VisitBritain CEO Sally Balcombe.

Promotional image from VisitBritain’s Countryside Collection campaign.


VisitBritain’s CEO Sally Balcombe will speak about marketing destinations to next generation consumers at the Skift Global Forum on October 14 and 15 in Brooklyn, New York. See the complete list of amazing speakers and topics at this year’s event.

VisitBritain is responsible for promoting travel to England, Scotland, and Wales, but it needs to do that in new ways to remain relevant for younger, digital-savvy audiences keen on exploring areas outside London and Edinburgh, especially.

The biggest development is the new VisitBritain.com website launching in October, which will have more of a storytelling delivery and more robust content highlighting local experiences in the countryside and second-tier cities.

That is representative of the shift among destination marketing organizations into something more resembling travel media companies, where the priority is the end user experience and user interface versus a billboard for destination partners.

The new website will also showcase a growing roster of travel influencers, travel sector-specific experts, and other outside content creators who can engage their own audiences to share Britain’s travel experiences in a more authentic and organic manner.

Looking ahead to 2016, VisitBritain is going to begin promoting the region’s vast meetings and conventions sector. Previously, the organization believed that the individual cities and convention centers were best suited for that role. However, with increasing competition especially in the association market, and the booming convention district development in places like Manchester and Liverpool, there’s considerable opportunity to grow market share with the additional promotional efforts the national DMO can provide.

VisitBritain’s CEO Sally Balcombe oversees the organization’s repositioning of the destination brand and the shift toward more digital content targeting the next generation consumer, but she hesitates to call Great Britain a mature brand overall.

“Are we a mature brand?” she asks. “I think there are large parts of Britain that are not well known, that are not a mature brand in many people’s minds, including American minds. Americans do know Britain, do love the Brits, and we love you, but I think there’s a huge amount of the brand and the product that we’ve got that is not known and is potentially new and exciting.”

Following is our conversation with Balcombe about the future of VisitBritain and her vision for reinvigorating the (occasionally) mature destination brand.

Skift: How is Great Britain a mature brand and how is it not?

Sally Balcombe: I think that what a lot of people know is they know London. Currently, depending on which statistics you look at, London is the most visited city in the world. It’s a huge brand in its own right, but of course, we’re here to speak for the whole of Britain. I think there’s a debate about whether we’re a mature brand, but I think you’re right to pose the question. In some people’s minds, we might be quite familiar. In some people’s minds, we can bring you that sort of sense of coziness and tradition, and I think it’s right to challenge that.

I think, again, my response would be there are lots of audiences that are not familiar with us, and our job is to keep reminding both the people who think they know us and the people who don’t know us that there’s a huge amount to do and to see, particularly beyond London. So we’re all about revitalizing the brand. We’re always thinking about being very customer-centric and thinking about what existing customers would like to come back and see.

Skift: What are some of the more popular destinations seeing growth over the last few years in Britain?

Balcombe: Last year, we had a record year. The year before, we had a record year. We have broken all of our previous targets. We had 34.4 million international visitors last year coming into the UK. That was a 5% increase on the previous year, which set a record in its own right. Overall, Britain is growing. Britain is doing incredibly well in terms of tourism and in terms of how much tourists spend, so that’s fantastic for us. London still continues to dominate, but, interestingly, although London grew by about 4% last year, it’s some of the places out of London that grew faster.

We saw big growth in Scotland. Scotland is doing extremely well. I think it’s a brand that people kind of understand, and it’s got a particular appeal around the golf, the whisky, the kilts, and the sheer Scottish energy. Yorkshire, which is in the northern part of the UK, is doing incredibly well. That was boosted by the fact that they have something called the Grand Start of the Tour de France there. It looked spectacular, and we saw some 13% growth in Yorkshire. I think it was about 7% in Wales. So everywhere is starting to show good growth.

Skift: How are your visitor demographics evolving in terms of age and source markets?

Balcombe: What we’re doing is, in fact, we’re moving away from looking at people just in terms of age or demographics. We’ve just done a huge model around psychographics. We’re looking at what people are interested in, what their passions are, what their behavioral elements are rather than just age or income. In that, in the USA, you might think we might target the Millennials, for example, but in fact, what we’re trying to do is say, “What are the characteristics that people associate with Millennials?” They’re kind of forward-looking. They are interested in the digital world. They’re interested in experiencing things. We call them the “look at me” traveler. Then, we look at those characteristics across all ages.

It’s interesting. Our average age of that group of the people who want to do cutting-edge things is 43, which is not what you would think, but they are the ones who want to get up and do stuff. What we’re seeing is we’re looking at people differently, and what we’re seeing is that they want to experience things rather than look at things.

In terms of source markets, USA is still our most important market, our most valuable market. Europe provides us with the greatest volume, but what’s changing clearly, places like China, India and South America are all growing. We have seen a decline in the U.S., but we have recently seen a reversal of that, and we’ve come back to growing your market.

Skift: Okay, let’s look at those last few questions. First, you’re saying there are regions in Britain that you don’t consider mature markets, and which U.S. consumers don’t know well. Second, you’re shifting your targeting strategy more toward consumer psychographic behaviors. So how are you adapting your messaging and promotions to be more aligned with those two themes?

Balcombe: Yeah, that’s a great question. What we are trying to do is, once we’ve identified those audiences and their interests, instead of trying to be a classic national tourist board where we’re in broadcast mode, and we’re pushing things out to people, we are trying to be part of the conversation. So now, we’re providing the kind of content, the kind of information that is driven by the customers’ interests. We are trying to get it to them in the way they want, when they want.

