1. Current prospects. You probably don’t need me to tell you that the immediate and longer-term prospects for tourism, leisure and the visitor economy in general are looking even bleaker, this week than they were a month ago, following international and domestic events over the last few days and weeks.
Of note are the still “mysterious” damage to key Baltic undersea gas infrastructure and the concurrent annexation of seized and in some instances now reoccupied Ukrainian territory, the mobilisation of Russia’s Army reserve and implicit threats by the Russian leadership to use all means available, including tactical, battlefield nuclear weapons (an absurd but very real concept). Combined these makes the likelihood of de-escalation of the ongoing undeclared, international economic war and the associated, currently limited ground war in Ukraine, rather more remote and, indeed, further escalation a very real possibility. Regardless of the implications of this alarming state of international peace and diplomacy, one of the obvious consequences is that at the very best, the associated worldwide energy, (and food) crisis isn’t going to stabilise, let alone improve, anytime soon.
Meanwhile at home the welcome news of a six-month energy price cap for business has still left us with, as with the domestic price cap, a significant degree of ongoing confusion and continuing uncertainty around what it all actually means to whom, in actual pounds and pence. The cap essentially limits the level of financial pain that will be experiences but doesn’t in any way remove it and, for some (many?), that supposedly capped level of pain will, because of the level of necessary consumption, remain unbearable. Consumers will have less disposable income and business increased costs, regardless of the cap.
Regrettable, the energy crisis has also proved to be the least of our potential worries. The money men and money markets have reacted very badly to the other major components of last week’s mini budget. The pound crashed (recovered today but for how long?), gilt yields plummeted, pension funds were on the verge of collapse, interest rates and costs of Government borrowing climbed steeply, confidence in UK fiscal policy and fiscal credibility fell away dramatically and as a result the economy was and, arguably still is, in very real danger of being wreaked. Government now needs to act swiftly to restore confidence and, as yet, it is unclear whether the new leadership are both willing and able to do so. Logic tells us that they must and let hope they do, very quickly.
Why is his of immediate importance to destination management, tourism and the visitor economy? Whatever the government now do or don’t do, both the supply and demand sides of “hospitality” have in the last week had the stuffing knocked out their already fragile confidence. That knocking is in all likelihood, going to continue for days, weeks or even months. Confidence while typically quickly lost, can and will take many months to slowly recover, even if the underlying concerns on the supply and demand sides are immediately and totally resolved or even prove to be entirely groundless. Neither of which is of course likely to prove to be the case in full.
Lack of consumer confidence is the enemy of discretionary spending on which many of the businesses in our sectors are often partly or entirely reliant. Tomorrow is the start of the critical for many, important for most, Christmas third quarter. Additional action to encourage and drive footfall to support business and businesses during this period may need to be considered. Equally consideration may need to be given to the likely additional impacts on and during the usually sluggish January to March period. We were already predicting that energy costs would result in curtailed trading hours and days of the week, going forward in general and many more, longer closures thereafter during the first quarter of the New Year. Understanding what product is now going to be available, when and balancing consumer expectation against product availability, is going to be particularly difficult for destination management and within that destination marketing. Nonetheless, failure to try to encourage sufficient visits and visitors isn’t an acceptable course nor, is encouraging visitors in numbers that prove to exceeds the currently levels of increasingly uncertain, off peak season supply.
Obviously the very real prospect in amongst all of this of business failures, will remains a major concern, as will the impacts on business investment and on ongoing, planned and future development.
2. Accommodation registration. On a brighter note the DCMS call for evidence on proposals for an accommodation registration scheme closed on 21st September. A week earlier we understand there had already been c 1000 responses due, we believe to encouragement among property owners and operators to respond. The final count could well be significantly higher; however, a thousand responses alone is already an unusually high number for this type of consultation. When the number of responses climbs there is the danger of “weighing” the response for or against and of the analysis becoming by necessity just a pure statistical exercise. In part this why the British Destinations’ response was designed not to fit the template and range across many other areas than those defined with it. It is high risk strategy in that the content might be ignored as being outside the scope but equally our templated response could have been easily lost, as just one other among a thousand plus comments.
The hope is that some of our often frank and sometime controversial views may have been noticed and lodged, especially around the firm belief that a failure to grip the market is reputational disaster in waiting. The responsibility for which, in very changed circumstance, will fall on the Government’s doorstep and not necessarily at the door step of the previously reticent established accommodation sector. Of equal importance, is the fact that user reviews have no role to play in encouraging and policing safety and other regulator control and that the vast majority of consumers would be horrified to find just how poorly regulator requirements are being applied, monitored and enforced in the England. Consumers aren’t indifferent to current situation but oblivious to it. That will not last and it is far better to resolve the problems now under your own terms, than have that forced on us by some particularly unpleasant circumstances or a significant incident, that could and should have been avoided.
Link to our response in the box below:
3. Butlins under new ownership. Some good news; twenty months after Blackstone acquired Bourne Leisure and ten months after they indicated an intent to sell, the iconic British brand Butlins, the Butlins operation has been bought back by the Harris family, essentially the former founders (1964) and owners of Bourne Leisure and, within that group Butlins, acquired by them in 2000.
It is only an opinion but if you wanted to see a bellwether of traditional domestic family holidaymaking falling into good hands then I couldn’t think of a safer pair than those that controlled and rebuilt the brand during the majority of the 2000s (2000-2021). The remainder of the Bourne Leisure portfolio of Haven, the UK’s largest caravan park operator and Warner Leisure Hotels continues to be nurtured and developed under Blackstone’s ownership. Although, Butlins has contracted from its high point in 1950 to 1970s, it remains a major player in the domestic market, as a whole, and it is absolutely critical within the mix of those three destinations and there surrounding regions that still host them.
The DCMS’s call for evidence on the development of a tourism accommodation registration scheme in England closes today 21 Sep 22. There is still time, just, to get a brief online response submitted and/or a slim possibility given the recent momentous events and there impacts on administrative activities, some potential leeway on online or emailed replies. No guarantee but a possibility nonetheless.
The British Destinations response can now be found on our original consultation website page at: https://britishdestinations.net/consultation-responses/open-consultations/developing-a-tourist-accommodation-registration-scheme-in-england-closing-12-sep-22/
As is often our way we have taken the opportunity to submit a far more detailed, long and wide ranging set of comments in the hope that some or all may lodge. Each comment is designed to be used or quoted standing on its own if necessary without reference to the whole response. Among the comments and opinion expressed the most critical are: the lack of visibility and consequential lack of guaranteed regulatory compliance are a reputational disaster in waiting, the blame for which in changed circumstances will now fall at HMG’s door. Airbnb’s concept of amateur provision is a dangerous nonsense as is there proposal to automatically issue registration numbers on the basis of the completion of a simple self-assessment online registration. User reviews have no part to play in ensuring regulatory safety compliance and the public rightly already assume we have a first world first-rate regulatory system and means of ensuring compliance before anyone may trade. Visibility and transparency is key and the current sharing economy accommodation sector’s deliberately opaque business model must now be effectively tackled to avoid an now increasingly overdue reputational disaster. The established accommodation industry is not itself without fault and there is an opportunity and need and a for the first time a wider acceptance amongst them to expand the proposed scheme to all providers.
We have reluctantly given caveated support for a registration scheme with light check, but indicated that licensing scheme is probably what is actually needed.
I am delighted to be able to confirm the final detail for this year’s rescheduled joint British Destinations, Tourism Alliance and Tourism Society annual conference 9.30 for 10am to 4 pm, Tuesday 15 November and announce that the event is now open for bookings.
The conference detail, programme and booking link can be accessed under the ” Annual conference 2022″ menu tab of Britishdestinations.net, or go to the page direct at: https://britishdestinations.net/annual-conference-19-march-2018/
I have also added some important and timely new research courtesy of ALVA to our research and statistic library. The report for ALVA by Scattered Clouds looks at the prospects for 2023. None of the detail should come as too much of a surprise to British Destination members, as it is very much in line with that we have been saying, sharing and predicting throughout much of this year. However, it is an excellent, detailed, consolidated and well-articulated report which, critically, properly evidences each major area of concern.
The report doesn’t set out to make any specific forecasts but rather to give insight and present the evidenced detail, needed by individual ALVA members and, by default, destinations and other businesses to make better informed decisions and plans for the coming 2023 season. As such it is a first-rate planning tool.
