Little Britain fails to get the Big Picture

So VisitBritain, the umbrella marketing platform of UK tourism, has failed in its bid to run a global TV advertising campaign whipping up visitor enthusiasm prior to the 2012 Olympics (MW October 18). Whatever next? Will the tourist industry collapse as a result?

You’d certainly think so to hear the pitiful wailing that has greeted the Government’s decision to cut VisitBritain’s budget 18% by 2010 – effectively putting paid to its ambitious advertising initiative.

Admittedly this decision by new culture secretary James Purnell is not exactly marketing friendly. And yet, when we look at the broader picture (and isn’t that what he’s paid to do?), it’s possible to feel a degree of sympathy with the DCMS agenda. Purnell, and presumably the rest of the cabinet, have taken the view that attracting tourists to Olympian Britain is going to take more than some marcoms gloss. Horror of horrors, they have belatedly been converted to the idea that money needs to be channelled to our crumbling infrastructure and cultural heritage – the underlying capital on which any marketing strategy must rely if it is to carry conviction.

The fact is the Olympics are already sucking in huge discretionary resources (ask Londoners, or for that matter the Arts Council – which is likely to lose some of its traditional Lottery allocation as a result). Do the games really need more support, in the form of a global advertising campaign? They should, surely, be able to create their own tourism dividend without further help from the tourist industry’s marketing budget.

Even so, the British tourism industry has every justification for being angry with government mishandling of taxpayers’ money, though for a slightly different reason. Stephen Dowd, chief executive of Inbound Tourism, aptly sums up the grief: the Government has wasted millions of pounds since 1997 subsidising a complex but unworkable system of separate regional development agencies.

Several things are wrong with these RDAs. For one thing, they lack transparency and are not properly held to account for the way in which they spend money. It is as likely their funds will end up uprating “vital” public conveniences as supporting the cultural or topographical amenities of the region over which they preside.

Just as importantly, there are too many of them. In addition to separate units serving the Celtic fringe of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are nine individual RDAs covering England, where before it had a single organisation, the English Tourist Board.

Managing a co-ordinated tourism strategy must be a nightmare. But the problem is worse than that. To the extent that RDAs pander to regional sensibilities they also dilute the main brand’s focus (not to mention diverting financial support from it). Fascinating though some Roman villa in Gloucestershire or art gallery in Whitby may be, they are unlikely to wow the nouveau riche of Shanghai or Bangalore as they contemplate their first holiday abroad.

Purnell’s decision to review thoroughly the way UK tourism promotes itself comes not a moment too soon. The outcome of this review, rather than an 18% budget cut, is what should concern VisitBritain.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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