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Is there a plan for England?

19 October 2006

Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, poses some questions to the incoming chairman of VisitBritain

A publicly funded British tourism promotion agency has existed since the early 1950s. Since then, however, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London have devolved their administrations, while regional development agencies in England contribute £50m a year to their regions' tourism organisations.

Meanwhile, VisitBritain is suffering death by a thousand cuts. Its £35m Treasury grant has been unchanged for eight years - effectively, a 25% cut in real terms, with a further 7% expected next year.

This is no way for a tourism organisation to have to manage its affairs, but this is the political reality. And we must now ask: how best should VisitBritain be organised?

VisitBritain has done some very good work and has an excellent track record. Overseas visitor numbers are at a record high and there's an impressive return on investments. But can this be maintained in the face of ever-decreasing funding? And should we consider more radical alternatives?

It's undeniable that both VisitBritain and EnjoyEngland get a very poor deal from the Treasury compared with other parts of the country. Despite attracting 75% of domestic and overseas visitors, the grant for EnjoyEngland is only £13m, compared with Scotland's £43m and Wales's £38m.

In the face of such stringency, should we consider moving VisitBritain out of the public sector into a PFI-style organisation, half-funded by the private sector? Britain's Million Visitor Campaign in 2003, equally funded by private and public sectors, was a brilliant example of harnessing a private-sector culture with a public-sector ethos to the advantage of both industry and country.

The private sector is dynamic, more knowledgeable and has greater marketing expertise than ever before. Its huge investments into new hotels and the industry's infrastructure mean that Britain is now a highly successful tourist destination.

So, is funding an increasingly weakened central tourism agency the best way to spend public money? Must we consider alternatives, so that public resources can be incorporated into a dynamic, private-sector organisation, which has a vigorous, highly expert, private-sector culture?

The answers to these questions may be even more radical, but whatever solutions you propose will be considered sympathetically by the industry.

How can England's marketing be improved?

Kurt Janson, policy director, Tourism Alliance "A major issue is the level of funding allocated to marketing England domestically. Although almost 80% of tourism is based on people taking holidays and day trips within the country, the Government allocates only £11.4m per annum to domestic marketing. This is despite the tourism deficit continuing to grow as more people holiday overseas."

Geoff Hurst, marketing director, Chartered Institute of Marketing "England's marketing needs to tap into visitors' emotional draw to this country rather than listing features and benefits. Great campaigns depend on delivering what is new, and tourism is no exception. Attention won't be captured with the bland. Australia's ‘Where the bloody hell are you?' push may be controversial, but we all noticed it."

Terry Holmes, executive director, Red Carnation Hotels "The funding of England's marketing is insufficient. There is competition from around the world but, despite this, marketers are not playing at the top of their game in driving England. The lack of funding also means England is trying to market everything from caravanning to five-star hotels in the same way, which is simply impossible."

Mike Ashton, senior vice-president, marketing, Hilton International "The overriding issue is that there is no cohesive picture of what English tourism is about. Unlike Ireland's rolling hills and Scotland's castles, England has no defining iconography. It also seems there is a more proactive approach from individual regions, rather than an integrated all-England campaign."

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