There is a full pdf version of the report for those needing to understand some or all of the detail and a useful summary slide deck that gives the essential overview. Both can be found within the “Research & statistics – by year” menu tab and/or as a separate item under the adjacent “+” tab of Britishdestinations.net, or go direct to the main library page at: https://britishdestinations.net/research-and-statistics/
It seemed unnecessary, almost inappropriate, yesterday to join the multitude in express my/our/your deep sadness and profound shock at the news of the passing of Here Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, after 70 years of selfless service and truly glorious devotion to the Nation. Her loss will be felt deeply by the vast majority of here citizens in the UK and across much of the world. That loss will be physically expressed and demonstrated, in particular within the UK and, especially over the coming two to three weeks, with a sharp focus on a State Funeral in London, likely to be held on 19 September 2022.
However, unnecessary, almost inappropriate it felt expressing my sadness yesterday, it now feels utterly inappropriate but totally necessary now to try to give some practical direction on the known and possible consequences of what is an unprecedented event in our working lives.
The full detail of what National Mourning means in practical terms is still to be publicly announced but it is already clear that quite properly, normal business will effectively grind to a halt on the day of the State Funeral. There will also be major disruption, especially in London and by inference the South East on the days preceding it and potential for some days after. There is also likely to be disruption in Edinburg during, an expected, brief lying in State there.
Beyond the mandated impacts there will be a host of circumstantial impacts, second order consequences and voluntary decisions being made. Many major events from sports fixture to planned national strikes have already been postponed and it is highly likely that in addition to nationally stipulated changes yet to be announced, like school closures, there will be a vast array of major and minor changes, cancellations, postponements, from major concerts through major and minor meeting, individual days out, to pensioners tea parties and much else besides.
Much of that adjustment will fall on tourism, leisure, hospitality and visitor economy in general, as the UK public at large decide what is, or is not appropriate for them to do and when, in the circumstances of such a momentous event in the history of the Nation. There will also be a rash of Civic, religious and organisational and public events, officially and, in some instances, spontaneously arrange across the Nation, throughout the coming weeks.
Today’s announcements of official National arrangements will set the tone and, I would predict, act as the trigger for a wave of formal and informal decision making, much of it concentrated over the weekend and the first few “working days” of next week. Once planned events are adjusted moved or added, it will then be primarily a matter of how the public in general decide to respond and the proportion of the public and, indeed businesses themselves, that opt for business as usual or adopt a more sombre approach. While there may have been periods of State Mourning and State Funerals in living memory which could be indicative of the potential public response, this almost certainly an event of a very different and far more significant magnitude. Other than predicting it will be bigger and more impactful than anything we ourselves have seen before, we are almost certainly entering unchartered waters.
Although, there isn’t much that can be done today to manage what are likely to be unpredictable and fast-moving changes, being aware that almost anything could and can happen in the next fortnight or so may at least help you to prepare yourselves and others for a flurry of what is oddly, already predictable but as yet still largely unknown events. Forewarned is forearmed.
Last week I circulated a note entitled, “Crisis what crisis?”, outlining concerns about the impending supply and demand side crisis for tourism and the visitor economy. In that note I said that I doubted Government would be willing or able to offer “hospitality industry” specific support as they did during the pandemic but that was not a good reason, not to press for it. Indeed, this is what has been happening during the last week or so with, various individual and groups of trade associations raising concerns and making industry specific and more general requests for support to help them through the energy crisis. A crisis that is already biting businesses hard, unlike the domestic consumer energy crisis, the worst of which is still to physically hit or truly dawn on most ordinary consumers.
My rational for suggesting that industry specific support is less likely than in the pandemic is that: there is significantly less fiscal headroom than there was two or more years ago, the scale and direct causes of the difficulties for business are outside Government’s own direct control, there isn’t a direct causal link to the industry’s immediate problems with any Government policy/edicts as there was with the pandemic (we the Government are closing you down from to), the problems faced by “hospitality” on this occasion are pretty much common to every other industry sector and, it is now increasingly likely that the key players in Government, the PM and the Chancellor, could/will be entirely different people, with a potentially differing outlooks on how to bring about urgent economic change.
That said, I do need to clarify, that I was not suggesting for one moment that I think that there will be no general business support, for example, a business energy cap. Indeed, quite the opposite, I think that there absolutely has to and will be urgent measure brought in to support all businesses, within days of next week’s appointment of a new PM. Whether those measures prove to be sufficient in their own right, or critically sufficiently flexible to meet our industry’s many peculiarities, remains to be seen.
For these reasons, that it is vitally important that the component parts of tourism and the visitor economy continue to press for targeted measures like: a return to a reduced hospitality VAT rate, further business rate holidays for hospitality and leisure businesses and renewed leeway on when any outstanding tax bills must be settled. We may yet get special treatment. Equally it’s conceivable that some or all of these measures we propose could be picked up and offered to some or all businesses as a lifeline, regardless of sector. Either way our industry benefits.
I firmly believe that the case for special treatment stands or falls on a proper understanding of the differing seasonal demands, of differing component parts of our industry and the importance of the festive season bounce, in an otherwise long, dark and often difficult winter off-season from November through to the end of March. It is the arguments around why we need special support, rather than on what specific support is need that I think we and broader destination interests should now be focusing our main efforts on. The what is needed, is already being more than adequately addressed, jointly and separately by the main business hospitality and leisure representative trade bodies, whose opinion may carry more immediate weight than ours on specific business related measures.
For a flavour of what the business trade associations are currently saying and asking for please see:
Regardless of the support we receive, I remain pessimistic about the prospects of the crisis being resolved in the near future; mitigated yes, solved no. We might not be directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine but for all practical purpose’s Western democracies and Europe in particular, due to its unfortunate recent historic reliance on Russian gas, are effectively engaged in an undeclared economic world war. Just like the ground war in Ukraine, which is part of the self-same conflict, the economic war and its consequences are in all likelihood going to grind on in one way or other for a number of years, causing all manner of economic casualties and economic collateral damage as it does so.
The alternatives are that one side or the other gives way and gives up on their claim to, or support for, Ukraine in return for an end to economic sanctions and/or free access to affordable energy supplies. Given what has gone on and the truly appalling suffering on the ground to date, that currently seems an improbable outcome. Or in the meantime, we and other parts of the Western World will have to get used to using a lot less energy and/or go elsewhere to find significant new source of supply or new and different types of energy provision to keep things burning and turning. Both could easily take just as long, if not longer to successfully achieve than it will for one side or other to eventually winning or losing the ground war.
Unlike the early days of the pandemic (or more accurately throughout it?) we shouldn’t be planning, or was it hoping for, a return to “normality” in terms of the next few months, later this year or even next year, but potentially at the very least several years hence and possibly longer. As I said in my earlier commentary regarding this new and potentially greater crisis we are facing, my advice would be: “Plan for the long-term and for the worst case and sincerely and fervently then hope your wrong”.
1. As we head towards the end of the main school summer holiday period and now over three quarters of the way through the 2022 peak season and shoulder months combined, it would be prudent to start looking at what the coming late Autumn and Winter “off season” may now hold for the visitor economy as a whole and, specifically at the impacts of the unfolding national events on this Winter’s trade and more generally for the “industry” into next year’s main domestic tourism season and beyond. Hard to believe as it may be, I do genuinely hate to be pessimistic but, however hard I try, I can see little to gives any great cause for optimism.
2. The pressures on the supply side of the various sectors and sub sectors directly or indirectly involved in the visitor economy, most still battling to recover from a two-year pandemic and ongoing endemic, combined with the now rapidly escalating but not as yet fully developed crisis on the demand side, look set to cause major difficulties for much if not all parts of the “tourism industry”. Those difficulties, although different in their cause or nature, could well be just as bad, if not worse, than those experienced during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether they will elicit anything resembling the same types and level of support for the hospitality sectors is, at best, doubtful. Consequently, there is good reason to take stock now and, as we did in very early 2020 with the emerging threat from Covid-19, undertake some sensible contingency planning, both locally and jointly at a wider national level, so we have some common understanding around what we may face and how we might face it.
3. My central premise is that although we are already feeling strong, mainly financial, “head winds” we aren’t yet in the eye of the storm. Everything I know about tourism and everything I see about the energy, inflation, cost of living and cost of borrowing issues is telling me the supply and demand side pressures are all going to continue to build and eventually collide head on probably around the time Autumn turns to Winter. Or just about the time that the different and differing component parts of what is often loosely termed the tourism industry, would normally be switching to their differing feast or famine, seasonally drive modes. Given all that has passed since the distant normality of Christmas 2019, the prospect of a third seriously disrupted Christmas and Winter season can’t reasonably be viewed as anything other than a disaster in the making.
