The future of inbound tourism with Deirdre Wells OBE

With more than 20 years in Government with roles including Head of Tourism, Chief Executive of UKinbound, Deirdre Wells OBE was perfectly placed to deliver an insight into the future of inbound tourism for the UK at the mia Conference in March.

We spoke to Deirdre after the conference to summarise the key messages of her talk that venues and event planners need to know.

Has Brexit had any immediate effect on inbound tourism?

The biggest impact on inbound tourism to date following June’s Referendum has been the devaluation of sterling (for many a positive impact) and on the UK’s ‘welcome’. However, for the majority of inbound tourism businesses it is business as usual.

Last year was another record year for inbound tourism. Confidence levels are currently good and forward bookings are strong. Spend on luxury items and retail sales generally has also increased as overseas tourists have taken advantage of our weak currency.
VisitBritain conducted research immediately after the referendum which showed a positive response in Europe to the UK. However, eight months on, this research has been conducted again and feelings have changed a little, particularly around our ‘welcome’.
For our tourism industry to remain strong, the UK needs to be perceived as a welcoming place. Whilst the UK is currently fifth in the world for tourism we have dropped down one place to twelfth for welcome.

How is Brexit likely to affect inbound tourism in the long term?

Currently there is still little information on which to base long term decisions, so it is difficult to predict exactly how inbound tourism will be affected in the next few years.

However, it is extremely likely that restrictions will be placed on employing EU migrants in the UK, which is a big concern for the tourism industry.

At this moment in time, approximately 30% of employees in the UK tourism industry are from the EU, and the hospitality industry in London employs approximately 70% of EU migrants.

Restricting the flow of EU migrants will create significant labour shortages and can be considered the single largest threat for businesses, as they strive to expand in a bid to meet the extra demand forecast for the next 10 years. Many SME businesses could be pushed over the edge.

Following the Referendum, UKinbound and BHA members have both reported that Brexit has made some of their EU employees nervous about committing to long term employment here in the UK, and have found difficulty in recruiting EU employees as they begin to feel unwelcome.  This is impacting on investment decisions and long term planning for some businesses

Industry and Government are now considering how to reach the economically inactive and the long-term unemployed to help fill the gaps that may be left by EU workers, but this will take time.

The UK tourism industry is also concerned about continued easy access for EU visitors to the UK.   Our tourism industry is heavily reliant on EU visitors, with our members reporting that over two thirds of visitors are coming from the EU.  There are therefore concerns about what visa regime will be put in place post-Brexit, and what access will be available to EU residents.

UKinbound and other industry bodies are lobbying Government on all inbound tourism issues relating to Brexit, including the Open Skies Agreement, employment and visas for EU nationals. With 70% of our visitors coming by air to the UK, the negotiation of continued access to the single aviation market is critical for the industry.

How can we make the most of any opportunities Brexit may bring?

The industry should be looking to capitalise on the weak sterling and consider new markets/customers outside the EU post Brexit.
Brexit, along with the Government’s new industrial strategy, should also be seen as an opportunity to make changes to policy and to move key issues in both tourism and the meetings industry up the political agenda, as Government is keen to spread growth around the regions.

How do we sell the UK as a leading events destination?

The tourism and events industries need to keep doing what they do best. This means great customer service, professionalism, a warm welcome and ensuring that we have new innovative products and services to keep attracting customers.
We are a people industry, so the quality of the customer service has to be exemplary. Making people feel welcome and wanting to come back is key.

What are the key things international business clients are likely to look for in a venue?

Just like domestic clients, international businesses are looking for a good location, cost effectiveness, technology connectivity and secure and easy access, with excellent transport links.  Good, convenient accommodation options are also vital.

Do you have any quick tips to help venues win international business?

Know your market and establish good relationships with potential customers. It is important to be prepared when dealing with international prospects. Winning international business can sometimes be a long game.

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