Last month's blanket media coverage of airport chaos was a PR nightmare for many in the travel industry. But not Tom Wright, chief executive of national tourism agency VisitBritain.
Part of VisitBritain's job is to persuade Britons that holidaying at home is a good idea. And while recent newspaper articles suggesting Cornwall was ‘fully booked' may be pushing it, there is evidence that punters are eschewing disrupted air travel in favour of a break in the UK.
The recent numbers certainly do the talking. While the mid-1990s sheen of Cool Britannia may have dulled, Britain's cutting-edge fashion and music - and the use of locations for films such as Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code - are once more making Britain a popular destination and are being used as powerful comms tools.
Last year, visits by foreigners to Britain rose to 29.9 million (up eight per cent on 2004). They spent £14.3bn, a nine per cent year-on-year increase. Most of these visitors hailed from the US, Germany, France, Ireland and Spain, but tourists from outside the US and western Europe increased by 18 per cent to 6.4 million. According to VisitBritain one in five visitors is inspired by TV images.
The real value of PR
By his own admission, Wright is gamekeeper-turned-poacher. The former boss of Saga Holidays used to be responsible for sending veteran travellers to 60 countries. Now you might think he would rather they all just stayed here. But VisitBritain's PR pitch is more subtle than that. Speaking to PRWeek a few days before news broke of the alleged bomb plot, Wright explained: ‘The solution is not to say "don't travel overseas": nowadays people take several breaks a year, so we'd rather say "take one of those in the UK".'
Wright's background, which also includes a stint at Center Parcs, is in brand marketing rather than PR, but he has a keen interest in what editorial communication strategy can do. ‘It is hugely important to the way we market Britain globally, and is becoming more important each year. The annual value of our global PR is £600m: and pound for pound, we know that we couldn't afford to do without it.'
Wright's corporate remit is slightly odd. He is responsible for marketing Britain as a tourist destination to the rest of the world, increasing the money that foreign tourists bring in. But he is only responsible for England - because Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own tourist boards.
Add to that the fact that VisitBritain is a government-funded agency, and it becomes clear that Wright is a man walking on political tiptoes. ‘He must have fortitude and keen diplomatic antennae,' is how one travel PRO describes his position. That is probably putting it mildly, although the affable Wright shows no sign of balancing uneasily.
Some £50m of VisitBritain's budget is provided by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. It is then expected to find another £25m through ‘partnership activities' with tourism stakeholders such as ferry firms or stately home owners, for example. The idea is that British brands get access to 30-odd foreign markets through association with VisitBritain. ‘Most of my directors come from commercial backgrounds,' Wright says. ‘We are sponsored by the government but this is very much a public/private partnership. Our chairman is Lord Marshall, the former chief executive of British Airways.'
Tasked with activity as diverse as responding to 7/7 and promoting arts festivals, VisitBritain's 12-strong PR department is split into three teams: international, corporate and England. They work at developing news hooks for media, using a specially developed press toolkit to work coverage via the group's offices in 36 countries, from eastern Europe to South-East Asia.
Perhaps more than in any other sector, press trips are a major component of travel PR, with 1,000 journalists brought to the UK each year by VisitBritain alone - and not just to enjoy the hospitality. After 2001's foot-and-mouth outbreak, for instance, getting US hacks over to report on the situation was a key plank in our PR. ‘Some Americans were getting odd messages about the safety of British food,' explains Wright. ‘But Britain's ability to cope in a crisis is well known.'
Wright says travel editors are now approached with ideas based around VisitBritain's themes, such as short breaks and youth travel (‘16 to 34-year-olds account for 39 per cent of all inbound tourist spend in the UK' is a typical statistic). ‘There are so many hooks - we're lucky,' says Wright. ‘From a PR point of view we have done a lot of work with the BBC [for geography/history series Coast] and Tate Britain [for the gallery's Pictures of Britain exhibition].'
Reflecting this change, VisitBritain's recent So British campaign focused on affluent travellers via a glossy magazine about food and lifestyle distributed in China, Russia and South America, as well as the US and UK.
‘The US and Japanese markets have not fully recovered from 2000 levels. But we're seeing visitors from places such as Russia, India and the Czech Republic,' Wright adds.
A new PR campaign will also back up TV advertising this month, concentrating on Britain's ‘hidden' treasures. Wright explains luring visitors to attractions outside the M25 is much harder: the capital remains the big draw. VisitBritain's answer to this is ‘Britain Calling', its monthly newsletter previewing nationwide attractions and events. As well as pottery and needlework exhibitions, the pamphlet details everything from the Beaulieu International Autojumble and Southampton Boat Show, to the Son-et-Lumiere light and sound extravaganza in Perthshire.
It is one thing persuading foreigners they should come and see Buckingham Palace - but it is quite another getting jaded hacks to accept that British holidays offer more than a rainy week in Margate. ‘Bookings were quiet during the World Cup, but this year's heatwave will help us with domestic bookings next year,' Wright predicts. ‘We recently did some work with the press on places to keep cool.'
On issues such as responding to terror fears - potentially his greatest task right now - Wright says that the formation of The Industry Emergency Response Group (TIER), comprising representatives from bodies such as ABTA and the British Hospitality Association, has been a huge help. ‘It gives us a global co-ordinated response, preventing the wrong information getting out, for example about transport and logistics,' he explains. ‘TIER helps make sure that we don't have one part of the industry off-message.'
Steve Dunne, MD of tourism and hospitality specialist Brighter PR, believes Wright has made a good fist of things here. ‘He has done exceptionally well to get domestic holidays back onto the agenda.' He also praises him for transforming British holidays from what was ‘often seen as a staid product into something attractive.'
On this latter point Wright prefers to credit improvements in hotel standards for creating a shift in perception. ‘Editors have recognised the big improvements made by hotels. We're also seeing life-stage changes with journalists.' In other words, writers with families have learned to appreciate the allure of, say, Cornwall, Norfolk or Devon as a holiday venue.
And, despite all of this, Wright insists there is plenty still to do. To take one problem: on a typical eight-day visit, the average foreign tourist spends £466. Back in 2000, this figure was £503. Obviously, Wright wants them to spend more. But he is cheerily confident: ‘I have an understanding of the global and domestic markets. I've learned about the relentless pursuit of customer satisfaction.'
He admits domestic visitor levels have underperformed. ‘They have been, at best, static,' he confides. ‘We can't keep up with the rivalry of low-cost carriers. We're exporting more tourism than we're importing.'
But one feels that may soon change.
CV - Tom Wright
Joins VisitBritain. Is made CEO within three months
Managing director at Saga Group with a seat on the board
Moves to Rotterdam to oversee Center Parcs' marketing strategy in Europe
Leaves R&D role at brewer Carlsberg-Tetley to join Center Parcs with a sales and marketing brief
Joins Carlsberg-Tetley from Anchor Foods, where he spent six years in marketing and new product development