4. Looking objectively at what is bearing down on us, none of the constituent parts of our industry are likely to fare well out what is heading their way. Increased costs, inflationary pressures, higher interest rates and significantly subdued demand could be (almost certainly will be) catastrophic for many individual businesses and the likely resulting in curtailment of trade and business failures. Both are cumulatively damaging for individual destinations now and, with the loss of product and associated appeal, well into the 2023 main season and probably beyond.
5. The energy crisis is already hitting businesses hard, driving up their cost base for just about everything, including wages, the latter symptomatic of a combination of inflation and concurrent labour shortages. Inflationary pressures can no longer be absorbed, so consumer prices are rising fast, whilst margins and any related profits are at best static or are still falling fast. Access to cheap, short-term loans are now largely a thing of the past, while the interest rates on longer loans and on money already borrowed are likely to become prohibitively, if not terminally, expensive.
6. In a normal year at the end of Autumn traditional domestic “tourism” largely moves in towards semi-hibernation and/or switches emphasis towards more hospitality-based Winter, festive season activities. This year many tourism businesses will be going into their off-season mode without the comfort of either financial muscle from strong ongoing trade or the store of financial fat built up, over a strong summer season or two. Despite the self-promotional hype, 2022 has been at best alright but not truly wonderful for most businesses and most destinations as a whole, as was the equally hyped up and shorter 2021 season and of course 2020 was basically a write off for all but a lucky few.
7. This year, the lower end of the market has been hit hard and fast early on, as disposable income dried up earlier for those already with less of it. I.E., those on lower incomes or with bigger fixed out goings. The mid-market has, as it tends to do when buying power is squeezed, trade down and reduce spending: shorter journeys, self-catering instead of a hotel, camping instead of a guest house, a drink out, instead of a meal out. Trading down though doesn’t automatically mean filling all the void left in all the lower end of the market. Trading down generally involves similar quality, less expensive and not necessarily the cheapest or lowest quality option. Meanwhile the top end of the domestic market has done what the top end usually manages to do, initially, which is largely carry on regardless, for now at least.
8. The consequence I think can be summarised as plenty of volume but rather less value and a potential hollowing out, particularly of the largest by proportion middle market and is typified by fewer overnight stays, rather less eating out, fewer and less expensive treats, fewer ticketed events, more, free or low-cost days out and fewer days out or short breaks with any significant costs attached. That is not to say there have not been significant winners and losers and as always, the odd out layer that bucks the trend, but the generality, I believe holds true when viewed and taken across the piece.
9. Inbound tourism has done marginally better than originally forecast but still has a long way to go before it returns to 2019 levels. As ever the distribution of overseas visitors remains anything but uniform, with a small number of mainly City destinations capturing the lion’s share of both value and volume. Going forward, for a few, mainly City and historic honey pot locations, a poorly performing pound might offer an otherwise unwelcome glimmer of hope for some additional trade to come. Given the other consequences of a significantly weakening pound, it is best not to even go there, unless and until it becomes an unavoidable reality. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that this is a global crisis in the making and the chances are split evenly between the UK seeing fewer international rather than more in the short-term, whatever else happens in the months and year to come. My best guess is the financial crisis will slow the already, slow recovery of the international inbound market. I could be wrong. For UK plc as a whole and those destinations previously reliant on overseas visitors this is a major consideration. For most destination in our membership and many others, it is minor consideration, particularly when compared to the domestic market on which most are totally dependent and likely to remain so.
10. Despite some well-publicised travel related difficulties for the domestic outbound market, we have had a stronger and more marked return of the main overseas holiday than previously thought, after last year’s very welcome respite from the overbearing competition for the domestic holiday pound. The outbound market has not yet fully recovered to pre-2019 levels, but then again neither has the domestic market. In April domestic outbound travel had returned to 66% of its 2019 (ONS data) equivalent and the figures when eventually published for the key summer months are likely to be much higher. Some carriers and operators have reported summer holiday performance around 80% on 2019 levels. Although seen by Government as all part of the same big, happy tourism industry family, the elephant in the room remains that domestic and domestic outbound sectors are often (always?) in direct competition for the domestic leisure pound and never more so than when that pound is in shorter supply.
11. It is unlikely we will easily, if ever, overcome the Treasury orthodoxy that, among other things, refuses to even acknowledge let alone act upon the, admittedly simplistic, proposition that a pound spent on tourism at home is, or could be, a pound not effectively exported abroad. But like the Treasury orthodoxy that sees all domestic tourism promotion as merely a mechanism of general economic displacement and therefore a waste of local and national public resource, it still should at the very least be volubly challenged at any and every opportunity.
12. The failure to acknowledge the import/export benefit of taking a domestic holiday v its most obvious and realistic alternative option and viewing all domestic promotion of tourism as simply serving to needlessly displace the same spending from other parts of the economy (and not just between “competing” UK destinations), are probably just different strands of much the same piece of core economic policy or Treasury Green Book orthodoxy? Trying to tackling one or other on its own probably will not make a lot of difference. Perhaps a better understanding of what and why Treasury think what they think, might lead to better understanding of what fiscal levers need puling in which order to change their minds. One for the urgent to do list?
13. On reflection this orthodoxy could also be at the heart of not just Westminster Government’s refusal to see value in anything other than inbound overseas marketing but also a reluctance to support public funded, public enabled destination management and, within that, generic domestic, destination marketing, or to proactively encourage local and regional authorities to engagement in these activities within England? Government’s standard response is “It’s your choice” but we aren’t of course going to make any meaningful funding provision to allow you to do it, without it impacting on other services, many of which are statutory duties. Nor indeed should they, if they truly but erroneously believe the bulk of our/your effort, that of supporting the domestic market, is a wasteful general economic displacement activity. Or that they truly believe that the UK tax and UK employment benefits arising from outbound travel (the UK carrier and UK operator’s contributions) are more valuable (or possibly more vulnerable?) than that accruing from a large mainly SME based, physically captive domestic industry. A domestic industry that if it wishes to continue trading, can’t easily just choose to shut its UK businesses, attribute its value to other countries or rebase some or all of its activity elsewhere outside of the UK but yet still operate to, from or within it.
14. There is also an interesting side debate to be had over the degree to which a main holiday is now seen as “an essential” and/or to what degree that main holiday is seen by many who now know no different, as something that only takes place abroad. These and other factors like our understanding of “main” v “other holidays”, are nuances that we really do need to have a better handle on if we are to better manage the looming crisis. If indeed a main holiday is now sacrosanct and we are also confident that many do now see that main holiday as being one taken abroad, then that would actually increase size of the immediate hurdle that the domestic tourism industry faces. If significant proportions of a suddenly more limited pot of disposable income gets earmarked to be spent abroad regardless, then that logically leaves even less discretionary spending available for second and subsequent holidays, short trips and days and nights out, shopping trips, theatre, arts and sporting event etc. All of which tend to take place more at home than abroad and combined are the mainstay of the UK’s visitor economy.
15. Back to the immediate matter in hand. Come the Autumn, the “hospitality sectors” within tourism and leisure will again be looking for a very strong Christmas and New Year, if only to tide them over a normally lacklustre January, February into March and the begins of the green shoots of a new main season. Having had the last two critical Christmas and New Year periods essentially shut down, any renewed pressure on discretionary festive spending this year, will be most unwelcome. Much the same can be said about high street retail for whom the run up to Christmas and New Year sales are, or were until recently, their equivalent of tourisms summer high season. Again, pressure on disposable income will be most unwelcome for retail in general and the already embattled high street retailers, in particular. Smaller independents, the savour of many a high street in recent years, may be particularly exposed as they don’t have the backing of corporate finance to smooth the peaks and troughs, let alone to get them through any prolonged, tight spot.
16. Theatre, arts, historic houses, events specialist and so on, also all generally now look towards some form of Christmas related bounce to balance the annual accounts. Out there somewhere there will of course be the odd amusement park, the rural B&B, etc. who will close down entirely for winter maintenance as they have always done, but for economic reasons they are fewer and now further between. They might avoid the immediate and worst ravages of an energy inspired crisis but only for a few extra months of the year until they reopen. We should also be mindful that almost every tourism strategy and major study in living memory has looked at seasonality as an inherent weakness and action to reduce it as essential to the long-term success of the industry.
