This is not the start that any of us would have wished for to 2021, nor is it the start to this our association’s Centenary year that I had envisaged. I had hoped to be bidding good riddance to 2020, by far the most difficult year for tourism and the visitor economy in living memory, and to be looking forward with some optimism to a domestic recovery, or at least the first flush of one in time for main window of opportunity for most, during the coming shoulder and main season months of late March to the end of October. Given a lead time for planning and financial commitments of typically 3 to 6 months and in some cases, far longer, we are already losing, or have lost, key business opportunities, particular but not exclusively around events, conferencing, group leisure, business and educational travel and much more besides, during those early shoulder months. Progressively in turn, with each passing week the viability of major, main season and late shoulder activities will also start to be called in to question, as will almost every other aspect of business and operator, management and consumer planning. Due to the symbiotic nature of our “industry”, any one business or one or more sector’s pain within tourism, leisure, culture, arts, heritage, sports and indeed high street retail etc. is increasingly someone, if not everyone else’s problem.
I have been struggling for days to think of something optimistic to say that would be believed by those of you wrestling with delivery and forward planning on a daily basis. The best I could briefly come up with was, “it can’t get any worse”. Unfortunately for most employees and employers, for many businesses, for many public, private and third sector operators, for the majority of those in the various sectors that are part of or associated with tourism and for all popular destinations that are essentially an amalgam of all of these, we all appreciate that this is far from a certainty. Indeed, given the latest National lockdowns, it has already just got far worse with plenty of potential for more to come, before it starts to get better. We can but hope the current lockdowns across the Nations, probably to around mid-February, could at worst the bottom of the trough.
The questions from us all are: when might we see that upturn out of the trough, will my business/operation/interests survive long enough to start enjoying it and will it happen soon and strongly enough to then sustain individual and the joint recovery of our interwoven business communities in a now much changed and still changing business environment? Those questions are no different from those being asked late last year. The differences, if there are any, is the degree of increasing desperation and the time sensitive urgency for clear direction on the known or potential routes, waypoints and timelines to recovery. Without some reasonably clear, shared understanding of the way ahead we can’t hope to retore shattered consumer and industry confidence. Without that confidence, on both sides of that same supply and demand coin, any recovery will be delayed for much longer and be less effective than it could and should otherwise be.
In our last destination managers’ meeting in mid-December, members identified three key areas amongst a raft of others including: the need for clear direction on the road to recovery to restore confidence; enough said on that already. Better understanding of the wider damage done to destination management organisations (DMO) and not simply the more obvious damage to commercial, primarily private sector operated and funded DMOs. The vast majority of both, the relatively few Business Improvement District (BID) based DMOs and the far more numerous, more traditional local government, directly supported or provided DMO models are under unprecedented financial pressure from lost commercial activities and revenues. Ironically, the more engaged and, therefore, commercially orientated local authority’s DMO activities are, the more likely it is that their future operations are threatened, by shortfalls in LA funding and their legally binding obligations to service statutory delivery first and foremost. Central Government needs to fully recognise the non-statutory role that many authorities play in underpinning their local tourism and visitor economies and take appropriate actions to ensure that private sector, BID and LA DMOs all remain in place to manage the current crisis and, critically, to support the recovery we know will follow.
The consequences of cutting away some or all of the destination management functions that underpins local tourism, either before or during a post pandemic recovery are unthinkable. But the unthinkable is having to be considered in some destination areas and town, right now, in order to balance 2020/21 books and set 2021/22 local authority budgets, and there is very little time left before the potentially irreversible damage is done.
The third area was concern was around the future of the measurement of local tourism value and volume. This is now by no means a universal activity. Where it is undertaken it was principally public sector driven. Notwithstanding the financial pressure alluded to above, it remained essential that the measurement of local tourism and visitor economy value and volume continued to be undertaken and preferably expanded where it has previously been lost. Without robust local data principal destinations and others can’t hope to accurately report and manage the current crisis in the short-term, or far more importantly, effectively manage the long-term future recovery. Moreover, in England at least, it is already becoming clear that post BREXIT structural funding mechanisms are likely to be single pot based and highly competitive, not simply by place and projects but between different sectors and industries within, and between, places. If tourism is to receive the support it needs and deserves from finite structural and redevelopment funding, robust local economic tourism statistics will be more, not less important in the future. National tourism data, although also vital at a national level isn’t and can never be anywhere like fine grained enough for local management purposes or for local economic case making.
Although, project specific data can be generated on an ad hoc basis, a far more cost effective and compelling case can be made using routinely collected annual data; data that also then has far more regular utility in effective destination management. Relatively low productivity tourism is already at a significant disadvantage when competing one on one for attention against many other industries. To compound this existing problem by failing to measure and collect comparative local data at all for the tourism industry would be remiss of any destination of any true significance. How and by whom it is collected and funded remains a major stumbling block, hence it more often than not it having to fall to the public sector. That is a local role that should now perhaps be formally recognised and preferably then resourced.
Although the records for the Association of Health and Pleasure Resorts prior to the mid-1950s are now lost, it is not unreasonable to assume that when our organisation was first formed at some point in 1921, its founding civic members were reacting to unprecedented circumstance for tourism. The country was in the midst of the 1919 – 1921 then record recession, following the 1914 -18 World War and emerging from the aftermath of the 1918-1920 Spanish flu pandemic. One hundred years later, in a very different world and in differing circumstances, we find ourselves in an unnervingly similar, dire situation. I have said that we can’t say with certainty that things can’t get any worse; they may yet do so. But what we can say with absolute certainty is that things, at some point hopefully soon, will start to get better, indeed much better, albeit perhaps not back to precisely the same normality that we were so familiar with only 12 months ago. That certainty is something we can at least now start to focus on and develop further, if indeed not celebrate in some small way.
Our task for the Centenary year and beyond is to continue to work together to support each other and by doing so, given more efficient and effective support to those local business partners and communities around which your destinations are formed. British Destinations exists to assist its members. This is one of those, fortunately rare, periods in history where our assistance, your joint working and the consequential pursuit of our shared strategic, tactical and occasionally operational objectives are absolutely vital to the future success of destination-based tourism within the UK. Without doubt tourism and our visitor economies will recover and with your support, British Destination can and will help ensure it happens sooner and with more vigour than it might otherwise be the case.
The invitation to join the next destination managers meeting 1400, 21 January will follow shortly. Principle agenda items will be around obtaining a better understanding from you of the full impacts of the rapidly changing situation over the Christmas and New Year period and any immediate actions required to mitigate these. In the likely absence of any immediate central direction on the way forward, the meat of the session will be around discussions on and some prudent scenario planning around the start of the coming new season and beyond. If you are not in receipt of the invitation by next Monday and you wish to participate email me.
The officer’s group are happy to include a few non-member guests on a case-by-case basis, please let me know if you fall into that category. I would stress that meeting is relevant to managers from all destination types, sizes and location and it is not just for the bigger players, or for coastal or any other sub grouping. We need and value everyone’s contribution and if you can spare the time I would welcome engagement from all member destinations.