The horrific images from 7 July 2005 of the shattered bus in Tavistock Square and three obliterated Tube trains, plus the CCTV footage of four unsuccessful copycat attackers on 21 July, were broadcast around the world, causing a slump in London tourism.
The capital's attractions reported a 25 per cent drop in visitor numbers in the aftermath of the attacks. In August last year, central London retailers talked of a fall in trade of 11.5 per cent. But 12 months later, data show that visitors have returned to the capital in their droves (see chart). Indeed, promotional body VisitLondon is predicting an increase in tourists for 2006 compared with last year.
The revival has – significantly – been led by a growing number of visitors from overseas, although some markets (such as US travellers) are showing greater reluctance to visit London than others. ‘Hotel occupancy for May this year is up by 7.5 per cent and retail spend is up by 14 per cent on the same month last year. The effect of 7 and 21 July is no longer having an effect on inbound or domestic travel; in fact, London has more than recovered,' asserts
VisitLondon senior corporate comms manager Katherine Grice.
VisitLondon takes action
A year ago the PR and marketing team at VisitLondon swung into action, carrying out face-to-face research in 13 cities across seven countries to determine views of how people felt about holidaying in the capital.Using information gleaned from the research, VisitLondon upped its annual ‘London in September' drive, promoting more than 100 events – such as festivals on Regent Street and Brick Lane – via the production of more than one million mini-guides. These were inserted into national broadsheets in the South-East, and the Evening Standard.
The campaign was designed to support the sectors most affected – restaurants and family attractions – promoting the message ‘London is open for business'.
VisitLondon also teamed up with the GLA and Transport for London to launch ‘Everyone's London' in September to urge the capital's residents to explore their city. More than 75 theatres, museums, galleries, exhibitions and restaurants offered cheap deals. VisitLondon also promoted events to ensure journalists wrote about tourism campaigns. These included pop band Texas playing on top of Tower Bridge and closing Oxford Street to traffic for the first time to encourage shoppers to return to the West End.
So, what is the verdict on the campaigns? ‘VisitLondon's PR strategy after 7/7 has been successful, as it focused on London's positive aspects. It hasn't said that London is 100 per cent safe and has correctly avoided the safety angle,' says LBC News 1152AM editorial director Jonathan Richards. But he adds: ‘The campaigns seem to come and go quickly, and lack sustenance. They should run for longer to give more time to get the messages across. Because of financial constraints, it probably doesn't do the marketing it would like to do.'
The Independent travel editor
Simon Calder says: ‘There has been growth in the number of overseas visitors to London and that is largely due to no-frills aviation. But the "Everyone's London" campaign was good, as VisitLondon identified people living in London as a valuable market.'
Steve Dunne, MD of travel specialist Brighter PR, says: ‘London's image is that it's crowded, bustling, expensive and polluted. VisitLondon is doing a great job, but it is an uphill struggle.'
Travel writer Jeannette Hyde, the former Observer travel editor, agrees with Dunne that the general perception of London is negative, but cites British involvement in Iraq as a source of the problem. She believes tourism and PR campaigns are undermined by political issues.
Hyde argues: ‘People still have images from 7/7 in their minds, but the only way to rectify this is to sort out the politics behind it. You can't gloss over the situation with a PR campaign.' But Grice responds that concerns about British forces' involvement in Iraq does not crop up in VisitLondon's surveys and focus groups. She says tourists shun London because of the perceived cost, because ‘people find the size of the city daunting' and the fact that no-frills airlines have allowed British holidaymakers access to previously hard-to-reach parts of Europe.
Conversely, though, and as Calder points out, the growth in the number of low-cost airline routes using Luton, Stansted and Gatwick airports are playing a major part in facilitating foreign travellers' trips to London. As Grice says: ‘Visitor numbers are increasing, and one reason is that there are strong, emerging overseas markets.'
Further campaigns on cards VisitLondon is continuing to think up fresh campaigns: it is using youth specialist Cake to handle a ‘Rivers and Waterways' drive, which urges Londoners to ‘look at their city from a different angle'. This will be followed by the annual ‘London in September' campaign – also being handled by Cake. And in the run-up to Christmas, VisitLondon will promote the capital's shopping.
The organisation is also using Blue Rubicon on a corporate brief to maximise opportunities presented by the 2012 Olympics (see News).
But one year on from 7/7, attracting more domestic tourists remains VisitLondon's greatest challenge. With the terror-threat ever-present the body will need to demonstrate all its marketing savvy to encourage Britons to join foreign tourists in making the most of what the city has to offer.