With the re-opening of the railway line at Dawlish having given a boost to the Westcountry’s tourism sector this Easter holidays, business editor Liz Parks talks to Visit England chief executive James Berresford about prospects for the season ahead
Q) How much impact has the damage to the railway line at Dawlish had on the South West’s tourism industry?
A) Clearly the early school holiday period, which is an important kick off point for the region, was badly affected. We have all responded very quickly with the ‘business as usual’ message but when you’ve lost the bed, you don’t get it back again so I’m afraid we’re starting from the behind the curve to start the season. Anecdotal evidence is that with spring coming businesses are beginning to pick up and we’re putting that message across loud and clear at the moment. The South West is a great place to visit and we will keep on with that message through our marketing campaigns. Tourism is a really resilient industry and businesses in the South West are really resilient. They are full of character and I admire that.
Q) How can tourism businesses themselves help with this message?
A) In this day and age of social media it’s easier for business to reach the consumer. I would merely advise that there is a consistency of message. The South West is a great destination with a lot to see, a lot to do and high customer satisfaction levels. Individual businesses need to make sure that that message is communicated to their contacts. Having said that, there are a number of excellent destination management organisations from Visit Bristol to Visit Cornwall and Visit Devon and I would urge businesses to stay close to them so that they enjoy the collective muscle of those marketing organisations.
Q) Looking ahead to the rest of this year and beyond, what are the main opportunities for tourism?
A) One of the strengths of the South West is its distinctive nature. We do quite a lot of research at Visit England into what visitors like and we know that one of the real strengths of the South West is that it is distinctive and it is different and in this day and age with a lot of marketing messages being transmitted from resorts and destinations around the world, what the South West must do is to make sure that the distinctive nature of the product is adequately communicated. There are a whole range of events and activities taking place, things like the Tall Ships regatta (in Falmouth this August), things like that are literally flagship events which give the consumer a reason to come to the South West. I’m a big believer in an active events campaign which will set you apart from other places.
Q) Presumably, timing is key in order to take advantage of things like Tall Ships and next year’s Rugby World Cup matches in Exeter?
A) The Rugby World Cup is a big ticket item for the South West and I’m delighted that it’s coming to Exeter. We’re working very closely with the Rugby World Cup because this is an opportunity to get high spending visitors over to England for a considerable period of time. Things like that do take a lot of lead in time. If businesses work with event organisers then let’s hope we can fill those beds. Having said that, there is a trend for the consumer today to make last minute bookings so don’t underestimate the ability of the consumer to make a booking at the last minute.
Q) Now that the Dawlish line is open again, how do you think that the rest of the season will pan out?
A) It’s a disappointment when you have a set back at the beginning of the year. You can’t get a bed back once it’s been sold. Once that booking has been lost, it’s lost. Anecdotally at least, it looks like there’s a cautious optimism for the season. I’m convinced that the staycation phenomena is still with us. What I think people have discovered is what an excellent visitor product we have in this country, particularly in the Westcountry. I feel confident that the growth we’re seeing will stay. As the economy continues to improve it may be that there is a trend for people to take more exotic holidays – we can probably expect that – but I remain confident that the market is still there for short breaks.
Q) Traditionally, the South West’s reputation as a tourism destination was built on a bucket and spade appeal which has now started to fall from favour. How should businesses adapt to this trend?
A) The South West’s key offering is a quality experience. The product has developed quite considerably in the South West and the sort of Padstows of this world have delivered at that end to support bucket and spade holidays. What people will not put up with is second rate service and facilities. It’s not an elitist thing, people expect great value for money. Traditional bucket and spade holidays are undoubtedly on the wane but people will always want to come to great locations. It’s not for me to tell businesses how to run their own affairs. My only advice is to look forward and to anticipate market demand. Demand changes almost daily because we’re in a highly competitive world where every country is looking to attract Brits overseas and it’s a really difficult market. We have to focus on delighting customers.
Q) The tourism industry is backing a campaign for a reduction in the rate of VAT charged to the sector. Will this campaign succeed?
A) Whether government is going to reduce taxes at a time of a slowly emerging economy is a difficult issue. This is combined with the fact that the Government, if it makes a dispensation to one aspect of industry, will be expected to do the same for others. I think it’s a really difficult ask but I think it’s the right campaign. It’s something that the Government and industry need to consider for the future. My own view is that right now it’s unlikely that VAT will be reduced. I can’t see it in the short to medium term but it’s a campaign that, if it’s sensibly managed, stands a good chance but it’s a longer term thing.