English visitor experience finally being grasped by the National Tourism bodies

Discover England project unlocks real benefits

English visitor experience finally being grasped by the National Tourism bodies

I was very pleased to attend a Discover England Scheme workshop, organised by Visit England, early in July, and left feeling positive about the work that’s obviously now being put in to research and implement new regional tourism product under this project.

The day included updates on the first wave of schemes, supported by the £40 million Discover England special funding pot, and the results of research into changing visitor expectations and interests, into which such new projects can tap. For the first time, I got the impression that the hard graft of evolving and successfully presenting the full richness of the English visitor experience was really being grasped by the National Tourism bodies, Visit England (VE) and Visit Britain (VB).

VE Chief Executive, Sally Balcombe, seemed to admit to even being a little surprised at the value that was clearly coming through from this kind of endeavour, and indicated a new sense of direction about the organisation’s mission in supporting the industry ‘on the ground’.

For the last few years there has, in my opinion, been an excessive concentration at VE/VB on conceptual brand development and marketing of so-called ‘world class’ attractions, which has missed a significant part of the potential that this country has to offer visitors from both overseas and those travelling around domestically in the fine grained, quirky and uniquely local. The support to which, meanwhile, brings important new economic development and commercial activity at the local level.

It was impressive to hear of the work already done with Discover England Fund support on projects like ‘The Great West Way’ route from London to Bristol and all the places along it, and developing a greater visitor offer to explore the Cornish coastal path and other walking routes. Equally, research data dug out from the International Passenger Survey by VE’s statistics team, and new work on understanding changing tastes and desires by more adventurous visitors looking for real authentic experiences at the local level in Britain, is invaluable in shaping what can be achieved by businesses and the public sector working together.

A new report focusing on travel trade opportunities in key overseas markets such as the USA, France, Germany, The Netherlands and the Nordic countries, and the spending habits of overseas visitors, includes some of the valuable findings.

A new batch of Discover England funding awards has just been announced, and more are in the pipeline. But it is already clear that this project – begun as a political initiative under the Coalition Government rather than in any strategic step by VE/VB – is delivering the goods.

It is now to be hoped that Visit England will get even more behind this new approach, and the necessary continuing detailed work with the industry out in the field, and put its own financial and human resources into further steps down this path once the £40 million itself has been spent.

In this regard it is encouraging that VE/VB have launched a consultation on a potential new Sector Deal for Tourism as part of the government’s industrial strategy and have been seeking responses from across the sector, particularly from small and medium sized businesses.

I would like to think that the National Tourist bodies are now genuinely more interested than hitherto in connecting with the grass roots of their sector, and hope that some readers of this column will rise to the challenge of responding to this invitation.

It’s an excellent chance to both flag up opportunities around the country in niche and local tourism development, and of course to highlight the particular role and potential of support in serving the groups market.

This article was originally published in issue 274 (August 2017) of GTO magazine.