British tourism needs culture change not marketing wizardry

Labour needs more than a lot of ‘fried air’ to improve our dodgy transport system, poor hotels and slack service industry, says George Pitcher. George Pitcher is joint managing director of media consultancy Luther Pendrago

If I had to provide a definition of a tourist, I might suggest that it is someone who wants to get out of Britain. The point being that, if you’re a British holidaymaker, you will want to go elsewhere and, if you’re a foreign visitor, you will wish you were elsewhere.

Now, this is the sort of Britain-bashing comment that attracts the pious censure of our various tourist boards. I will be admonished sternly to the effect that UK tourism plc is a 37bn industry; that for each 1 invested by the British Tourist Board in attracting visitors from overseas, there is a return of 27; that tourism and hospitality in the UK generate 11.6 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 11.7 per cent of employment; that Britain is Europe’s biggest tourist attraction and that the equivalent of the entire population of Guadeloupe queues on a weekly basis to visit Buckingham Palace.

Yet perception is all and I know that I am far from alone in believing that our transport is dirty and inefficient (the embarrassment of belting by train at 180 mph-plus through France only to grind to a snail’s pace in suburban Kent persists); our hotels are over-priced and under-serviced and the weather is nothing to write home about.

Granted, we can’t do much about the last factor, short of making God chairman of the British Tourist Board. But, if anything, that should focus our attentions more sharply on doing something about the other factors.

Shadow Heritage Secretary Jack Cunningham, at the World Travel Market exhibition at Earls Court on Monday, launched Labour’s proposed tourism policy, in a document called Breaking New Ground.

As one might expect, Cunningham uses the state of British tourism for party political effect, accusing the Government of neglecting our tourism and leisure industries: “Sadly the figures underline that neglect. Meanwhile, our competitors increased their receipts from international tourism by an average 12.7 per cent in the decade 1984 to1994. Britain’s share grew by 8.7 per cent in the same period.”

All well and good – but what would Labour do about these industries? Cunningham commits a future Labour government to a strategy based on six aims: a positive approach from government for the industry; marketing Britain overseas; marketing Britain at home; improving the quality of the product; jobs, training and investment in people; protecting the environment.

In redrafting the Development of Tourism Act, 1969, Cunningham claims his government would update tourism structures; enhance standards in service and provision; introduce co-ordinated mechanisms for overseas tourism marketing; and encourage partnerships between local authorities, tourist boards and the private sector.

A lot of this is what an Italian cousin of mine would describe as “fried air”. What, for example, does “a positive approach from government” mean exactly? According to the Labour document, it means “re-opening avenues of communication” between government and tourism trade bodies.

It would be nice if it meant something rather more tangible. Perhaps ministers in a future Labour government could commit to lushing it up at the London Ritz, rather than the one in Paris. And there is much other “fried air” besides, but I won’t labour the point.

However, there are encouraging noises. Note “improving the quality of the product” and the enhancement of “standards of service and provision”. These are issues that have long been a British joke, albeit an extremely unfunny one. Let this general statement suffice: we have no good mid-range hotels of the type so successfully developed in the US, where decently-sized, comfortable – if unremarkable – rooms are marketed to those who are not on a luxury budget. Nor do we have a service culture that permeates any lower than absurdly premium-priced hotels aimed at the corporate, rather than the tourist, guest.

And I’m not sure where any of these things are going to come from. Granada now owns Forte and, courtesy of the weekend press, has let it be known that it will break up its chain of Exclusive hotels on a piecemeal basis, by way of treating its 4bn-odd debt problem. Queens Moat Houses, under the re-invigorative hand of chief executive Andrew Coppel, can offer the Moat House patron only a fairly austere experience. The Savoy Group, post-Forte, could feel the chill hand of Granada at the most extremely expensive end of the London market. Lonrho’s Metropole has now shed its Libyan connection and is under the wing of Stakis and the Bass-owned Holiday Inns are an altogether different experience from their US counterparts.

Perhaps Rocco Forte will return to the fray with a solution. But the point here, Dr Cunningham, is that this is not a political issue, nor an industrial problem that can be solved by political intervention. It is a cultural problem that is partly to do with the divisiveness of British society and partly to do with a paucity of quality British management in the British hotel and catering industries.

Try as we might, we don’t even have an embryonic service culture in these industries at anything other than the most expensive end of the market. Admittedly, that presents an opportunity. Those who manage, serve and stay in British hotels are, I suppose, stakeholders in them and will consequently be encouraged by Cunningham’s words. However, I doubt that much will change without the will and ability to effect such change.

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