Growing the visitor economy of the East of England

Dr Andy Wood OBE, chairman of the new Visit East of England, writes an open letter to tourism businesses and stakeholders in the region…

Think of tourism locations across the UK and what comes to mind? Cornwall. Yorkshire. The Lakes. The Peaks. Scotland and Wales. Certainly not the East of England. And yet, the visitor economy of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire is worth more than Yorkshire’s.

Norfolk’s alone has a higher value than the perennial focus of Sunday supplement travel features and home of Poldark that is Cornwall. Yes, you read that correctly.

We’re not a top-of-mind destination and yet the visitor economy of the region, including Essex, is worth more than £10bn. It attracts over 140m day trips a year, close to 10m staying visits, and directly employs around 200,000 people. It’s the largest sector and probably the biggest employer.

Imagine what we could achieve if we were top-of-mind?

And that is one of the objectives of the new Visit East of England that launched recently at Holkham Hall in north Norfolk with myself as Chairman and Lord Leicester as the new President.

But as well as being more top-of-mind with travellers, this region must also be more visible with government bodies and national tourism organisations.

As far as Visit Britain are concerned, when the
East of England Regional Development Authority was closed in 2011, and with it East of England Tourism, this region disappeared from the national radar.

In the time since, what has come out of the East has been fragmented, with lots of great activity by local destination marketing organisations and huge investment in product by the private sector, but nothing joined-up. The canvas has always been present, but a bigger picture wasn’t being painted.

In the meantime, we have looked enviously at the collective approaches of the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine Room and the South West and their success in pulling up a chair at a national level. They have made that possible for themselves by speaking with one voice and one message.

That’s what we need to achieve too. And that’s why this new Visit East of England is required, particularly with a national Tourism Sector Deal in the offing. The East of England should not get crumbs from the table, while other regions dine out.

We are working closely with the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership to ensure we meet the criteria set out in the Sector Deal for a Tourism Zone. Together, we are liaising with educational establishments and the private and public sector to develop a Sector Skills Plan, to boost recruitment, skills, productivity and long-term careers in tourism and hospitality.

We believe that if the industry works together it can help grow jobs, productivity and wealth; improve skills and training; create the landscape to increase accommodation occupation. It can write a new positive narrative to overcome the perception that tourism is seasonal, low skilled and low paid. We can encourage talent into the sector and for them to believe they will have a rewarding career.

The sector needs to work strategically with key transport providers and hubs to improve connections, accessibility, and bring more people here.

London Stansted, the International Gateway to the East of England, is the fastest-growing airport in the country and has ambitious development plans. Norwich International is one of the best-connected airports in the country, with daily flights to and from Schiphol Amsterdam. Greater Anglia are making the biggest investment in new rolling stock and services since Victorian times.

Another issue for the sector is that it can’t communicate with itself, dominated as it by SMEs. The old database of East of England Tourism is chronically out of date, particularly since the closure of most tourist information centres, who were the eyes and ears.

So, to that end, we are offering every tourism-related business and service a free listing on the new Visit East of England website. That way we can have two-way communication with the industry.

I’m reminded of a story about a new Bishop of Norwich who had a question for the previous incumbent.

‘Tell me,’ he asked. ‘How do you get the people to follow you?’

‘Oh that’s easy,’ said the outgoing cleric. ‘You just find out where they’re going… and walk in front.’

And that’s what we want to do at Visit East of England. We want to engage with businesses and stakeholders to find out what is necessary for the sector to further prosper in the coming years.

We want to help grow the value of the sector by converting day trippers to higher-spending staying visitors and we want to develop a year-round visitor economy.

We want to promote responsible, sustainable tourism and for that purpose our new website also provides a free booking mechanic for all accommodation providers. Working with Staylists, a tech company based at BT’s Adastral Park near Ipswich, we are providing a real-time alternative to the global Online Travel Operators. Importantly, we will only charge 10% commission on hotel bookings, unlike the OTAs’ 15%+. So not only will accommodation providers get more for themselves, but 100% of the value of any booking stays in the local economy.

We believe this is an ethical and transparent booking model unlike, dare I say it, some of the OTAs who have been in the headlines recently.

In the next five years, the visitor economy is projected to have double digit growth – the only sector to do so. Every 1% of growth would create more than 1000 additional jobs. That is the prize we want to secure.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to galvanize ourselves, to work together, to forge a new relationship between ourselves and with national agencies that will bring more visitors, more wealth, more jobs, and more skills to the East of England.

That is why we look forward to working with you in the future. And for the East of England to be more top-of-mind.

Dr Andy Wood OBE – Chairman, Visit East of England

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