17. All recent headline surveys show that consumer confidence is already at or near a historic low, as the public fret and worry about what for many, if not the vast majority, is still largely yet to come. Come late Autumn early winter and consumer confidence will not be low, simply because the public are worried about future energy bills, the cost of short-term loans for smoothing cash flow issues or for funding special treats, or the prospect of long-term loans, in particularly mortgages rates, returning towards levels not seen in a generation. They will be worried because by then most will actually be living it and feeling the fiscal chill and the cold of a long dark winter. At that point we will get absolute clarity around what is mandatory spending and what is genuinely discretionary that can and will be curtailed or even eliminated and on what scale by which socio-economic and demographic groups. My immediate thought here is: do we real need to wait until then to prove what we can already predict with a reasonably high degree of certainty? Both from a lobbying perspective and from one of giving timely, well-informed advice to our stakeholder businesses, if we do wait until then, it will be way too late to act decisively or make any meaningful difference.
18. When the costs of mandatory spending (utilities, rents mortgages, daily feeding, basic clothing etc.) goes up there has always been a compensating reduction in the money available for discretionary spending. If mandatory costs go up dramatically, logically the compensating fall in disposable income and the fall in discretionary spend will be equally dramatic. By any historic standards the current and predicted rises and especially pace is going to be dramatic. This week one investment bank was forecasting inflation to have hit 18% by January 2023 and Bank of England interest rates having to go to, possibly as high, as 7% to bring inflation back under control. Even if they are out by a full 50% in their predictions, it would still be grim news. Sadly, much if not all of tourism leisure and the visitor economy in general, falls firmly in to the middle of that discretionary spending bracket. Just as with covid-19 it is now entirely predictably that tourism leisure and the rest of the component parts of the visitor economy will be hit first, hit deeper and hit for longer than most other parts of the UK economy.
19. Although it is still too early to say with confidence what HMG under an as yet to be selected, new PM are actually going to do about the energy and financial crisis, inflation and rising interests’ rates, it isn’t too early to predict that whatever they do, it will not be entirely effective by the Autumn of this year, or have returned the UK economy back to anything like the position it was, say only a year ago.
20. The current focus appears to be on easing consumer’s energy bills, not necessarily those of businesses. Telling customers in a hospitality environment, to toughen up, to wear an extra jumper or enjoy the more subtle lighting in, for example, the pub, restaurant, hotel or shop isn’t really a realistic proposition. If in the worst-case scenario and the lights actually do go out on a rota, as some have suggested, then that really could be, “game over” for some businesses. Proposed action on taxation, payments towards energy bills etc. may ease the quantum of financial pain being felt by consumers and businesses alike but because of the degree of pain it will not come close to salving them entirely. Reducing tax on business profit, for example, is helpful but only really helpful while you are making a decent profit to be taxed on. Much of what has been discussed as possible solutions appears to equate to minor, most welcome assistance with eyewatering painful costs increases. Consequently, despite the range of actions currently proposed by both the PMs in waiting business will remain under pressure, as will consumer spending. That doesn’t of course preclude the winner from pulling an unexpected rabbit from out of the Treasury hat, albeit that the more financial well-informed view suggests all the biggest and best, one-off fiscal tricks available to HMT were used up during covid-19 and there is little headroom left to buy in more.
21. Any more radical actions taken when the new PM takes over, may well ease inflationary or interest rate pressures but again, such action is highly unlikely to remove the underlying problems, many outside the UK’s direct control, overnight and certainly not much this side of 2023. Meanwhile, any structural damage done to businesses over this Winter will have implications, probably serious, for the following and subsequent year’s performance. Most observers now predict these problems are set to continue at a significant level for some years to come. Therefore, we may also need to start planning on longer-term reductions in disposable income and its impacts on all manner of discretionary activities, many of which fall somewhere within the remit of the visitor economy.
22. What do I think the most likely immediate outcomes are for individual business and for their host destinations? Faced with runaway costs and especially heating, lighting and cooking/production costs and the prospect now of increasingly subdued demand, businesses will have few other choices but to look to reduce trading periods, their hours of business and/or to close for longer periods altogether, in order to slash input costs and try and preserve their businesses until, in normal times at least, business would traditionally pick up from Easter (end of first week of April in 2023) onwards. This is most likely to occur in the usually quieter first quarter of the New Year, when many businesses already take a short maintenance or staff holiday break, but it can’t be discounted as an option or as a necessity before this. Unlike the pandemic, businesses are unlikely to have redress to lump sums, emergency grants, Government backed loans or critically to furlough payments. Consequently, not only will individual businesses and by default much of their supply chains be operating in survival mode but also there are likely to be significant, wide spread, implications for employment, for employees, for their total earnings and for increased levels of hopefully sort-term `unemployment. Some of which isn’t necessarily going to be adequately addressed within the current rules of the benefits system.
23. For the destinations, there will of course be concerns around businesses survival and business failure rates and concerns around skills retention, employment and unemployment rates. There will also be a, potentially unaccustomed, need to monitor and manage product levels and to market and promote those hyper-sensitively. Even in the face of depressed demand, the destination’s offer and it’s over all appeal not only needs to be maintained but its presentation also has to be broadly accurate and remain compelling. If not properly monitored or badly managed there is a real and counterproductive prospect of destinations inadvertently, “trying to flog a dead horse”, this winter and potentially beyond. None of us can yet be certain about precisely what will need to be done to promote destinations, but we can be pretty certain already is that it can’t possibly be about the same old same old, or business as usual this Winter. That realisation alone is in itself is a good and timely starting point for a half decent plan of action.
24. As with the pandemic there will be a role for strong leadership and for a centre for information and support. Albeit the type and range of physical support and official accurate, authoritative updates seen during the pandemic may not be forthcoming. There will also be a role in providing honest and accurate assessment based on as much or as little authoritative information as is available . For the sake of an immediate example, unlike during the pandemic demand in this case can’t be switched on or off in a matter of days or at most weeks by Government edict. The popular concept of “when things get back to normal” that developed and was sustained throughout what, even then, turned out to be a two-year pandemic will and cannot apply to this crisis. What we are experiencing now is happening despite Government interventions, not as in the pandemic, because of it.
25. Things will get better but probably at an almost imperceptible pace and the timing of critical events certainly can’t be predetermined well in advance, like the lifting of x or y restriction on a given date will allow you to do w or z. On the flip side nor, can the problems faced be made 100% worse, overnight by an unexpected Government policy pronouncement as they were in the pandemic. Things will just happen in their own good time, if we are lucky nudged there by much earlier policy or fiscal actions. The so what from that is that is curtailing opening hours to save cost or hunkering down for some or all of the first quarter of 2023 might work this winter but if the tourism green shoots of spring don’t appear as soon or grow as strongly as they always have before, then don’t get caught out by that. Don’t just assume a good summer season always follows on in turn and to order from Winter and Spring. Plan for the long-term and for the worst case and sincerely and fervently then hope your wrong, would be my personal advice to anyone who is prepared to listen.
26. As we did with the pandemic the tourism industry urgently needs to highlight how seasonality and the differing cyclical patterns make our industry as a whole far more vulnerable and immediately so, than most others to external pressures like those about to hit deep and hard this coming winter. Timing, as much as the problems themselves, are critically for our industry. Evidencing this, based on recent experience during the pandemic should now be far easier than it was pre-pandemic, when let’s be honest about it, winter was widely and erroneously seen as the relatively unimportant “off season”. How very wrong did that prove to be? Unfortunately, on this occasion however convincing the case made, it seems far less likely that HMG will be willing or able ride to our rescue with any targeted financial support for hospitality or support for employers in general. That shouldn’t stop us making a strong and persistent case and subsequently asking for very specific assistance in order to ensure our industry continues to remains viable through and beyond what in all probability is likely to be a very deep and protracted, international financial crisis.
27. I am keen to get the view from a wider circle of destination managers outside the “management team” and I propose to call a meeting shortly. In particular, I would like to hear what destination managers think has already and will now happen and what can be done locally, with or without government support, to mitigate the impacts on either individual businesses or the destination as a whole. Predicting the problems is the simple bit, doing it accurately and especially knowing what to then do to deal with it is rather more problematic. If you have any immediate comments or priority asks of Government, prior to any proposed meeting, then please let me know.
28. As ever apologies for the length of the thought piece but I didn’t have the time, nor do I have skill needed to write less on what I perceive to be a much biggest challenge than convid-19. If only because it follows on so closely behind it and hits us well before anyone or anything has had a chance to get anywhere near approaching the illusive and probably now mythical state of “the old normality”.
It is a month to the 12 September deadline for the DCMS call for evidence on the development of a tourism accommodation scheme for England. Although I have already got the impression most destination managers and many others see the sense in it (a registration scheme), what I am far less certain about is whether there is anything approaching a coconscious about what “it” actually is, what “it” is required and intended to achieve and how effectively different variations of “it” might be at achieving the desired results, for whom and in what circumstances. That is worrying as it could result in DCMS receiving fewer response than desired or imprecise messaging and them defaulting to either the lowest common denominator or, given other pressures, just dropping an already contentious proposal to fester for another decade or two.
