The Game Begins for British Tourism
By James Ruggia
October 25, 2012 11:45 PM
A montage of images from London’s enormously successful Olympic Summer Games began the day earlier this week at Destination Britain, VisitBritain’s annual trade visit to New York City. “We showed what we can do when we unite behind a single purpose,” says Karen Clarkson, VisitBritain’s vice president, North America. “Now we have to turn that feel good factor into bookings.”
A sizeable delegation of suppliers from the United Kingdom came together with U.S.-based tour operators for three days of networking and speed dating in Manhattan’s Eventi Hotel. Though the Olympics period was somewhat soft for U.S. visitation to London, the city’s hotels saw their occupancy hover in the 90s and at very strong rates.
For VisitBritain, the real marketing significance of the Games is coming afterward as the country reaps the benefits of all that imagery that flooded the airwaves. The country’s new £13.5 million ($21.7 million) tourism campaign is designed to go out and begin taking in the harvest. “We looked at other Olympic cities and what we learned was that the real marketing push has to come after the Games,” says Patricia Yates, VisitBritain’s director of strategy and communications.
While the Olympic period was soft for American visitation to Britain, which was down about 10 percent in August even as American visits to Europe were up 7.6 percent, London received about 590,000 visitors in August, which was just 10,000 visitors short of what Visit Britain had anticipated. “London mostly lost the domestic market for the Olympic period,” says Yates. “Attractions had a difficult time of it as did the theatres.”
Nevertheless, London’s total visitation number for 2012 should be solid despite the Olympic hiccup; the April and June figures just came out showing that London welcomed 4.1 million visitors -- nearly 90,000 more than in the same period last year. In addition, there was a 9 percent increase in visitor expenditure for the period, with growth from the U.S. making a substantial contribution. Following the overall rise in 2011 (up 3.5 percent) and an increase of 2.5 percent in the first quarter of 2012, these figures continue the steady rise in London’s visitor growth over the past two eventful years.
Despite the anticipated lumps in London’s normal incoming late summer travel, London & Partners says it is delighted with the Olympics. “We wanted to alter perceptions of the city,” says Corinna May, London & Partners’ leisure tourism marketing manager, North America and Australasia. “The Games highlighted our hospitality, our food, the ease of getting around and they vastly improved our infrastructure. Plus he Olympic Park gives us a new urban green space.”
Going forward VisitBritain will build its campaign around four pillars: 1) Britain’s image; 2) working with the Trade; 3) maintaining fresh British product; and 4) addressing growth policy. “The U.S. is still our most valuable market and we need to defend it,” says Yates. “In 2011 we had 2.8 million American visitors. London plus another destination still dominates the U.S. market and we tried to make the Olympic-driven marketing work for the whole country.” In 100, its best year, Britain attracted a total of 4.1 million Americans.
“The games put all of Great Britain into the world’s spotlight and the athletic nature of the event plays nicely with our nature-based activities,” says Lauren Summers, Visit Wales’ director of marketing North America. “Lonely Planet just put three such Welsh activities in the top 10: hiking Mount Snowdon, ‘coasteering’ the Welsh coast and our mountain biking. Our hosting of the 2011 Ryder Cup was a real boost also and so we had a very good year.”
“London’s execution of the games iced a very attractive wedding cake and in that delivery they showed that Britain is still a great place to visit,” says Nigel Osborne, president of Virgin Vacations. “Now we’re seeing a pick-up in business because of how well everything was run and so we’ve launched more product to capitalize on it.”
Britain’s tourism marketing will get a jolt from three prominent alpha male icons in the coming months and years as the country celebrates 50 years of James Bond as well as two Welsh giants, Richard Burton and Dylan Thomas. Wales will celebrate the recent publication of Burton’s diary as well as the new film “Liz and Dick,” based on the actor’s relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. Then, in 2014, Wales will celebrate the centennial of Thomas’ birth.
Then, of courses, there’s Bond. The “Bond is GREAT Britain” promotion is built around the release of Skyfall, and commemorates the 50th anniversary of the premiere of “Dr. No,” the first of 23 Bond movies. Look for the whole country, region by region, to highlight locations that were used in films and other connections to Bond. Visit Kent, for instance, is promoting one of Ian Fleming’s favorite pubs -- the Duck Inn in Canterbury.
Over the last few years, the British government has been reducing VisitBritain’s budget and the plan is to get it down to £22.3 million ($35 million) by 2014. The government has used a series of high-profile events -- including the Royal Wedding in 2011, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the London 2012 Festival, the Cultural Olympiad, the Paralympics and the Olympic Games -- to attract private contributions by tourism stakeholders to help fund the promotion of the country. “In the name of austerity, the government has had to become more strategic,” says Hayley Beer, tourism services manager for the West Oxfordshire District Council. “You’ll see more engagement from the private industry.”
In other words, all of these events have allowed VisitBritain to change the way it does business and that may be one of the more important legacies of the 2012 Summer Olympics. It’s way too early to gauge the Games’ immediate impact on inbound tourism to Britain, but there can be no doubt that the long-term impact will be dramatic.
James Ruggia is executive editor covering Europe and Pacific Asia for TravelPulse.com.