Later this summer the Government will unveil its strategy for the future of British tourism. Promised by culture secretary Chris Smith in December, it will be tourism minister Tom Clarke who will have the task of implementing what is designed to boost both Britain’s domestic and overseas tourism.
But last week the English Tourist Board (ETB), which relies on the Government for the bulk of its funding, seemed to give a clear signal of the direction in which Messrs Smith and Clarke are moving.
It emerged that the English Tourist Board’s marketing department is demerging from the British Tourist Authority (MW May 14) and recruiting a communications director specifically for the ETB with responsibility for marketing, PR and co-ordinating efforts to promote England.
In itself, the move does not seem so significant. It could be dismissed as the petty politicking of a statutory body. But the ETB would not have hived off its marketing arm from the British body, at most two months before Clarke’s announcement, if it did not believe that the Government is preparing to remove restrictions on promoting England overseas.
It seems amazing but under 30-year-old legislation the ETB cannot promote England as a tourist destination overseas. The regional bodies, including the Yorkshire Tourist Board and the West Country Tourist Board can, the BTA does, but the body specifically established to promote England cannot do its job directly outside the UK.
Last week’s move suggests that situation is about to change. It will require an amendment to the 1969 Development of Tourism Act. But similar amendments in the Eighties and Nineties have allowed the ETB’s Scottish and Welsh counterparts to market themselves overseas.
It will also require additional central Government funding or at least a redistribution of the money which is presently set aside to attract tourists.
If the law is changed, and the ETB is clearly lobbying and preparing for that day, the big question will be how will England be marketed in the 21st century? Will there still be images of monarchy, Diana and the changing of the guard? Or will there be pressure to promote a more vibrant contemporary England to reflect its multi-culturalism and the creative industries which have given rise to the much hyped “cool Britannia” phenomenon?
Top of the new communications department agenda will be implementation of proposals made in last year’s Agenda 2000 survey, conducted to establish the role of the ETB in the changing world of tourism. The proposals were crystallised into the equally snappily titled Action 2000, the ETB’s blueprint for the future, which was unveiled in January.
The main points of Action 2000 are: to promote England effectively to domestic consumers; to improve communication with the industry as a whole; improve market and product research; build on the
Government’s New Deal scheme and promote coherent plans for employers in the tourism industry. It is also implementing a new harmonised rating system with the AA and RAC.
At the time ETB chairman David Quarmby said: “With so much that needs to be accomplished in the tourism industry, our most difficult task has been to prioritise activities, especially given our limited resources.”
The research document found that the industry was looking to the ETB to provide strong leadership and direction, be more active in its communications and be a clear voice for tourism in government. But it appears to have decided that the first priority should be to hive off its marketing.
The board is currently looking at a number of initiatives, including creating a separate brochure specifically for England, as well as an England Web page.
The theory is that the communications department will also be in a position to lobby more effectively for structural changes and increased funding for the ETB which, ironically finds itself a poor relation to its Welsh and Scottish counterparts.
The ETB was the only one of the three country boards to have its central Government funding – through the Department of Culture Media & Sport – reduced this year from 10m in 1996/97 to 9.9m. Of that 9.9m, about half goes to the regional tourist boards.
Scotland, on the other hand, received 19.3m, an increase of 900,000 on its 1996/7 budget and Wales has maintained its funding at 14.7m over the past three years – obviously both have also voted for independent assemblies in the past 12 months. Both Scotland and Wales have conducted high profile campaigns in the UK and overseas, developing their countries as brands. On top of that, the BTA received 35m to fund its activities, including 40 offices worldwide.
“I think we are missing a trick in not marketing England as a brand,” says Ken Robinson, chairman of the Tourism Society which represents a range of interested parties. “Ninety per cent of the value of British tourism (domestic and overseas) comes through England. There is an enormous void in the strength of the tourism product because England is not better promoted. We could be missing an opportunity.
“The fact that England represents a great diversity of regions doesn’t mean to say that it should not be promoted. No one would argue, for example that Brittany isn’t different to the South of France and yet France is promoted as a brand,” says Robinson.
One senior source says that the ETB still has a big job on its hands in marketing England as a holiday destination to the English. “The domestic holiday market has changed beyond all recognition compared with a generation ago. Accommodation has improved beyond measure. But the ETB has a huge re-education job on its hands and the marketing challenge is to get people to try England again. The funding for the ETB is currently too small for it to do that – probably a hangover from the feeling that England did not need to be marketed.”
One suggestion is that the ETB should concentrate on developing particular initiatives across the country, such as joint promotions with the train companies.
Third party operations with the train companies to promote seaside destinations, for instance, mirror what was going on in the early part of the century as shown on this week’s cover of Marketing Week – a scene based on a 1908 poster for Skegness created by the LNER railway company.
What is really needed is a strong central voice to run strategic England-wide initiatives. “The idea was to have less fragmentation and the scope to have a more cohesive campaign for England. There is an continual debate and it is a great marketing challenge,” says a source.
Robinson argues that as more authority is devolved to the regions, the industry will become increasingly fragmented and there is a danger that England the brand will be lost. By this time next year, nine regional development agencies could be operating, the first step on the road to regional devolution. While it is unclear how the establishment of these agencies will affect the regional tourist boards, they will definitely have an influence on regional tourism strategies.
But is there really any mileage in an English brand and does the ETB really need to market itself more effectively?
According to the ETB, between 80 and 85 per cent of the 40bn spent in the UK on tourism last year, both domestic and overseas, is in England, according to the BTA. Some see this as a testimony to the BTA’s success in marketing England overseas and the regional boards work both in the UK and abroad. Therefore there is an argument against changing either funding or structure.
Other tourism sources say the Treasury does not believe that money going to England, to promote England, is a productive use of funds. Some feel, on the other hand, that without a specific office arguing its case the ETB’s voice has gone unheard in the past, unlike the Welsh and Scottish tourist board which have their government offices behind them.
While the ETB is coy about its future role, it will have a more single-minded focus. The Government’s strategy document will look at three key areas: trends in domestic tourism; improving quality and sorting out customer care levels; and developing Britain’s image as a tourist destination for the overseas market.
“We need people to focus on one thing rather than looking in two directions,” says Elaine Noble, operations director ETB. “The idea is to create a development strategy centralised through the ETB.
“Our role will be to co-ordinate and develop activities from a central point and we will have more of a focus as a separate department than before. What we want to do is bring together the diversity under one umbrella. The fact that the activities of different parties such as the regional tourist boards are currently very separate is a big issue.”
One source close to the BTA says the question people will ask is whether the ETB, in its new capacity, will be able to have an impact. “What we’d like to see is a catalysing and seed corning effect. That is, I see the ETB’s role as a catalyst to get national marketing in place.
“For example co-ordinating a series of nationwide promotional initiatives to help regenerate seaside resorts. However, what is needed is central co-ordination, conviction and agreement and it will also need a strong voice.”
This will be no mean task. “The relationship between the regional tourist boards and the ETB has always, shall we say, been a challenging one,” says Adele Biss, who was chairman of the BTA and ETB for three years until July 1996 and who now chairs PR consultant AS Biss & Company. “There has always been the difficulty of reconciling sometimes common and sometimes divergent interests.”
Tourism is one of Britain’s largest industries. Whether the ETB will be a major force in shaping Britain’s tourism in the next ten years will be heavily dependent on funding decisions by this Government. But re-educating the English to holiday in England, and reconciling the different agenda of a fragmented industry, will be difficult no matter how much money is thrown at it.