To help you and me develop our responses I thought I should share some initial thought and see to what degree these concur with your own. If they do, then great, if not I can take your views on board and represent a wider range of opinion in our own response.
What do DCMS want? This is a call for evidence. Hard facts are difficult to come by due in no small part to a problem symptomatic of a (the?) key issue; the rapid loss and ongoing lack of transparency around who’s is now trading, where and when, at what scale. Regardless of the absence of quantitive data, we do need as many organisations as possible to submit evidence, anecdotal or otherwise and/or well informed, professional opinion, in order to make the case for “registration”. preferably grounded on an established foundation of common understanding.
The only people who actually know precisely who is selling what where, when are the platforms providers themselves. Understandably perhaps, they appear to be selective about what they tell whom. There are also a very small number of commercial research companies that “scrape the platform’s data” like AirDnA. Few destinations can afford their services and typically any damaging insight that might be exposed is often then actively refuted by well financed and organised platform providers, like AirBnB.
The history. There is written evidence of call for a national accommodation registration scheme (rejected) as far back as 1959, in all likelihood this was by no means the first time it had been suggested. The case for it was made much more forcefully in the late 60’s and reflected in the inclusion in the 1969 Development of Tourism Act (page 18 par 17) of the Act’s provisions: “Her Majesty may by Order in Council make provision for the registration by the Tourist Boards of, or of any class of, hotels and other establishments in Great Britain at which sleeping accommodation is provided by way of trade or business”.
The potential scope laid out in the Act which follows the above quote is quite broad and interestingly the maximum penalty, then £200, for failure to comply quite severe. This part of the development Act was never enacted in England. It was subsequently adopted in Northern Ireland on all forms of accommodation provision. Similar provision is/has recently been agreed and is being adopted for short-term lets in Scotland and registration is now also under active consideration in Wales.
A call for “statutory registration” has continued off and on ever since 1969. Notably resulting in, the less difficult option, of the national harmonised quality standards (1999), seen primarily as a means of bring the then particularly wayward smaller guest, boarding houses and hotel sector in line with safety and other proscribed, as well as more qualitive, standards. The primary driver throughout from 1959 onwards appears to have been around improving poor standards and failures in regulatory standards perceived to have been upheld by some. The principal reason registration was not adopted, in England at least, has been a broad-based resistance from the mainstream establish (and then the only) providers. Not unreasonably they saw little or no direct benefit in being drawn into a possibly onerous scheme to enhance the standards of others, at a potential cost to their own freedom of action. Of note, the scheme subsequently adopted in Northern Ireland is predicated on a full inspection by NITB to predetermine that all statutory and other quality standards are met before anyone trades. It works for them.
What can we conclude from the history beyond that a registration scheme, if we get one in England, has been an inordinately long-time in the making? In its simplest form this is the best opportunity we have had in 53 years since 1969 to make any real progress towards some form of national registration. It is an important but fleeting opportunity and if missed it will be at least 5 and more likely 10 or many more years before the issue comes to prominence again. More importantly perhaps, if a scheme is adopted, we will have to live with it, as adopted and with all of its consequences for a minimum of 5 to 10 years before any further review is likely to be considered. In the rush to secure something out of this apparently unique opportunity, we need to conscious that what we get, if anything, needs to be fully fit for purpose, achieve the necessary objectives, effectively and do so both now and as far as is practically possible, well into the foreseeable future.
Accepting something that does not achieve the necessary improvement, could well be a double-edged weapon. A scheme of any sort, would serve to shifting the responsibility for any failure to manage current and future risk from operators, platform providers and central government, towards or on to local destination management, local authorities and other enforcement bodies but without necessarily giving them both the information (transparency) and the means needed to adequately address and manage those risks on a larger scale and in greater numbers.
More recent developments. What has fundamentally change to encourage a department within a, low or minimal regulation leaning Government to even consider registration in any form? Essentially the invention of the internet, the advent of online sales and the relatively rapid emergence of disruptor, online sales platforms with, in many cases, no legal responsibility or liability for the product that they promote and sell. This is a process that gone from virtually nothing to market domination in the short-term let market in under c 15 years.
The consequence of the new business models is that there is no longer a need to advertise your wears by giving it a name and painting it on the building put signs up in your garden or get it sign posted from the nearest road to attract passing custom. There is now no absolute need to engage with others, join the local or nation hotels, guest house or B&B association, advertise in the local guide or be on local websites or indeed have your own website, if you so wish. The new rules of doing business apply particularly to new entrant to it, of which there are many.
Accommodation can and often is now advertised anonymously via one or two national platforms, like Airbnb. The majority of these platforms, presumably for good commercial reasons never adequately explained, do not give contact names or a property address, even to the customer until a booking and payment is made. The consequence of that is that if enforcement or other agencies wanted to identify these businesses, they are in the main, for all practical purpose, all but invisible. Not even old fashioned and highly inefficient walking survey of the destination’s patch will now give an accurate estimate of the number of premises, let alone produce the accurate, digitally accessible listing that is really required for purposes from informing accurate local value and volume estimates through the application of correct local taxation categories, to ensuring compliance with all the necessary consumer safety regulations.
Airbnb has grown from its origins in the USA in 2007 to having in a little over a decade, over a quarter of a million UK listings in 2020. These number continue to grow exponentially. The growth of sharing accommodation provision and the short-term let market has had a number of serious implications for, among other things: the housing market, the growth of second and holiday homes and the availability of housing for long term rental or affordable purchase for locals residents and for the local resident workforce in many popular tourist areas (pretty much every rural and many urban areas) all of which has an increasingly clear knock-on effects on businesses performance and employment. These issues have caught the attention of politicians, APPG groups, Select Committees and elevated concerns around, what was a purely tourism and therefore a DCMS issue, to a much wider and more hard hitting, cross departmental audience. From a purely tourism prospective the big change has been a growing willingness, arguably even a strong desire from the established “old school” industry to seek a level playing field around the application of regulation and the associated cost base. Many established accommodation players now see “registration” as the way forward. Whether they would wish this to also apply to them or to what degree they wiling to be registered or even licenced themselves to achieve that level playing field isn’t as clear. Unusually from a historic prospective DCMS now find themselves being actively lobbied by major parts of the accommodation industry in favour of registration, not against it.
What do we jointly understand by “registration”? Registration is a means of officially recording something, usually according some, often legal, rights in exchange for the provision of detail that identifies the person being registered and them alone. Simple, classic examples include: births, deaths, marriages or the electoral registration all of which accord certain rights or end them. Many but not all registrations are free of charge, or come with a small one-off fee. The detail is usually only that necessary to confirm your entitlement to access the rights, typically names address or addresses, age, possible place of birth, nationality etc., but it could be more (or less?) complex. The essence of registration is to allow those that have a need or legal right to identify you as the person allowed to access a particular right, to do so accurately and with relative ease. In the case of accommodation, those detail would relate to those who own and run accommodation for commercial gain and sufficient detail about the premises and its usage to assess what regulation should be applied?
A registration scheme could but wouldn’t normally make any judgement about whether you were a fit person to undertake an activity or whether the associated activity you intend to undertake, once registered, were being conducted correctly and lawfully within any applicable regulations. Registration usually comes with censure for supplying false information to obtain that registration but seldom if ever, setting penalties for abusing the registration’s rights once granted. Those and everything else to do with the activity undertaken normally falls to other regulation and enforcement agencies and their associated powers to address any issues. The act of registration is usually designed to identifies an individual and this instance the location and intent to carry out a trade. It is the transparency that the registration offers, that then allows the application of any regulation via other avenues by other means and always at a later date than the registration itself.
Do we jointly agree that an accommodation registration scheme would/should broadly identify who is trading where, when and preferably to what scale? Critically do we think registration is sufficient to address all the know issues commonly being experienced either directly simply by empowering/enabling those that need or can undertake enforcement, to easily and accurately identify who and what may need to be monitored and checked, probably on a risk-based assessment? If not, what more is actually needed and why?
