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How tourist boards are struggling to adapt to a private sector model

Steve Keenan

August 3, 2016

There are 86 counties in Britain, and historically most used to have a tourist board paid for by the local council. Not any more.

Since the economic downturn in 2008, public money has dried up for what are deemed non-essential services. Bin collections are important. So are schools and potholes.

But not visitors.

Relatively few businesses benefit from tourists: in fact, many residents resent their roads being clogged up in summer and litter on the beach. Councils like tourism income but councillors don’t care for visitors because they don’t vote in their wards.

Which is why there has been a sea change in tourism promotion across Britain in the past decade – away from public money, because there is none, and into the arms of professional, private tourism businesses.

Into the arms of people who understand that tourism is vital, that it creates jobs and generates income, particularly at the seaside. On the Isle of Wight, for example, tourism accounts for 30% of income and jobs.

Since April, Visit Isle of Wight has been wholly privately funded, partly because the island’s council reneged on a paper promise to part-fund tourism promotion for another six years.

Visit Cornwall also went private last year after its funding received a battering. It had 68 staff a decade ago: now it has six. And many more of Britain’s beleaguered tourism professionals seek a similar, lean route, out of the cash strapped grip of councils and their interference.

But it is not an easy transition: there are issues. Cornwall has a serious tourism industry that needs promoting, and is willing and eager to pay for good marketing. Many counties without prime coastline do not have such resources.

Counties with a strong tourism appeal, like Devon and Dorset, should be ripe for transition to the private sector. The favoured model is to create a Community Interest Company (CiC), a new type of company introduced in 2005 that is designed to use profits and assets for the public good.

The problem is that the existing structures are fragmented. West Dorset and Weymouth, for example, are well-funded while North Dorset Council has no tourism budget. Vested interests are at play, as they are in the even more fragmented network in Devon.

It is not easy to get all interested parties to agree to a countywide, privately funded entity able to harness modern digital marketing, and address the dynamics of millennial travellers expecting real-time research and information via mobile, not brochures.

But there is progress, particularly in ways that tourism bodies are exploring ways to self-fund. Take Leicester, a city that is doubly benefiting from the discovery of a dead king and a football team.

Leicester Shire Promotions, a private company, last year turned over £700,000 and booked 37,500 bed nights by promoting a ‘Stay, Play, Explore’ hotel booking option on its website, taking business away from online travel agents like Expedia.

Off the south coast, the team of five at Visit Isle of Wight now sells bike hire, tours and hotel packages and generates £140,000, including online advertising, retail and website pages.

Now it can generate further income from a Business Improvement District (BiD) scheme, voted for by islanders in July, that forces all tourism-related businesses to contribute via statutory taxes, to help replace lost council funding. Many other destinations, including Weymouth and Great Yarmouth, have also successfully bought in BID schemes.

Looking at ways to replace public money is vital. Income from website advertising also benefits Cumbria, while Staffordshire is also among counties that generates income from selling packages. There is also the opportunity to work with brands that match the destination, such as outdoor clothing companies in climbing and walking areas.

There’s no clear-cut model, no one-size-fits-all approach to alter the face of British tourism funding overnight. But change is afoot, albeit in a slow, British way, involving keeping everybody happy. Painful, but necessary.

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