When an Inspector calls... January 2018

Starting off the year with a cabinet reshuffle, we have seen John Glen MP replaced by Michael Ellis MP as Tourism Minister. What does this mean for the industry, and what can we hope for in 2018? Deborah Heather, Director of Quality in Tourism considers.

As part of the cabinet reshuffle on the 9th January, Tourism Minister John Glen MP was reappointed as economic secretary to the treasury and city minister, leaving the tourism position open to be filled by Michael Ellis MP, Northampton North. Glen, who was only in the position for seven months, had little time to do anything of note despite the best of intentions, but it is hoped that Michael Ellis will have both the time and impetus to help support and drive forward the industry.

As parliamentary undersecretary for arts, heritage and tourism, Ellis wasted no time in seeking understanding of the industry, meeting with VisitBritain Chiefs Steve Ridgeway and Sally Balcombe within days of being appointed. He has also been quoted giving his commitment to working for the industry, pledging a positive agenda to help it succeed and grow.

In the limited weeks since his appointment, Ellis has already been questioned in parliament, answering submitted questions on the marketing of the tourism sector, and specific questions relating to tourism in Cornwall, North Cornwall and Portsmouth among others; questions which he has answered confidently, with commentary about VisitBritain and VisitEngland, and how their funding is allocated and directed in support of the industry.

Little is known about Ellis’ specific agenda for the industry as yet, but it is hoped and believed that continued consultation with committees such as The Tourism Industry Council will help maintain current momentum. At the time of his first meeting with the committee in September 2017, former Tourism Minister John Glen was quoted saying “There is a huge amount of potential for growth within the tourism sector and this requires joined-up thinking between government and industry. The Tourism Industry Council is an important forum to develop this work and provide a strong voice for the industry, both nationally and internationally, as we prepare to leave the EU. I hope that by working together we can ensure the sustained success of the tourism sector so that it continues to be a major economic force in the UK”. It is hoped that Ellis will uphold this sentiment, fostering a collaborative partnership between businesses and the government, and supporting the industry to capitalise on the inbound tourism potential offered by the weakened pound.

Indeed, according to predictions from VisitBritain, 2018 can expect 41.7million inbound visits, up 4.4% on 2017, and £26.9billion in visitor spending, an increase of 6.8% on 2017. Interestingly, VisitBritain has highlighted the potential future impacts on travel of Brexit, stating “By the end of 2018 the departure date will be less than three months away and there is uncertainty about the transition period and post-Brexit settlement and their impacts on travel. While this forecast concentrates on inbound demand, Brexit creates many uncertainties for the supply and regulatory side too.” The organisation has also sought to predict the reputational impacts of Brexit, tracking consumer sentiment towards Britain ever since the referendum, with assessment in September 2017 highlighting that “For most potential European visitors, Brexit does not affect their decision to travel to Britain for leisure… most Europeans still see Britain as a welcoming destination – and agree that the exchange rate means that now is a good time to visit. However, likelihood to visit has fallen since our research in August 2016. As we approach the date of Brexit, sentiment about Britain and concern about post-Brexit travel practicalities are downside risks for the forecast.”  In response, VisitBritain Director Patricia Yates said: “Tourism is one of the UK's most valuable export industries. It is also a fiercely competitive global industry and these results not only demonstrate Britain’s continued ability to compete internationally for visitors, they are testament to tourism’s importance as a driver of economic growth.”

So what are we hoping and expecting for the UK hospitality industry in 2018 and beyond?

We of course need to be mindful of the uncertainty of Brexit, and the likely impact on how this changes inbound travel – more leisure visits and less business trips in the short-term - but it is essential that we don’t become a nation tied only to our process of leaving the EU, and instead remember our place as a tourism powerhouse, with unique, accessible experiences you cannot have anywhere else.

