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It’s been a rough 18 months for the UK government and economy following the Brexit vote in June 2016. Travel, however, has been a bright spot for the country despite the uncertain political climate.
August represented the strongest month ever for visitor spending across the UK, and the surge in travel shows no signs of slowing. The drop in currency value after Brexit has made the UK an affordable destination once again. There have been headwinds, however, namely an uptick in terrorism across the country in 2017.
Steve Ridgway, chairman of VisitBritain, thinks his organization needs to do more to ensure that travel is perceived as a power player among UK industries. He’s worked to push travel and tourism into the political spotlight with a white paper detailing the creation of new “tourism zones” to capture increased demand.
Skift spoke to Ridgway about navigating the uncertainty of the Brexit negotiations and marketing the variety of travel offerings across the UK.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Skift: What are your thoughts on how the Brexit negotiations have affected visitation to the UK in the last year? It seems like a surprising bit of good news for the industry.
Steve Ridgway: The main thing everyone thinks about in the UK at the moment is Brexit, and Britain in the European Union. Obviously that is a massive topic, and it’s massively complex and massively critical but life goes on in the meanwhile. There is huge inertia in the economy and one of the big success stories [is travel and tourism]. It’s driven by the fact that we have a more competitive exchange rate since the referendum, and it’s also driven by a lot of focus by the airlines on the amount and quality of air services going into the UK.
We are seeing really strong tourism numbers out of the U.S., both in volume and in value. The U.S. market was the largest tourism market into the UK and Europe for many years for lots of historical reasons. But nonetheless, those numbers fell off pretty dramatically at the outset of the [global recession] and everything that went with that, with the big financial crisis. The numbers for UK being highest previously at about four million visitors a year dropped back to about 2.7 million.
Then we saw that recover strongly, and this year, we’ve only got about two weeks or three weeks left but we are probably within a hair and may even achieve getting the U.S. visitors back to 4 million, which is fantastic. That is showing the attraction of the UK.
Skift: So tourism and business travel to the UK has continued to grow despite Brexit. But how do you deal with the uncertainty of the ongoing negotiations?
Ridgway: I think in some ways that uncertainty hasn’t gone away completely. I think there is emerging clarity, and we are in a particular nexus at the moment in the next week, but you have to believe that the UK is the second largest economy in Europe and neither the British nor the European Union are going to cut their noses off to spite their faces and will instead keep their relationship open.
So, it’s not going to be straightforward. We don’t all know the answers, but there is more and more work building up to resolve this now. Everybody is very determined. We want the closest relationship we can have with Europe and we also want to remain a very outward-looking country and economy as we have always been. We certainly always felt a very strong relationship with the U.S. that’s been there for a long, long time now hasn’t it?
We make sure that we are keeping the doors open and that people want to come to England. Tourism has been a big success story since the referendum. I admit that is due in large part by the exchange rate, but it’s also driven by other factors and the way that we are putting our story and our position together.
Skift: On that note, how do you position the UK as a business travel and meetings destination when the political situation is so uncertain?
Ridgway: It’s growing because again the value of our position is very strong there. There are more facilities opening in the UK all the time. It’s not just the big well-known conference centers in London, Edinburgh. There are lots of business centers, and actually Visit Britain has got its brief back from the government to promote it. And it’s been a very important part of post-Brexit Britain because business is an important way of promoting an economy and getting people to come do business with you. It’s something very much on our agenda in terms of growing the value of that.
Skift: Have there been any changes in who is coming due to the lower cost or is it still a very wide mix?
Ridgway: Lots more Americans are coming.
Skift: Right. Yeah, we’re cheap.
Ridgway: And Canadians, and Australians, and Chinese, and India, and Europeans. Europe is the biggest inbound market to the UK, which you can logically understand, and that’s again a very important focus for us to make sure that whatever goes on with Brexit doesn’t change sentiment or views about a tourist coming to Britain. Equally, tourists from Britain going to Europe. I think the value proposition is certainly working across those major markets.
Skift: As the Brexit talks reach a conclusion, what are you most concerned about?
Ridgway: I think we all want clarity and the best outcome for the Brexit negotiations that we can get. Exchange rates do change and fluctuate quite frequently, so we need to be aware and ready for that. There’s a constant vigilance around terrorism and things, and that’s down to all the work that goes on with the security services around the insurgents striking, to practical pragmatic measures about who is actually let in and out. How we manage the street and the attractions and handle all the security forces.
Skift: You’ve introduced a new plan for tourism to have a higher profile among UK industries. Why is this so important right now?
Ridgway: What should we be doing to make sure Britain is a dynamic open economy, and that we’re backing winning sectors as we go to Brexit and post-Brexit?
That’s what they’re calling their modern industrial strategy. They are really undertaking the sitdown with sectors of industry and make sure the government is not [opposed] to progress, development, and [areas] where they can develop new positive policy, or remove unrealistic legislation, restrictions, and regulations. It’s also to make sure the industry has a bright future with some of the agencies around research and development, investment and technology and things like that. That’s happening across a wide variety of sectors and we believe that tourism should very much be a part of that, because tourism is inadvertently 10 percent of the UK GDP.
Skift: The variety of stakeholders across the travel industry must make reaching a policy consensus hard, though.
Ridgway: That’s the challenge here. The example I cite most of the time is the automotive industry. That one is very simple, because we really got five automotive companies in the UK now. You get five CEOs together and they can very quickly align around ultra low emission vehicles or the development of electric clean vehicles.
It’s much harder with tourism, but the flip side of that is employing people all over the country. There’s lots of different aspects of it from travel, to rails, to hotels, to restaurants, to attractions, whatever it might be. This is a powerhouse in its own right and we’ve just got to bang on with these messages and get those key statistics out; I think we’ve been bad at that. I think we’ve been bad at saying inbound tourism is a massive export. Tourism is the fourth largest export in the UK economy.
Skift: How has this all affected your organization’s marketing strategy going forward?
Ridgway: There is the digital world, and digital platforms enable us to do that in a way that we couldn’t do before, because it was just so expensive to target and communicate those things whereas you can be very granular now about that.
One particular thing we’ve done is the UK government created a fund about two-and-a-half years ago, about 60 million dollars for the Discover England Fund. That was put together packages and combinations of products that maybe couldn’t be found very easily and couldn’t be accessed by tourists. A lot of these projects are coming together now and proving very exciting and that’s all a part of this: getting the story out about the number of things you can do and the way you can do them.
The very coastal scenery with some of the seaside towns with all the great restaurants and the fishing and all the new boutique and bed and breakfasts. All the great little products and the features that are there that weren’t adequately marketed, which can now be in a digital world.
Skift: You’ve been on the VisitBritain board for years, but took over the chairman role earlier this year. What has that been like, and what do you have planned for the future of VisitBritain?
Ridgway: My quest all the time is really for the team to make sure the board is functioning well and really engaged with what Visit Britain and Visit England are doing, and challenging the team.
Also, making sure that we are making this migration to a changing world. It’s a changing world around how we all communicate, market, get to our customers, and how one country competes for tourists versus another. It’s not like it’s a one stop shop is it? It’s a brutal competition between getting people to go to Italy, or France, or Germany, or the Far East, wherever it might be. We are in a competitive game, just the same as hotels and airlines. I’m very mindful of that.
Then I’ve been particularly focused around this industrial strategy because I think getting tourism in there being recognized as an important sector and really having the ear of government. We are, so far, pleased with what we achieved.
We haven’t necessarily landed it as a slam dunk, but I think we are close. I think if we do, it will be great for the industry and everybody will continue to cooperate and keep badgering the government about how important travel is.