year to become chief executive of Go To Places – the company which runs Visit Kent and Visit Herts. She spoke to Samantha Mayling

Q Why did you move to Go To Places?

A I thoroughly enjoyed my time at UKinbound. We increased membership by a third, took on a new international exhibition at Arabian Travel Market, and became a trusted and authoritative voice for the inbound sector.

I am passionate about the growth which tourism can bring to destinations, economically and culturally. I can now put my knowledge and experience to work at the destination level.

These are extremely challenging times for destinations as local authority funding diminishes. It is more important than ever to build partnerships and leverage every connection.

I am privileged to have accumulated quite the ‘little black book’ over my career which I am looking forward to maximising for the good of the people of Kent and Hertfordshire.


Q What are your priorities?

A My key focus will be on delivering the Discover England Fund (DEF) projects and maximising the impact of major events. We lead on two DEF projects: Garden and Gourmet Trails, and Creative Coast.

These projects will develop exciting new itineraries, in partnership with businesses across Hertfordshire, Kent, Essex, Cheshire, Sussex and the Peak District.

We are hosting two major events in the coming years: the Turner Prize in 2019 and the Open Golf in 2020. Visit Kent will take the lead in delivering the tourism development plans for both of these major events.

I will also look to increase inbound tourism and overnight stays, and develop business tourism.


Q How many visitors a year come to Kent and Hertfordshire?

A Kent receives more 60 million and Hertfordshire has 25 million. VisitBritain forecast a 4.4% increase nationally for inbound visits in 2018, so the future looks bright in both destinations.


Q What does Go To Places do for destinations?

A Go To Places is an exciting new business model providing the opportunity for an experienced destination management organisation (DMO) to support destinations in developing their tourism strategy.

From providing expertise on planning and visitor insights, to website development and full destination management, we have the capability, capacity and experience to offer a range of services to destinations across the country.

We can offer thematic support, building on our experience leading major projects such as the DEF programmes, the Wine Garden of England and the Golf group.


Q How can you measure its success?

A Repeat business! We have been delighted that many destinations who have asked us to provide advice on destination planning have gone on to ask for support on developing microsites and business support.

The most important indicator is the growth of interest in destinations we have supported – we have seen exponential growth on social media channels and website traffic.


Q What are the future plans for Go To Places?

A Our key priority is delivering the two DEF projects and ensuring that they have a sustainable legacy.

We also want to use this tried and tested template to develop new, national thematic projects – film tourism, adventure – which all have huge appeal to visitors.

In the longer term, we want to expand our portfolio to offer support to other destinations.


Q What are the main challenges facing Kent and Herts?

A Many people are feeling the pinch as the economy faces uncertain times. Many attractions have reported a difficult year, particularly in the family market.

Our challenge will be to continue to champion the excellent value which our businesses offer and also to ensure that we maximise revenue.

Brexit offers a particular challenge for businesses in Kent as we will be in the frontline of any disruption at the ports.

We are developing a campaign to build business resilience and restore visitor numbers post-Brexit.


Q What are the opportunities?

A Research shows many customers are seeking experiences, a more bespoke and personalised itinerary, and the opportunity to ‘live like a local’.

Although our heritage offer is second to none and will always be a huge draw for domestic and international visitors alike, there can be a complacency that something which has stood for 900 years will always be there, so I will visit it ‘at some point’.

Providing Instagram-able experiences is also critical – we have found that our visitors can be our best marketeers, if you give them the opportunity to find those hidden gems.


Q What are the highlights for next year?

A Hosting the Turner Prize in 2019 will be a huge boost to Kent, bringing an estimated extra 250,000 visitors.

I am also hugely excited about the new £90 million expansion to the McArthur Glen Designer Outlet at Ashford and the £180 million re-development of Watford’s shopping area.


Q The Discover England Fund comes to an end next year – how do you think it has benefitted tourism?

A DEF has been a huge boost to English tourism at a time of real decline in public sector support for tourism at a local level. A real strength of the fund has been the focus on partnership working and a visitor-first approach.

DEF has enabled us to develop new product: we hope our Gardens and Gourmet trails will change forever international perceptions of our fabulous food and stunning countryside. Creative Coast allows us to align our world-class culture with our stunning landscape


Q What funding or support would you like to see next year when DEF ends?

A A DEF mark 2!  These projects have proven that there is an appetite from businesses, customers and tour operators for this type of activity.  It is a great model and one which we need to continue.


Deirdre Wells OBE:

Born and educated in Ireland, she studied French and German at university, then joined the UK Civil Service.

She was in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for 20 years, on a range of projects including the Millennium Dome, Liverpool Capital of Culture and the 2012 Olympic Games.

She led the team which organised national memorial services for the UK victims of 9/11, the Asian Tsunami, the Bali Bombings and London 7/7 attacks, and received an OBE for this work in 2007.

Her final post at DCMS was Head of Tourism, overseeing VisitEngland and VisitBritain.

In 2014 she became chief executive of UKinbound and lobbied for the interests of the industry.