What do we jointly understand by licensing? Licencing (offered as possible route by the DCMS paper but not described) is a potentially very different beast from registration. Typical examples of licensing schemes include: driving licencing or alcohol licencing both premises and personal. Licencing generally requires individuals to demonstrate a level of skill and understanding to obtain the licence and to then meet specified standards and to maintain them thereafter under the threat of the withdrawal of that licence and the loss of the right to undertake the licensed activity. Licences and/or meeting the ancillary standards needed to gain it, come with costs and fees, some ongoing, usually set to cover the full cost of management and enforcement. Penalties for breaches in obtaining licences themselves are generally harsh. The penalty for breaching conditions once licenced, in addition to the temporary or permanent loss of licences itself, also tend to be severe. Licencing is generally far more legally complex, more legally binding and far harder to set up than a simple registration, that typically relies on other existing regulation and enforcement to separately maintain order and to provide checks and balances.
Do we have a common understanding of what licensing of accommodation prevision might broadly entail? Do we think that some or all the issue being experienced as a consequence of a boom in short-term letting need to be addressed up front in and by a more formal and legally binding licensing scheme? If so, what aspects and associated requirements needs to be licenced and how would or could it be best applied?
Other consideration regarding DCMS. The DCMS evidence gathering paper has done a good job of giving an overview of the tourism and wider housing and other issues. The paper combined with previous statement makes it clear that DCMS are leaning towards a very light touch, possibly self-administered, self-certified online approach. There is good reason to go down this route given the current administrations attitudes towards regulation in general and DCMS’s need to get broad departmental and Government sign off on any proposals going forward. Aiming low to get under a barrier may be a legitimate strategy or tactic but given what I have said about living with the consequences, I do have to question whether aiming higher albeit accepting the results are likely to be somewhat lower is a legitimate consideration. Recent political events and the even more robust stance on regulation promised by the two candidates for the PM’s position, do also need to be considered. It is now entirely possible that even a very light touch approach could in the new political environment be viewed as an unacceptable proposal?
The DCMS paper, as I read it, appears to omit any recognition of the reality and the additional issues caused by the ownership of multiple properties, offered across single or multiple platforms, something which as an aside further exacerbating the lack of transparency. If I am right that omission needs to be widely challenged or it will become an accepted fact that the vast majority of platform users are only offering the use of spare capacity either in their main residence or in their sole second or holiday home. I.e., confirming with the purposes and original concept of the sharing economy which is strongly supported by the current administration. Buying a single asset or multiple assets with the express intent of “sharing them”, potential 24/7/365 days of the year is patiently not within the original intent or ethos of the sharing economy and should and would be regarded as just another business activity as it would in any other situation. Ownership of multiple properties needs to be acknowledged and addressed as a major issue within the sharing accommodation sector.
Equally, although the paper makes good reference to most of the wider issues relating to short-term lets, it misses a relatively new and rapidly growing problem for the tourism industry itself. The removal of property from the market in general and the increasing move from long-term let to more lucrative short-term letting is serving to further denude the local workforce from an already (BREXIT) challenged employment market. If DCMS as the tourism industry’s sponsoring department fails to recognise the issue of being able to both live comfortably and work in a popular tourism destination, there is absolutely no chance that this increasingly serious issue will be properly recognised, let alone address by any other Government department. The issue needs to be robustly evidenced and illustrated during this further evidence gathering stage.
In its simplest form the case is that while transient, overseas workers might have been willing to live for a period of time in the typical onsite accommodation provided for employees, or poorer quality, low-cost accommodation in the locality (caravan, HMO’s bedsits etc.), genuine local residents are less willing or able, say due to family circumstance, to do so, particularly for protracted periods. The removal of affordable long-term lets or affordable housing to buy is exacerbating an already serious general weaknesses in the labour market. There are now many examples of worker having to commute or be transported very long distance to and from rural and other destinations to service tourism jobs. Given the nature of the work this is neither economically or environmentally sustainable. In many more destinations it is simply impractical, for example because there are no readily available source of workers living within commuting distances or no reliable forms of public transport or none flexible enough to cater for the wide range of often unsociable working hours.
Other considerations Airbnb. Airbnb as the largest player in this market has a very well-honed PR and lobbying capability. Evidence from other countries shows that Airbnb typically resist all regulatory change until the last safe moment, at which time they generally offer a low impact, voluntary industry solution, in advance of any further action by governments. They have followed the pattern in the UK, even claiming to be leading the call for action on registration, not reacting to it. They have issued in advance of the Government’s consultation, a rather presumptuously titled “white paper”.
In essences the paper proposes a very light touch, self-certification process. In return for providing very basic contact detail, “hosts” would automatically be issued with a registration number and be allowed to continue to trade immediately. It would then be up to the various enforcement bodies and agencies to use the access to basic contact details to assess what if any regulation should or should not be applied and what to do about it. The white paper creates an entirely new notion of “commercial provision” and “non-commercial/amateur provision”. Critically, the later including potential many, if not most of Airbnb’s clients in the UK, who would be exempt from any registration as a consequence. The need for registration for all practical purposes in Airbnb’s view would appear to apply only to those owning and operating multiple properties or letting a single property fulltime.
Although plausible in places, their proposals do appear to contain some fairly obvious loop holes and, in my view, at least the concept of non-commercial/amateur provision is a dangerous nonsense and in itself also a massive loophole that could render registration ineffective against the highest risk and from those determined to avoid easy identification, or exclude those arguably in most need of it. When there are known risks to life and limb the application of an essentially de minimis approach, is reckless, even if admittedly it is currently the approach applied to fire safety regulation and inspection (exemption for very small businesses etc.). The notion of non-commercial/amateur status needs to be challenged. I would suggest that the criteria for inclusion in any scheme must be set at the provision of any overnight accommodation for any financial gain.
Airbnb’s premise that, at the most basic level the issue of a lack of transparency, needs to be addressed by a simple, cost-free registration is plausible but it avoids the elephant in the room. Does having some basic contact and a trading address, actually empower adequate, appropriate checks, balances and regulatory compliance? Ironically the lack of transparency, in large part, has been created by their business model and practices and it is arguably entirely within their gift to resolve. If they and others would change the information contained in their listings or volunteer detailed they already clear must hold on of who is doing what where and when to all the relevant regulators and enforcement agencies, we wouldn’t necessarily now be debating what a registration scheme needs to look like.
The wider and specific issues. The broader issues that the DCMS evidence gathering paper seeks to address are generally contained within the paper itself but that should be taken to mean that these concerns are necessarily accepted. Issues like impacts on housing stock, hollowing out of committees etc. do need to be further evidence, preferable qualitatively and quantitively but any evidence, however tentative will help establish the need for positive action. There is a very useful brief on the position as at January 2022 held in the House of Commons library. A copy of that brief together with the consultation documents and response links can be accessed under the consultations’ menu tab of Britishdestination.net or go direct to our page on the consultation at: https://wordpress.com/page/britishdestinations.net/18718
My instinct currently lies with recommending a robust registration scheme that gathers a broad range of information, backed by meaningful penalties for both omission and any subsequent misuse of that registration; a registration plus, but falling well short of formal licensing approach. At best, I fully expect that we might get instead, a potentially weak and fluffy, self-completion, penalty free approach. In both cases associated regulated areas would need to be addressed by existing regulatory and enforcement regimes. That necessitates an acceptance that any genuine transparency registration might delivered, may create a much greater workload and a demand for more resource to be found from somewhere at some point if the improved system is to work and work well. Rather than agonise over whether that a practical proposition I would prefer to look to argue for more resource when the need is proven.
Further considerations. There are two further areas that don’t appear to have been addressed anywhere else which I feel obliged to air. The first is that a failure to address or even acknowledge the wide spread provision of unregulated accommodation is a real and significant reputational risk. DCMS and Government need to recognise that both domestic and international travellers don’t question the quality and safety of sharing economy and other accommodation provision here in the UK, not because they are disinterested or unconcerned but because they naturally and not unreasonable presume that as a first world country the UK as a whole and England within it, would without question already have a first world system of ensuring no one could trade without proving compliance to basic safety and other regulation. They are right and anything less than that, is clearly very wrong.
The accompanying notion that the modern system of user review has any meaningful influence on compliance with regulatory standards is a complete nonsense. Consumer reviews are largely about perceived qualities like the softness of the pillows and not about hard and fast issue like electrical, gas or fire safety. Guest are highly unlikely ever to comment on the qualities or even absence of a kitchen fire blanket, or that electrical equipment has or hasn’t been routinely tested. The reality that someone can get up in the morning and decide on a whim to let their accommodation, fill in a simple online form and be promoted nationally and international that day or the next is beyond comprehension but that is essentially what our system currently allows. When and it is only a matter of when not if, this blatant failure to address this is exposed by some particularly unpleasant or large-scale incident it will have untold reputational damage for the tourism industry, UK plc and for all those whose action or inaction allowed it.