In the U.S., that’s largely digital. We are clearly using customer psychographics to understand what these customers want. We listen to them through all sorts of social media. Then we try and personalize or bespoke the information tailored to that kind of set of interests. We use a huge amount of user-generated content because the most powerful form of marketing to a large number of these groups is advocacy. If people have had great experiences and there’s all of these great videos, all the great bits of things, we try to be part of that conversation and get that content in front of people when they want to have the conversation about where they might go.

Of course, to your point, we tailor that toward regions that consumers don’t know. A lot of Americans would know, for example, London and Scotland, but they may not know Yorkshire, or they may not know the Lake District. Most importantly, we try and align our conversations with our visitors’ interests. We’re very much trying to be not in push or broadcast mode but in engaged mode, where we help and support customers trying to find what they want. It’s much more moved away from a defined to a more engaged kind of strategy.

Skift: Can you touch on any specific successful campaigns that have promoted some of the lesser known destinations and were aligned with specific consumer psychographics?

Balcombe: We did a great campaign with Expedia called our Storybook campaign. It’s the first time we had both brought on such a large-scale, branded destination campaign. What we did there is we really thought about parts of Britain that people knew but also that they didn’t know. We tried to make it much more creative, and in this case, we were targeting a different kind of family audience. Very often when people think of the UK, they think perhaps of a mature audience that likes to go to London for the theater or museums or culture. This was about audiences seeking castles and kings and queens, and thinking about the interests of the children, and the alignment of psychographics for that kind of audience.

We’ve also thought very hard about the “look at me” traveler, the Millennials, and other people who want to be doing things rather than seeing things — the experiential group. We’ve done a huge campaign, which is still live and will go on for the next two years, called Countryside, and it’s great. It’s all about promoting the idea of the British countryside to an audience that doesn’t just want to go and look at a castle or be shown history, but actually want to go in and live, breathe, immerse in the culture. Basically they want to have experiences, and we want to change their perception about the experiences that they can have and what it’s really like.

A lot of this was delivered through targeted social media, and we used a huge number of influencers in this campaign. It’s about not we as VisitBritain talking at these groups, but actually getting people that they respect to talk to their audiences about what it’s really like, so they then come over here and experience stuff. We didn’t control them. They were out on the road doing stuff and sharing stuff, so that’s a very different type of campaign. That is, we looked at their interests and developed that: the food, the drink, the immersion, getting involved in the culture, extreme sports, or just going to a pub. Then we engaged with them through influencers who have been there and done it, rather than the national tourist board saying, “Come. In Britain, you can do this.”

Skift: Is there any internal conversation at VisitBritain about this emerging shift among DMOs from a marketing and sales platform to more of a travel media company?

Balcombe: Yes, most definitely. We do think of being, certainly, media in the sense of really being in the content game. The shift is that we don’t think at all about building VisitBritain.com or VisitBritain and the brand. What it’s about is curating and finding the best possible content, some of which we create, but some of which we will curate to other people. It’s about really getting that out in the landscape with all sorts of players so we can be a media and content provider in a different way, rather than it be all about us. We would like to change the conversation that it’s not about driving traffic to us. I’m interested in how we engage with customers in the whole media landscape and partner with whoever is going to be having the conversations that are going to interest the kind of customers we want, and use every channel possible to do that.

It’s not about us just creating campaigns or just us doing marketing initiatives. It’s about us having a much broader conversation in the media space, particularly around content, sharing, partnering, and innovation. What I’m trying to say is that there’s some line shifts going on here in how we think we should play across this whole landscape.

Skift: What can you tell us about your new website under development?

Balcombe: Yes, we’re re-platforming, and we’re building a whole raft of new websites, which will be launched in October. The whole thing is clearly optimized, smart and customizable. It’s going to serve as a sort of content storytelling hub for our audience so that we can create content. We will curate content pulling from all sorts of other places. I talked earlier about our desire to distribute information in a dynamic way that serves audiences. We’re building all of the capabilities to do this with a mobile API and lots of social platforms so that we can really play where we want to play.

In terms of our strategy, we are really interested in a lot of the social channels, particularly in the United States. I’ve talked about working with influencers in the different communities, which we’d like to do more and more. We are looking at boosting our video creation and curation so that we can really play more actively in that space. Another thing is probably in line with a lot of what other people are doing, but we want to be leading edge. We want to be bigger and smarter in this space. We absolutely want to be, as I say, playing where the customers are playing and not expecting them to come to us.

So we’re building on our ability to integrate content, our ability to distribute, our ability to think in a social space, our ability to be more of a newsroom and part of a conversation rather than pushing stuff out. That may not be completely revolutionary, but for a national tourist office, it’s pretty revolutionary.

Skift: Can you tell us anything about your pending plans to promote meetings and events more in Britain?

Balcombe: Up until recently, that was not something that we were responsible for. It was a sector of the market that we had been in historically, but we pulled out of it a number of years ago. That was because of the feeling that, actually, it was more of a kind of city-based thing because the big corporate and conventions tend to be bids for specific cities who’ve got big corporate conference and convention centers, and who have big event teams. We’re going to support them, but it’s not something that we actively promote in terms of campaigns.

Interestingly, the government has just asked us to go back into this space, so what I can say is it’s something I’m going to have to now think about as we move forward, and we’re just beginning to develop our own strategies. That’s where we are.

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Photo Credit: Promotional image from VisitBritain's Countryside Collection campaign. VisitBritain