With the Government providing little to no help, or financial support, it is becoming clear that the hospitality industry itself is going to have to lead the way on tourism for the 2012 London Olympics. Gemma Sharkey reports
On the face of it, it was a fairly harmless comment: "I agree that hotels are expensive and I worry about the quality." The trouble is, this statement was from the very minister representing and promoting UK tourism, Margaret Hodge, in an interview with Holiday Which? magazine.
For hotel industry leaders, it was yet another example of the Government's lack of support for tourism in the UK.
Peter Hancock, chief executive of Pride of Britain Hotels, said: "It is hard to imagine the minister for tourism in any other country making such negative comments about their own accommodation stock."
Perhaps he should not have been surprised. Tourism is clearly not a priority at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Out of 77 press releases issued by the department so far this year, just one has been about tourism.
And this is not a new phenomenon. Kurt Janson, policy director at the Tourism Alliance, once placed a bet with Hodge's predecessor, Shaun Woodward, that the DCMS would not write a single press release for tourism during his term. Janson lost - the minister wrote one the week before he left, after 18 months in the job.
Of course, the bigger picture for the industry is looking ahead to the 2012 Olympics, now that the baton has been passed from Beijing. Funding is quite clearly the industry's main bugbear. As Janson points out, not only has VisitBritain's funding been cut by 18%, but the DCMS has not yet committed any dedicated funding to implement its own tourism strategy.
"In October last year, the then Secretary of State [James Purnell] said the Government would review the funding required," he said. "We are still waiting for this review."
The welcome to visiting tourists is another area of concern. While VisitBritain's "Welcome to Britain Strategy" is supported by the industry, the DCMS has been criticised for proposals to remove 11 countries from the visa waiver scheme, including important tourism markets such as Brazil and South Africa.
Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, said: "The welcome into London is somewhat of a concern. Our airports are in a mess - Heathrow especially - and the Government is putting in sterner border controls, making things more difficult when they should be making things easier."
It is becoming clear that the industry will have to do its own donkey work to ensure the tourism offer is top notch.
Patricia Yates, head of publicity at VisitBritain, said: "We need to make sure we offer quality and value. Although we've grown the budget sector enormously, we are working to get quality assessors into the non-branded section of the hotel chain. We have the top-end hotels and are now working to pull in the bottom end."
Fergus Chambers, executive director at Glasgow City Council, went on a four-day fact-finding mission to Beijing as part of the city's research ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. He said the UK could learn from both the positives and the negatives, praising the branding efforts of Beijing organisers but criticising the food offering.
"As soon as you landed you knew Beijing was hosting the Olympic Games. Every major road had a banner - shopping centres and shops had all been rebranded," Chambers said.
"London's retailers, restaurateurs and hoteliers have to pick up on this, the branding should come not only from Government funding but from private business investment."
But, he added: "The catering was not too clever as it was aimed at the local market rather than an international one. There needs to be a clear policy on catering across all events in the UK, that is consistent across all venues."
Yates, who also went to Beijing, agreed. "At the Olympic Park you weren't allowed to take food in and could only buy snacks, not proper food," she said. "We need to look at our food offering and make sure we offer the right welcome to visitors."
VisitBritain has developed branding for destination managers and the industry to use to present a consistent message to visitors, and is planning to host workshops this autumn on how businesses can implement this so they can feel part of the Olympic movement.
The final part of VisitBritain's strategy is training, particularly in customer service. Sector Skills Council People 1st is developing new customer service standards, which aim to pave the way for new customer service training programmes that are Olympics-related.
The industry remains confident that London can clear all the hurdles in place to deliver in 2012. Yates said: "We need to take advantage of our status as a cosmopolitan city and ensure we have a variety of languages among our staff. China fell down on this, but we should be well-placed to deliver."
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Tourism 2012 in numbers
- £2.34b Estimated benefit of the Games to the tourism industry
- £9.3b Current bill for the Games
- £22b Estimated investment in Beijing Games
- 18% Was cut from VisitBritain's funding for 2008-11