Having been repeatedly made fully aware of the huge loophole in compliance and enforcement, if Government now choose either not to act or act in a way that doesn’t adequately address the problems, it will be the Government, Government Ministers and Departments and not the industry and regulators who should and will be held morally, if not legally accountable for that failure to act. It is only a matter of time before the current lack of transparency and associated inability to regulate, enforce and advise will result in an incident at sufficient scale or of a nature that will publicly expose, what is by any reasonably standard verging on a national disgrace. Regardless of a wide range of competing pressures the radically changed and still changing circumstances need to be firmly gripped and accommodation for commercial gain, however provided by whoever needs to brought back under the appropriate and necessary regulatory controls. That is now entirely in the hands of the DCMS in the first instance and the Westminster Government thereafter.
Our task is to make sure that they not only have the evidence to justify appropriate action but also understand the associated consequences for Government of now failing to act on what is by any measure, a very obvious and ever growing loophole in the regulatory application and compliance to and across all accommodation providers in England.
I am reluctant to explore the detail of what the issues are that registration might need to address are, or what specific detail needs to be gathered by a registration or licensing scheme and how effective that might be, as there is already more than enough to consider above for one day. If anyone see value in doing something more musing, around specific detail in advance of the response deadline, then I am happy to try and do so. Just ask.
BEIS have issued a revised version of their now 38-page, 2018 Package Travel and Linked Arrangement Regulation (PTR) Guidance for Businesses. It contains a number of revisions and importantly, from the prospective of managing the typical UK destinations a new interpretation of how and what small operators can “recommend” to potential clients and guests within their locality, without being drawn into and subject to all the provisions of PTR. Previous guidance essential deemed anything less than a comprehensive listing of all similar local services and, in particular, any specific recommendations for selected local businesses and services as being a linked arrangement, making any such practices, in BEIS’s judgement, subject to the full weight of the regulation
In normal circumstances I’d be recommending that the news of this important change be circulated widely. However, for various reasons the PTR has become increasingly politically contentious. Elements of the PTR, as it is said to apply to small business, have been very much in the news in recent months and used by Ministers to help evidence the perceived “absurdities” of EU regulation. The PTR as one of many pieces of EU inspired legislation that is/was already under review by the Johnson administration and in all probability, it will now be even more so under the future leadership. Not least because both remaining candidates are promising robust action to revise or eliminate regulation in general and EU inspired regulations in particular.
As a consequence, there is a distinct possibility that if you/we simple promote the new guidance it will prompt all manner of both rational and irrational questions about how and why it has been reviewed and republished, particularly when in parallel Government and senior politicians have been making high profile comment that might reasonable be taken to suggest that some or all of the PTR and much else besides were about to be ditched. I am therefore setting out some of the wider context to help you to decide if and how you might notify local businesses of these changes and give some of the background and thoughts to help answer any questions that might be prompted if you choose to do so.
A critical question for all of us at the outset and one I haven’t been able to answer for myself is: to what degree have business simply got on and promoted only a selected listings of local business and by inference recommending some above others, and/or made specific recommendations for favoured local businesses already, either ignoring (the now erroneous) earlier guidance around recommendation or in blissful ignorance of it? The key question arising from that is: will circuiting the new guidance actually make a true difference to sufficient, smaller businesses in the locality to warrant the potential faff involved? The alternative view, and the one that has prompted this note is that regardless, this it is an important document and one that local businesses need to be aware of and act upon, until such times as the PTR under goes major revision or is even abolished. The critical assumptions here being that even with all the hype around PTR and EU legislation is that is likely to be many months, if not a year or years away and time wasted now, could equal missed much needed opportunities to maintain or grow business, in what are very challenging times?
The background as I see it:
In late July BEIS issued a new version of its guidance for business on the 2018 Package Travel and Linked Arrangements Regulations (PTR) first issued on its adoption into UK law in 2018. It explains the purposes of PTR and its application across the UK and gives examples (hypothetical case studies) to illustrate how the Government believes the regulation may or may not apply in the UK, under what circumstances. It also making it clear that in the UK it is ultimately for the courts to interpret the meaning and application of any regulation (judicial president). As a result, the guidance necessarily, from a BEIS perspective, advises that the guidance should always be read alongside the regulation itself and that if in any doubt about whether a proposed or actual course of action fall within or without the regulation, seek legal advice.
Some might think that with those caveats attached the guidance is guidance only in loosest of sense? In reality, the guidance is the best that the UK regulation and our system of interpretation and application of regulation, wherever it originates from, currently allows. Moreover, if the official guidance is followed to the letter, it should give sufficient defence and justification (morally and legally) for most businesses to feel comfortable enough to proceed as guided. Unlike BEIS, I can say this, but then again please don’t hold me liable if things go wrong, because of course only the courts can make the final decision about how the regulation applies, in what circumstance and not me, you or anyone else!
Admittedly the reason this note is being written is largely because an important piece of earlier guidance was subsequently thought to be wrong. However, it was wrong in that it was overzealous in its interpretation and therefore unlikely to result in any consumer based legal challenge. If the guidance was wrong in the other direction and it had been followed, that would at the very least still be strong mitigation again censor, albeit not necessarily protection against potential, unwelcome litigation. It is also important (vital?) to note the principal of de minimis; a legal exclusionary tool used to dismiss trivial matters, technical breaches and small sums or unimportant issues from litigation. Applying the principle it is unlikely but not impossible that any argument over an SME occasionally offering say a round of golf with a night in hotel room without procuring bonding or similar financial protection, or a dispute over who is then responsible for the relatively modest costs of rectifying a major failure to deliver that golf booking would end up in court. If it ever does, it isn’t necessarily going to lead to prosecution and/or serious penalty. This too is of course just opinion, not facts until tested and proven to be the case in court.
The UK method of interpretation and the use of “guidance”, unless or until case law is established, works reasonably well for those areas and issues central to the original intent of any regulation. Essentially in this case: longer, relatively expensive, usually overseas package holiday bough, well in advance and involving several major components provided by multiple business but sold as one, or a number of linked items by a single organisation. For good practical reason there are far more uncertainties involved and it consequently becomes far less helpful the nearer to the fringes that you get.
The fringes are precisely where all the Micro, SME and small services issues sit, for example a night in the guesthouse with the taxi to and from the remote rural station arranged for you, a meal at the local pub as part of your stay, or arranging tickets to some event or attraction to assist your guest’s stay. Critically, if at the fringes, the practice is deemed to fall within the regulation, then by default similar duties and responsibilities, together with exactly the same type of measures to protect customers’ payment, via independent third-party retention of monies paid until the package is complete, bonding arrangements or insurance arrangements, apply as much to a micro business as they do to any major international corporation. Many think that this is a bit of a nonsense and not, as far as anyone can yet establish, within the intent, let alone the spirit of the original EU regulation.
The intended or unintended convergence of seemingly trifling service provisions and potential onerous responsibilities and large compliance costs is the nub of the PTR’s problems, not its core intent of offering large numbers of consumers protection from known large scale risk. Concurrently, most of the real instances and indeed the practical implications of BEIS’s hypothetical case studies combined, create the patently absurd situations that are regularly cited. For example, case studies 6 and 7 at page 8 when read together, as colleagues in the Tourism Alliance points out, means for all practical purposes that: “If a person books a stay at a spa hotel and undertakes treatments when they are there, that is not a package – but if they book the treatments when they book the stay, that is”. How does that genuinely help the consumer or protect them from realistic risk? How does it encourage good business practice, innovation, cooperation and improve the ease and transparency of purchase?
The UK approach to interpreting regulation also unintentionally creates most if not all of the “absurdities” of the application of “EU laws” recently cited by politicians and the media. But equally it is the consequence of the absurdity of a situation where, when questioned on most aspects of the application to small domestic businesses in the UK, the EU Commission will, in all honesty, say that the UK’s suggested interpretation (guidance) and therefore its application goes well beyond the Commission’s original intent. Quite rightly they will also point out that this is entirely a UK decision and their business to interpret and apply the regulations as they see fit, not the EU’s. At the same time the UK Government are saying but this is how we think the EU regulation should or should not apply here in the UK but we can’t guarantee it unless and until someone tests this, EU inspired, UK law in a UK court. The inference of the latter seemingly being that this is the EU and EU regulation’s fault, not the UK’s problem. A problem that was arguably was in the UK’s gift to avoided in the first instance and/or in its powers to rectify ever since, if only the UK had some sensible means of interpreting or setting the boundaries of regulation, other than the ongoing threat of and eventual but not guaranteed, recourse to litigation to set them for us?
