UK tourism looks set to lose a staggering £22b in tourist spending, putting thousands of jobs and businesses at risk. Patricia Yates, acting chief executive of VisitBritain, explains to Emma Lake that offering reassurance and an agile response to demand will be key to helping the industry claw its way back to normality
Has VisitBritain done any forecasting around the impact of the coronavirus pandemic?
We have done some economic modelling from what we see internationally and, in relation to inbound tourism, we think we'll see a decline to 17.8 million visits and an £11.6b spend, which will be a 54% drop in overseas visits and a 55% fall in inbound visitor spending.
In relation to domestic tourism, assuming the lockdown starts to ease at the end of June, we will see a loss of £22.1b in direct tourism spending. So it's really substantial.
What support do you think the industry will need from government to come through this?
What we've heard is that the furlough has been really appreciated, but hospitality is going to need that support beyond the end of June. The industry is coming together and looking at how it can work through social distancing, how it can get people back to work, and how we can reassure customers that they can travel.
If the future is social distancing, then there are sectors and businesses that can work with that practically, there are some that will find that very challenging economically, but as much of a heads-up that can be given and a commitment to seeing the industry through would be really appreciated.
"We've got to talk about getting businesses back before we can get customers back"
Do you envisage the domestic market dominating the industry for the foreseeable future?
The first thing is to get the UK industry up and running and the initial way to do that is through domestic tourism. We are also planning international campaigns, but the difficulty is that this isn't just a health issue, it's a political issue. For example, people are saying the crisis has passed in China, so you could look to the Chinese market coming back quite quickly. But when we talk to our staff in that market, they say it's really clear that people are not going to travel internationally this year. Picking up that intelligence in markets will be really important, so we're ready to respond. It's a complex situation and there are many factors, including will people want to travel? Do their governments want them to travel? And how do we get airlines flying again and get that capacity back into the market?
There's been a lot of talk about how airlines will deal with social distancing and it's looking like it could basically mean taking the middle seat out, which will mean fares will rise, which in turn might mean we need to look at who can travel and who will be willing to travel.
We've also got an eye on our international competitiveness. A lot of companies invest in their businesses and make changes every year to stay at the cutting edge. If they don't have that money, the worry is that we'll be competing internationally with something not quite as good as we had before the lockdown. This will be a year of uncertainties and we need to be prepared to adapt.
There are concerns that seasonal businesses may be unable to open at all during their profitable months this year. Are there means of compensating this?
A lot of businesses will be very worried if they can't open for July and August and get the summer business, and if that happens some will not open until next Easter. Our main audience is families and the older generation, so if children go back to school in September, that will remove the family market – people can't simply transfer a July or August holiday to the winter months.
The first thing will be that the furlough scheme will need to be extended. Tourism employs 3.1 million people and even if the lockdown is lifted promptly, there will be a step up in terms of opening again. Businesses won't necessarily need everyone in on the first day; there will be a gradual tapering of people returning to work. There are also lots of issues around rents and, although we have a holiday on business rates, there is a limit on that, which people are finding difficult. In some places, if you don't get tourism to work, you haven't got a working community, so it's really important to focus on how destinations can open safely, how people can be given the confidence to travel and how to support businesses until they can.
How will you communicate to people that it is safe to travel and visit destinations?
We'll be tracking how consumers are feeling. We've only been in lockdown for a few weeks and Britons are normally really resistant around travel, but we will need to see how much behaviours have changed and how much the industry will have to change. People will probably start with lower-risk travel, so visiting friends and relatives or going to the coast and countryside, and they will probably travel in their own cars instead of public transport.
I think there's a real job to manage destinations and pull that message together, so that people feel confident travelling again. Our ambition would be to work with the industry and to have white label advertising that everyone can use and share that message on reassurance and safety. It would be a label that customers can see and know that places are abiding with government guidelines.
There's also going to be a need to get people away from tourist honeypots and encourage them to go to areas that are quieter.
At the beginning of the outbreak you looked at how travellers responded following the Sars outbreak – do you still think that can be helpful?
We started looking at what happened post-Sars, where once travel restrictions were lifted there was pent-up consumer demand and people wanted to travel again.
When this first started we were quite confident that that is what we would see after the lockdown, but the situation we're in now is unprecedented in the time I've been in travel. It's not just a crisis of demand, it's a crisis of supply as well. We've got to talk about getting businesses back before we can get customers back and that has not normally been the case.
"In some places, if you don't get tourism to work, you haven't got a working community"
Will it bounce back? There are the optimists, who think Britons are very resilient and experiencing increasing frustration and will want to travel when it's lifted. But for the international market, pent-up demand might not be enough. They might want to travel but it could be that politically they can't, because there aren't the flights and their countries are saying they shouldn't travel this year.
At the moment we're looking at what people think they are going to do. It may not be what they actually do, but it gives us an understanding. As the lockdown starts to lift we can then look at booking engine data and what people are searching for, which will give us a much better idea of where people are going to go and where visitors are coming from.
How do you think the business market will react?
Some hoteliers I have spoken to think business travel will come back before leisure travel, which has been seen in China with domestic business travel.
In the US there's a drive to come out of lockdown and that will be interesting because transatlantic routes are some of the most profitable. If American businesses starts travelling again, that will drive leisure travel from the US as well, because there will be seat availability.
A lot of conferences have been cancelled and are hoping to rebook in the autumn, so there could also be strong conference season at the back end of the year.
We've seen many reports that the pandemic could lead to a global recession, so should operators be thinking about how to pitch their offers in the coming months and, possibly, years?
It depends who your audience is. There will be people who have been quite comfortable during lockdown, who will still have money to spend and will be keen to spend it. The success of the furlough scheme will also be something to keep an eye on, if we see people returning to their workplaces.
There is talk of a recession, and a global recession, and so we are monitoring that and keeping flexible. If airline costs go up and the international market is depressed and we have a recession on top of that, we may not see that growth coming through and we may be very dependent on domestic travel.
I think consumer financial confidence will also see flexibility become a strong consideration in booking terms and in terms of operators letting people delay if they need to. It is a really difficult time for businesses, but it's something to look at to help them as we move forward.
About Patricia Yates
Yates has a background in journalism, working on research and technical publications, followed by a role editing Holiday Which? and launching the Which? Guide to Hotels.
She joined VisitBritain in 2005 and became strategy and communications director in 2007. She is a member of the Tourist Industry Emergency Response group, which co-ordinates the industry's response at a time of crisis such as Covid-19, and is also a fellow of the Tourism Society.
She was appointed acting chief executive of VisitBritain in March while chief executive Sally Balcombe takes personal leave.
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