Travel PR: Tales from abroad

Tourist boards around the world are beefing up their PR efforts to woo the British traveller. Steve Hemsley reports.

The British holidaymaker's spending power is in much demand and tourist offices are realising how innovative campaigns can enhance or even change the perception of their destinations.

Brits certainly love to travel. Government figures reveal we spent more than £27bn on foreign trips in 2004, with long-haul destinations such as Australia, New Zealand, the US and Asia increasing in popularity.

The Boxing Day tsunami which devastated huge parts of Asia last month, and the threat of terrorist attacks, seem unlikely to dampen the daring spirit of the British tourist in 2005. Holiday experts claim we are more confident than most nationalities when it comes to assessing the potential risks of a destination.

In this context it is the countries that get their PR activity right as part of a well-integrated marketing strategy that will grab a bigger slice of the market. Countries such as New Zealand and Japan, for instance, have managed to punch above their weight as holiday destinations in recent years by using hit movies such as The Lord of The Rings and The Last Samurai in their campaigns.

The number of British tourists visiting New Zealand rose by ten per cent to more than 280,000 in the year to October 2004. Meanwhile, more than 85,000 Brits went to Japan last year, an increase of 11 per cent, according to the Japan National Tourist Organisation, which generated media coverage for last month's Visit Japan Week.

The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) says aspirational locations such as Australia - which is benefiting from last year's £150m relaunch of Brand Australia by Tourism Australia - and New Zealand lead the way in its holiday surveys. They are perceived as offering greater value for money than some traditional short-haul hot spots such as Spain, Portugal and Greece, which, ABTA says, need to raise their PR game to remind people why they should visit their resorts.

'I am a great fan of PR over advertising in the travel industry,' says ABTA head of corporate affairs Keith Betton. 'Consumers talk in public about where they are going and refer to TV programmes or features they have read in the press. Third-party endorsement is vital in this industry.'

Crisis management

Popular long-haul destinations such as Thailand and Sri Lanka will need to rebuild their tourism industries as quickly as possible to ease the economic crisis caused by the tsunami.

Despite Brits' laid-back approach to risk, it is inevitable that some tourists will be reluctant to visit some affected areas. Yet these destinations can learn from other countries that have employed effective PR campaigns in the wake of tragedy.

The killing of 60 foreign tourists by Egyptian militants near Luxor in 1997, for example, severely damaged the country's tourist trade. The PR strategy was to accept that a serious terrorist attack had taken place but to also demonstrate the terrorists had been captured and that security had been subsequently tightened.

Over following years, many press trips were organised to show journalists how safe the country was, while tour operators received subsidies. 'Time is a great healer and ABTA members saw a 163 per cent growth in bookings for Egypt in 2004,' says Betton.

'The important thing is to not play down the severity of an incident but to state the case that a country is safe and offers value for money.'

Elsewhere, traditionally popular package holiday destinations are facing competition from Eastern Europe. Nations such as Slovenia, Bulgaria and Croatia, which are tapping into the lucrative British tourist market by claiming to offer something unique.

Last summer ABTA members saw a 78 per cent increase in bookings to Croatia and a 62 per cent jump in holidays to Bulgaria.

PR is a cost-effective marketing option for countries that want to alter how they are perceived by the west. Croatia was a popular tourist destination long before the wars in the former Yugoslavia and press trips since to remind journalists of the beauty of places such as Dubrovnik, Split and Rovign are now paying dividends.

Another country coming out favourably in recent ABTA surveys is Canada, which saw visitor numbers from Britain rise by 17 per cent to 708,000 between January and September 2004. As well as organising press trips, the Canadian Tourism Commission hosts an annual Media Awards ceremony for UK journalists to reward travel writing. Among the winners last year was The Sunday Telegraph's Tim Jepson for his guide to the Canadian Rockies.

Spain remains the most popular leisure destination for Brits, a status it took from France in 2003. But, like other old favourites such as Portugal and Greece, it must go on the offensive to retain its high popularity.

Last year the Spanish National Tourist Office (SNTO) made presentations to journalists in London and Dublin and organised group press trips based around major events, such as the Year of Dali in Catalonia. It also focused its activity on less well-known destinations, such as Valladolid and Caceres.

For 2005, the SNTO has hired specialist travel PR agency BGB Communications to fight its corner. BGB is a partner member of ABTA and its client list includes Tourism Australia and eBookers. 'We are still working on the plan for this year but Spain needs to react to the trends in how Brits book their holidays, such as independently and online. The tourist board must also offer more support to people on the ground,' says BGB managing director Debbie Hindle.

'Spain is a mature holiday market compared to Australia and in the past it has focused on the core beach resorts. The PR campaign needs to drive people to more rural areas,' she adds.

Jose Antonio Preto da Silva, director of tourism at the Portuguese National Tourist Office, says PR plays a crucial role in promoting his country at a time when it is facing such stiff competition. Activity last year linked with Euro 2004 and, like Spain, the strategy for 2005 is to entice visitors to lesser-known areas such as Beiras.

'PR enables us to deliver a number of our messages to our target market in a much more subtle manner than advertising. The Algarve is very well known and we feel PR can help us boost tourism in other areas. The secret to promoting Portugal through PR is the continual drip-feed of information,' says Preto da Silva.

What's clear though, is that as the battle for destinations heats up, it may be those who dig deepest in their pockets that win out. Journalists, it seems, still love a press trip or two. Those who speculate will surely accumulate both column inches and bums on those plane seats.

WISH YOU WERE HERE?

Australia PR is part of a marketing campaign tagged 'Australia. A Different Light', which plays on the country's natural colours and its vibrant society. Activity in 2005 will focus on the message that cheaper air fares mean people can revisit the country and a trip to Australia is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

US A weak dollar has helped visitor numbers return to pre-9/11 levels, especially for shopping trips to New York. But PR strategy during 2005 will have to address growing anti-American feeling. The message from Florida is that it offers a Mediterranean-style holiday for Brits. The target is families who may usually consider Spain or Greece.

New Zealand With a marketing strapline '100 per cent pure', the cornerstone to PR activity is the International Media Programme, which works closely with third parties such as Air New Zealand and PR consultancies around the world, including The Saltmarsh Partnership in the UK. More than 600 international journalists were brought to New Zealand in 2004, and coverage reached more than 60 million people.

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