According to research unveiled at the British Travel Trade Fair at the NEC, Birmingham this week, tourism contributes £76bn every year to the UK economy. To attract their share of this valuable pie, UK cities are fighting an increasingly sophisticated communications battle, in a bid not only to attract leisure visitors from home and abroad, but also lucrative business and conference traffic.
Figures from International Confex show that conferences and meetings, exhibitions and trade fairs, incentive travel, corporate events, outdoor events and business travel are worth £10bn a year to England, £1.12bn to Scotland, £343m to Wales and £104m to Northern Ireland.
With the London 2012 PR campaign in full swing, it is obvious how the promise of a prize such as the Olympics prompts a city to launch a full-blown charm offensive, but other cities with less obvious reasons to promote themselves are increasing PR investment.
BGB Communications has worked on PR campaigns for London, Cardiff and Lisbon. managing director Debbie Hindle says: 'Countries have been branding themselves for some time, but now cities are doing it. Any city that can think of itself as a destination and build a communication plan around that is one step ahead.'
Hindle says city-focused PR campaigns are often well-resourced from the conference and incentive travel quarter, but also need to rally together stakeholders from all areas of a city's micro-economy, including retailers, hotels and local businesses.
Although the effect of PR on a city's reputation can be hard to measure, VisitBritain corporate PR manager Elliott Frisby says: 'You only have to look at the negative impact PR can have on a destination to think how it can also work in a positive way. Think of how perceptions of Britain were affected by foot-and-mouth. PR can have a powerful effect.'
The classic PR tactic for shifting opinions about a city is to take opinion-leading media there to see it for themselves. Clearly, it helps if the city, such as Belfast, Glasgow and Cardiff (see boxes), has a genuinely good story to tell, with developments such as hotels, sports venues, waterfronts and arts centres, to show off. Festivals and big events can also provide useful hooks to hang a comms strategy on, but the danger of this is that they do not shift opinion in the long term.
As Hindle says: 'You must remember that you won't change cultural stereotypes about a city overnight. It's a very long process.'
One city which has been achieving real economic results is Liverpool.
Matt Finnegan, Liverpool City Council assistant executive director (media), has been helping lead a five-year comms programme designed to change opinions about the city. He says it has been 'a relentless battle' which reached a crescendo when it beat 12 other UK cities - including Belfast and Cardiff - to become European Capital of Culture 2008. Finnegan says winning the award will take Liverpool's image at home and abroad 'to another level'.
Finnegan adds that shifting perception about Liverpool is changing the life of the city on the ground: 'We have the lowest unemployment for 30 years, increased visitor numbers and property prices. The "Liverpool pound" has been revalued - our stock has never been worth more.'
Ten years ago Belfast attracted very few business or leisure visitors.
The constant negative media about the Troubles did little to help tourism, but the peace dividend has had a remarkable effect. No longer 'bomb city', Belfast has been named the 'best European city break destination' by Irish newspaper The Evening Herald and regularly appears in lists of top ten European cities.
The Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau (BVCB) has played a key role in reinvigorating Belfast's image, working with its agency GCAS Public Relations. Successful strategies have included the hosting of opinion leaders (around 300 international journalists and personalities per year), promoting the city at key events and exhibitions and the www.gotobelfast.com tourism website, which gets more than three million hits per month.
BVCB focused first on getting its nearest neighbours in the UK and Ireland to come and see how Belfast has changed, and then broadened the message out through Europe and the US. As a result, it has helped increase visitors to the city by around 20 per cent year on year. In 2004, Belfast welcomed more than 5.9 million visitors and Belfast tourism now represents 40 per cent of total Northern Ireland tourism and 60 per cent of total tourism employment.
BVCB comms director Lisa McMurray understands the challenges of creating a positive perception of Belfast: 'When we first began to market Belfast we knew that we would be battling against certain preconceptions. By combining marketing budgets, exchanging ideas with our members and actively promoting the changing face of the city to potential visitors, we have more than met our targeted tourism growth.'
GCAS account manager Sheelagh Uprichard says: 'When you see how far we have come in recent years, with hotel chains such as Hilton, Radisson and Malmaison opening in Belfast, BVCB bringing in 43 conferences in 2004 and over 20 cruise ships expected to visit the city this summer, the facts speak for themselves.'