Arguably there is a solution: the de minimis principle, most commonly used and widely understood as it applied to EU state aid, now UK subsidy control. This could be used to explicitly exclude transactions, businesses by turnover, employer numbers and/or defined activities etc. below a certain scale from inclusion within the regulation. If set at the correct levels this wouldn’t necessarily deny consumers protection from identifiable levels of unreasonable risk or stop consumers recovering lost payments, where businesses deliberately or accidentally shirked there normally accepted responsibilities for putting things right that have gone wrong. It might for example, by a small claims court action, rather than a full-blown court action under PTR? Nonetheless, there is redress available and arguably ones that are more proportionate to the level of risk and potential losses involved at what is currently on the fringes of the application PTR in the UK.
In recent months the Minister for Brexit Opportunities (Jacob Rees-Mogg) explicitly cited the PTR and the perceived need for small business to have expensive consumers financial protection in place to be able to offer minor third-party services, as one of many reasons for the need for a wider “bonfire of EU regulation”. Originally proposed as a 5-year sunset clause unless action is taken to preserve some or all elements of existing EU originated regulation, his proposals have now been put on hold until a new PM is in place. In the interim the two remaining candidates for the PM’s post are suggesting, ever more robust approaches to all EU legislation (actually all regulation, full stop) than that originally proposed by the Minister. Essentially this means that the PTR will almost certainly be revised but hopefully not removed in its entirety. Unfortunately, it is currently anyone’s guess as to when that might start to happen. The only certainty is that it will not now be during the current 2022 main or shoulder season and may take some (considerable?) time beyond that to implement.
In the meantime, and linked only by the fact that ongoing tourism industry lobbying for changes to the PTR, as it impacts on small domestic businesses, combined with active Ministerial interest in EU regulations, BEIS officials have had cause to look again, in some detail, at their original guidance and presumably realised that some of the earlier interpretation might have been overzealous, or just plain wrong? In the circumstances BEIS have rightly decided to issue their revised guidance and correct any errors or misinterpretation immediately. To do anything else would have been wrong. That new guidance will now apply until any changes to PTR itself come in to force, which at the very earliest might be for the start of the 2023 season but using standard projections for Parliamentary business, could be much later, possibly even into 2024 or beyond?
In the interim, now armed with this new guidance could and should many more small businesses be making potential gains and adding value to their product via the inclusion of specific recommendations for particular things to do and places to go in their locality? If more accommodation business did proactively recommend, would that generate additional business not just for those recommending it but for those being recommended? Both seem plausible. Assuming of course many businesses haven’t already been doing so, either in contravention, or blissful ignorance of the original guidance.
While focusing on the issue at the fringes let not forget the core intent which could inadvertently be under threat itself? The EU, PTR originated in 1992. The latest 2018 revision added the concept of linked package arrangements, that the UK Government where still obliged to apply under transitional BREXIT arrangements. The PTR remains an important and, most would I hope agree, a necessary piece of legislation. Lest we forget: the PTR was designed to protect consumers, set standards for information and communication, assign clear responsibilities for addressing problems and ensure financial liabilities are covered in the event of major failures and it did so, at the time in the face of wide spread, regular abuse and business failures, often on an industrial scale. The linked travel arrangements (LTAs) were added to stop existing and new operators dodging the rightful aims of PTR via deliberately amended business practices or through the use of new and emerging technology. Hopefully the value of 99% plus of the PTR as a critical piece of consumer protection is properly understood by all?
That value is well articulated and evidenced within and by the following section taken from the introduction to the timely, from a lobby prospective, revision of the BEIS guidance:
Package holidays are unique as they are often complex combinations of travel services which typically include transport and accommodation, and may also include other services, such as excursions and vehicle hire. As various service providers are often involved, a problem with the delivery of one service may affect the delivery of others. The traveller may find it difficult to deal with subcontractors (e.g. due to language barriers) and in such cases may not even have a contract with the various service providers.
Typically, consumers pay large sums, often long in advance of the service being provided, which makes them vulnerable to insolvency. Consumers are generally unaware of the financial stability of holiday providers and can face considerable difficulty in getting a refund from an insolvent company. There is also a risk that holidaymakers will be stranded far from home should their travel organiser collapse.
2018 PTRs provide important protection for travellers to cover the unique characteristics of package holidays. Key protections include:
o Making the organiser liable for the performance of the travel services making up the package (even if performed by third parties; the organiser may seek redress from third party suppliers under regulation 29).
o Protection against the insolvency of package organisers, ensuring travellers are refunded, or where applicable, repatriated should the organiser go bust.
o Detailed information requirements that make it clear what product the traveller is buying and the associated protections.
There are a number of other useful reference in the guidance which is worth reading in full at your leisure. The specific new case study regarding recommendation, can be found at page 30. Please note it is as much if not more about what it no longer says than about what it now says. It now states:
Case Study 3: A traveller books accommodation on a B&B website. Having done that the traveller clicks through to a page on the B&B’s website called “Local Attractions”. Here, the B&B owner has listed a number of recommended local restaurants, attractions, and ‘things to do’. Inspired by this recommendation, the traveller books tickets to the local theme park. This is neither a package nor a LTA as the B&B owner provided a range of useful information (rather than encouraging the traveller to book in a targeted manner).
Finally it is important to note that the new guidance still falls well short of the (our) aim of encouraging, let alone enabling small businesses to proactively partner with other local businesses to add value to their combined offers via loose “packaging”, without it falling under the onerous provision of the PTR that are clearly intended for large businesses and the packaging of major, high value components of a typical commercially, usually overseas, packaged holiday, as rather neatly illustrated by the introduction to the BEIS guidance reproduced above. The last sentence of the new case study regrettably reinforces the point that organising or even actively encouraging booking of third-party product is in BEIS judgement still very much subject to the full weight of the regulation.
The aim to exempt smaller value, smaller services, provided by smaller local businesses operating in the predominantly domestic market, which we and many others have been lobbying for via the Tourism Alliance, will hopefully now be achieved by the means of a sensible and measures review, leading to a revision of parts of the PTR and not its abolition. Some form of significant change is now far more likely to happen than not. It is now just how successfully, how broadly based and by when it might be implemented that is still in doubt. In the near future we may find ourselves in the unexpected position of having to fight to try to retain much of the PTR in order to retain the UK’s competitiveness, rather than battling for relatively minor revisions aimed at aiding the many small, mainly domestic market focused providers.
The revised 2018 PTR Guidance for businesses can be accessed at:
Last month (28 June) the Department for Levelling Up, Communities and Housing (DLUCH) published a detailed 89-page evaluation of the 10 year, 5 biennial round, £188m (England) Coastal Communities Fund (CCF), the funding for which was drawn from a percentage of Crown Estates annual maritime revenues.
The other Home Nations also participated and benefited from the CCF programme, however, the research conducted and the report produced looks only at the programme within England. The report was produced in response to comment from the House of Lords Select Committee 2019 report in to Regenerating Seaside Towns, which alongside asking for an evaluation of the CCF effectiveness also suggested, somewhat ironically as it now turns out, that coastal communities required more, not less specifically targeted funding.
Despite best efforts, in the intervening 3 years the CCF has quietly become defunct. The Westminster Governments intent appears to be to role it and its aims and objective up into the much wider focused “levelling up” and a small number of other new, but far more broadly targeted funding avenues.
The importance of the report lies in the fact that next month it is due to be presented to DULCH officials running the new funding streams. The “lessons learnt” may therefore help influence views and attitudes towards any future applications made by coastal destinations and more generally the design, management and delivery of the wider funding programmes DULCH are still developing or adjusting.
There is also some general data by English region on recent coastal population figures, levels of funding and allocations previously made etc. all of which colleagues in economic development and tourism may find useful when working up any case for future support. There are also a number of both good and unusually poorer practice case studies included, that will be of general interest to many and, of particular interest, to those destinations where the projects were undertaken, not necessarily with either the local authority or destination management’s involvement.
I have added a copy of the full report to the Britishdestinations.net library accessible via the “Research and statistics – by year” and adjacent “+” menu tabs or go direct to the page at: https://britishdestinations.net/research-and-statistics/
The online Executive summary, not unsurprisingly, contains a useful overview. The full report, worth scanning if not reading in full, contains the nuggets.
Can you help colleagues in Swansea seeking information, contact details and recommendation etc. relating to the production of a new hotel demand study for the City?
See the full request for assistance under the “Forum ask questions get answers” menu tab of Britishdestinations.net, or go direct to the page at: https://britishdestinations.net/need-an-answer/hotel-demand-studies/