Tourism is the lifeblood of the seaside city of Brighton & Hove says Nick Mosley. On the first day of the annual English Tourism Week, he talks to key players in the industry about what the future holds for our visitor economy. [This article first appeared in the Brighton Argus on Saturday 22 May 2021].
Co-ordinated by the national tourism board – Visit England – English Tourism Week is a yearly event to highlight the contribution that tourism and hospitality businesses make to the wider economy. Whilst perhaps not on the radar of the general public, it’s an opportunity for businesses and representative organisations to communicate the financial and social importance of the visitor economy to politicians. media and consumers.
Due to Covid-related lockdowns, there hasn’t been any comprehensive research conducted on tourism in the city over the past 18 months. Brighton & Hove City Council’s most recent tourism economic impact study from 2019 reveals around 1,465,000 staying trips and 10.7 million day trips were made to the city that year, with a total estimated spend of £976 million in local businesses supporting around 24,000 jobs.
As tourism and hospitality businesses reopen – and the concerns and complications of international leisure travel playing heavily on the minds of UK consumers – 2021 is touted as the Year of the Staycation.
Barclays Bank recently announced their projections for the industry, predicting that Brighton would see 1.1 million overnight staycationers this year with a total visitor spend of £843 million. With the collapse of business tourism – meetings, conference, exhibitions –, and International in-bound visitors, these numbers based purely around domestic leisure tourism are reassuring to an industry that has suffered so much over the past year.
“With the current difficulties around overseas travel, there is a huge level of interest in staycation tourism that is compensating very nicely for the reduction in overseas visitors that we are anticipating”, said Howard Barden, head of Tourism and Venues for the city council.
“There is a huge pent-up demand from domestic visits, eager to take UK breaks, so we are hoping for a buoyant summer. Last summer, when restrictions were lifted, hotel occupancy rebounded strongly so we anticipate a similar situation this summer. We are greatly encouraged by the feedback we are getting from hotels and B&Bs in the city, with restrictions now starting to lift, they are reporting very high levels of interest and bookings”.
Whilst local MPs and councillors see the importance of the tourism sector to the economy, on a national level its clear to tourism businesses of all shapes and sizes that it’s not historically been a particularly well recognised industry by central government. For example, there has been an almost yearly churn of the ministerial post of Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which has seen five appointees since 2017 alone.
“Attractions like SEA LIFE have lobbied hard to the Government throughout the pandemic and nationally other tourist attractions have been doing the same to create far greater noise around the importance the industry has to benefit the overall economy”, said Neil Harris, general manager of SEA LIFE Brighton.
“We have made and seen great process with this as a result, for example the reduction in VAT really supported boosting tourism numbers and supported the recovery for visitor attractions”.
Perhaps because tourism encompasses so many types of businesses – from airports to tearooms – its difficult for government to define policy and support in the way they could do for the likes of automotive or financial services.
“There are so many differing types of businesses and organisations within ‘tourism’ and also that benefit indirectly from tourism”, said Anna Prior of the British Airways i360.
“Industry bodies such as UK Inbound, UK Hospitality and Association of Leading Visitor Attractions have done some excellent work through this challenging period. Perhaps the government will now explore these as routes to engage with the tourism sector. The review of Destination Management Organisations will hopefully derive improvements at a national level”.
Howard Barden – under who’s remit the management of the Brighton Centre falls – agrees that there is a noticeable change in central government’s approach to tourism.
“On a national level tourism is undoubtedly rising up the agenda, with far greater importance being placed on both the economic and social benefits that it brings”, said Howard.
“The impacts of tourism, encompassing both business and leisure visits, span across sport, arts, culture and heritage, so the challenge is to quantify and understand the many impacts that it has and how best to support such a diverse and often fragmented industry, which is often delivered by SMEs”.
Anne Ackord, general manager of Brighton Palace Pier, is more forthright in her criticism of the government’s current stance. As a major local employer, she’s also hugely concerned about attracting the right talent to the industry.
“The government reaction to hospitality during the pandemic shows that they do not understand our industry nor its importance”, said Anne.
“As an industry we need to continue to lobby government and we in this industry need to work hard to attract the next generation into it by close liaison with local further education colleges like Greater Brighton Metropolitan College in particular to ensure courses are relevant and reflect the potential that a career in leisure and hospitality presents”.
Gavin Stewart, chief executive of the Brighton business improvement district that represents many of the main shopping areas in central Brighton, agrees.
“Given the pandemic and the devastation it has caused to high streets and the visitor economy across the UK, we’d hope that the industry has risen in importance in Whitehall”, said Gavin.
“There has been commitment from Government with the Welcome Back Fund but this needs to go further in helping our destinations to renew and grow, supporting skills growth as well as creating pathways for innovation with emerging tech such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality”.
One resounding message that is coming from local businesses during English Tourism Week is the importance of the quality of the visitor experience to not only attract customers once but also to see that they return.
“Visitors will choose Brighton but we need to ensure they don’t just choose it once but make return visits and enjoy longer stays”, continued Anne from Brighton Palace Pier. “There is lots of work to do on presenting the city in its best light”.
“People think that tourism just ‘happens’ and that places like Brighton will be okay”, agreed Gavin.
“The reality is that we need to work to deliver a world class destination that people want to come back to time and time again”.