Uprichard says one challenge when promoting Belfast is a local disbelief that Belfast is viewed so positively: 'The local media have generally been very supportive but Northern Irish people can also be quite self-deprecating and they sometimes find it hard to fathom the city's tremendous success, so we do occasionally have to respond to negativity.'
'Glasgow has reinvented itself more times than Madonna,' admits Scott Taylor, Greater Glasgow & Clyde Valley Tourist Board chief executive.
After its heyday during the Industrial Revolution, when it built more than half of the world's ships and rail locomotives, Glasgow spiralled into decline in the 1950s and 1960s. But in the 1980s, revitalisation of the Clyde waterfront began and the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre was built. In 1990, Glasgow was named European City of Culture.
However, Taylor says the city failed to capitalise on its new-found cool.
'We did research around the UK last year which showed that people still had very little understanding of what Glasgow has to offer, especially in the South-East, where they think we are dirty, violent and industrial.
It was obvious we had to invest in our PR profile.'
The result is a new £1.8m rebranding, entitled 'Glasgow. Scotland with Style'. This is part of a wider £500m regeneration plan for the city's former dock and shipyard area, which will see a host of new hotels, leisure, retail and residential facilities constructed. The campaign will be partly thematically hooked on architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, one of the creators of 'The Glasgow Style'. Taylor says: 'Mackintosh is unique to Glasgow, just as Gaudi is to Barcelona.'
Co-ordinated by the GGCVT's own PR team, which won In-House PR Team of the Year at the 2004/05 CIPR Scotland PRide Awards, the strategy will communicate, as Taylor puts it, 'the style of Glasgow, its architecture, its shopping and citizens'.
With Glasgow bands Snow Patrol and Franz Ferdinand hitting the big time, the GGCVT reckons it can position the city as a trendsetter, and, in an effort to boost Glasgow's credentials as an international convention centre, the campaign will also target business people through specialist trade publications.
Conventions bring the city £70m per year, with two thirds of business coming from abroad. GGCVT will try and lure more by teaming up with local PR firms in cities such as Singapore and New York. But Taylor and his team will not base the PR drive around events: 'Glasgow used to follow a very event-led strategy to attract visitors, but it's a very short-term tactic and is no way to reposition a city. You need people to genuinely understand the new positioning in the long term.'
This year Cardiff celebrates its centenary as a city and 50th year as the Welsh capital. Not to miss the opportunity, the organisation charged with promoting it, The Cardiff Initiative, is launching a PR offensive to further burnish the image of the city. Cardiff has undergone a transformation, especially since 1999, when the £1.8bn rejuvenation of Cardiff Bay was completed - Europe's largest waterfront regeneration project - and when the Millennium Stadium opened.
Cardiff has further benefited from the 2004 opening of the £106m Wales Millennium Centre, one of the world's most popular arts centres, and a brace of top-drawer hotels. Another landmark development is the Welsh Assembly building - a symbolic reminder of Cardiff's capital city status.
Ed Townsend, Cardiff Initiative head of PR, says: 'The city's architecture is a wonderful hook to hang messages on, underlining that Cardiff is a sporting, artistic and heritage centre, and also the gateway to Wales.'
Townsend has devised a multi-layered communication plan, aiming to get people in Cardiff to celebrate together, and also to get people from the rest of the UK and abroad to join in. For the trade media, the PR effort focuses on the city's regeneration, in a bid to attract more business and convention visitors.
With sporting highlights in Cardiff in 2005 including Six Nations rugby, the FA Cup semi-finals and final, the Wales v England World Cup qualifier and the British Lions playing Argentina, Cardiff Initiative has brought in sponsorship agency, Sports Impact, to help maximise exposure. Sports Impact CEO John Collard says: 'We aim to use sport to change people's perception of Cardiff, showing them that there is a lot more going on than just on the pitch.' Collard is bringing sports and sports business media to Cardiff, highlighting what the city has to offer: 'This is the sporting capital of the UK with a flourishing arts and business centre.'
An obvious challenge for Cardiff is the opening of the new Wembley Stadium in 2006. Townsend is unfazed: 'Even when we lose the football back to Wembley, the Millennium Stadium will continue to be wholly positive for Cardiff. It can be used for all sorts of events that will still draw people to the city.'