Destination unknown

Many have praised the strength of the VisitBritain brand, but others accuse the organisation of lacking focus because its remit overlaps other UK tourism bodies. Matthew Gorman reports

VisitBritain is launching a code of practice for the country’s visitor attractions and from next year says it will not promote attractions that have failed to sign up to its charter (MW last week). It is the latest initiative from the tourism agency tasked with promoting the UK as a holiday destination at home and abroad.

Having suffered a downturn in tourism and visitor numbers following foot-and-mouth and September 11 attacks in 2001, and the July 7 London bombings in 2005, UK tourism appears to be on the rise once more. According to VisitBritain, in 2006 32.1 million overseas visitors came to the UK, spending £15.4bn, meaning a 7% increase in visitors and an 8% increase in spend compared with 2005.

The figures are encouraging, but many wonder whether the rise is due to VisitBritain’s marketing of the UK as a tourist destination, or merely the result of US tourists returning to the UK as fear of terrorist attacks has subsided a little. And effectiveness of the organisation, created in April 2003 to market both Britain and England following the merger of the British Tourism Authority and England Tourism Council, has been questioned as it has been accused of lacking focus.

Since devolution, Wales and Scotland promote themselves through their respective VisitWales and VisitScotland organisations. The capital has VisitLondon, leaving England in the hands of Visit-Britain through its Enjoy England brand. It is a structure that is causing confusion according to some experts.

Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, believes the agency is at a crossroads as devolution, in effect, created separate tourist authorities. “You need to question whether you still need a tourist authority for Britain like that because it now presents a marketing challenge,” he says.

Cotton believes the organisational triangle should be reversed with London, England, Scotland and Wales at the top of the pyramid, feeding into VisitBritain as and when they need to. “It does not have a detailed enough brief about what it’s for. It suffers from a lack of focus and a real role,” he says. “What is the role of VisitBritain?”Keith Betton, a travel industry consultant and former head of corporate affairs at ABTA, agrees the overlapping of tourist boards in the UK is confusing and the structure could benefit if England had its own standalone VisitEngland agency.

“VisitBritain doesn’t have a clear brief,” he says. “Other countries have a clearer understanding of what they are doing and they have just one single organisation. The UK’s has a reputation for being confusing,” he adds. Just as confusing, say some observers, is its agency structure. Being a government-funded body, the bulk of its marketing is through COI and its agencies. It also retains its own roster of agencies, with Farm handling some creative, while Carat handles TV buying and MediaCom is rostered for planning duties.

Elliot Frisby, corporate PR manager at VisitBritain, disagrees: “We don’t believe that our dual remit is confusing. Our domestic responsibilities under the Enjoy England consumer brand are undertaken by a clearly defined England marketing division within VisitBritain, with dedicated staff and ringfenced funding. This allows us to offer best value to industry and strategic partners and the greatest return on the public money invested.

“Led by our England Marketing Advisory Board, which ensures the different elements of our industry have a voice at the national level, the Partners for England initiative this week also provides greater cohesion and helps reduce the fragmentation that is a real issue for Britain’s tourism industry.”

VisitBritain is funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport through a three-year funding agreement and, according to Cotton, spends about £10m promoting England, an amount he says is relatively small to market the biggest region in the UK, and one that caters to 80% of the domestic tourist market. “You mustn’t forget it’s an arm of Government,” he says. The funding arrangements mean the tourism body cannot always do what it wants, according to Cotton, such as lobby against the increase in the cost of visas to the UK, which he says VisitBritain was against. “It never seems to get enough funding,” Betton adds.

VisitBritain recently announced plans to axe 55 jobs globally as part of a restructure, mostly in the publishing department following a 82% drop in the agency’s print requirements. It is, however, creating ten new jobs.

Betton believes the Government should put more emphasis on tourism and place the same importance on the industry as other countries. “In Britain, if you ask people who the tourism minister is they would not be able to tell you. In other countries the post is a prominent position. We have someone here but he has no real power.”

Yet despite the overlapping remits of the various tourist boards and the confusion it can cause, the VisitBritain brand has been praised by many. It also offers brands the opportunity to enter co-branded initiatives and the chance to piggy-back marketing campaigns. Betton says: “The brand is very good. Before you had VisitBritain you had the British Tourist Authority, which always had an image of being rather stuffy. At times it seemed like a committee. Now it’s a rather good brand with good people.”

Frances Tuke, PR manager at ABTA, says: “The brand is very successful. The ‘Visit’ tag says what it does clearly. You can’t mistake it. The biggest problem you have is all the little regions and counties with their own offer. It seems like they are trying to reinvent the wheel. From an outsider’s point of view, it does seem confusing.”

Graham Hales, chief communications officer at InterBrand, says: “The name is good but the identity could do with a refresh. When you look at the website it doesn’t have much depth, it doesn’t feel like it has much to say.” He believes the name provides a good starting point for people who only know they want to come to the UK, but says tools such as the agency’s website need to clarify exactly what VisitBritain can do.

The name, however, can cause confusion adds Hales, given the autonomous nature of VisitScotland, Wales and London. “It feels like it should be top of the pile and then the others underneath,” he says.

Until VisitBritain is clearly defined in the public’s mind it seems people will continue to question exactly what it is for.

Facts and figures

VisitBritain 

  • VisitBritain was created in 2003 following the merger of the British Tourism Authority and England Tourism Council 
  • The agency has representatives in 36 countries around the world, and in the past three years has expanded into China, Eastern Europe, South East Asia. It has also increased its presence in India 
  • 32.1 million people visited Britain in 2006, up 7% on 2005, spending £15.4bn in the UK 
  • VisitBritain is a non-departmental public body funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

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