What is clear is that we need to learn to expect the unexpected, and at an individual level, businesses are going to have to prepare to adapt to changing behavioural patterns and potentially to diversify, while the wider industry enjoys extensive growth and spend. Despite visitor number increases, business travel is expected to fall slightly, as it did in 2017, and this means commercial hotels may either need to innovate, or diversify in order to continue thriving.

At Quality in Tourism, our hopes for this year are many, including:

  • A positive agenda for growth; set by a partnership between Government and industry, to ensure the UK remains at the forefront of tourism innovation, and continues to be a sought-after Destination for visitors. We understand this is and always has been the agenda for VisitBritain in particular, but are eager for the sector to lead and not follow globally. Where possible, we will be forming partnerships and contributing our views through the appropriate channels, to help ensure the tourism agenda is at the forefront, on behalf of our membership.
  • Diversification of destination and development of new product. There is an international issue of over-tourism in some of the most famous international Destinations and the same is true of the UK. While in part this is the result of the quality and calibre of the sights, much is also the result of clever and dedicated marketing over the decades. Indeed, some places have benefited so much, they are now charging tourism taxes to help alleviate the problem; a prime opportunity for newer destinations. We’d like to see 2018 as the year the UK focusses on developing new product and extending the spread of tourism, finding and promoting the hidden gems in every single corner, so that the benefit of tourism is evenly spread. This year, our newly relaunched schemes will help not only to benchmark businesses against others in the industry, but will also seek to individualise and promote the uniqueness of each and every single one; yes, we believe in minimum standards, but we also believe in celebrating unique experiences that guests will treasure.
  • Increase in standards and quality. In an unregulated industry, there has been much historic variance in standards, exacerbated by the influx of properties via the sharing economy. We’re looking for a shift that not only assures the safety and wellbeing of guests, but which eliminates substandard accommodation from the market. Guests should not need to use reviews to assure a quality stay; they should only need to use reviews to differentiate between the types of experience and specialism of each accommodation.
  • Accountability of providers. I personally feel that last year was plagued by a myriad of unnecessary bad news stories, from fires to legionnaire’s disease, inappropriate conduct to review backlash. Our industry is better than this, and the actions of a few should not undermine the quality of the many. Some regulation exists, true, but a mandatory process for accountability doesn’t, until after the worst has happened. We intend to campaign for better accountability, so that those who are committed to quality and standards are not tarred with bad news stories of others, particularly when they are easily avoided. 
  • A shift to experiential differentiation. Our industry is unique and different and we need to get better at celebrating that. At the heart of our new standards is an unprecedented flexibility in assessments that helps to celebrate the uniqueness of hospitality experiences. This does not mean an easy ride, or a loss of core standards, but it does mean that a historic building will be celebrated for what it is, not downgraded because they don’t have space for a desk. We’re focussing more on the exceptional experiences guests enjoy thanks to the hard work of the people who run the hotels, and our industry deserves recognition for that. As part of our soon-to-be-relaunched website, we’ll be highlighting the aspects that make each property unique and the things that each does exceptionally well. We also have planned an extensive consumer marketing campaign for later in the year that supports this differentiation, and we hope this will help too.
  • A fall back in love with the industry. The last few years have typified much of our industry as great, but... It is no longer seen as an aspirational career; it is no longer heralded for its sense of magic and mystique. We hope that during 2018 and beyond we can pull together as an industry, to rebuild the reputation and encourage the world to fall back in love with the magic of UK hotels.

I know there are a lot of wants on my list for this year, but having spent the last six months re-engaging with businesses and shifting focus to what we should be assessing and exactly what makes the UK and UK hospitality industry so special, I know that with a little bit of love and attention, we can thrive far more than anticipated. Let’s make the UK a hospitality powerhouse and an example to be touted, and let’s start the campaign in 2018!

Quality in Tourism has launched a new series of industry standards and assessments, focussing on guest experience rather than traditional facilities standards. If you have any comments on the article, please direct them to our team.

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