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Retail and tourism

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High Street issues.  As a significant number of their 23 stores are situated in popular inland and coastal destinations, the news that Beales is following Debenhams into administration is not simply bad news for the UK’s troubled High Streets and traditional bricks and mortar based retail industry.  It also adds to what is becoming an increasingly problematic issue for significant sections of the UK visitor economy and tourism industry.

Retail has traditionally been a significant part of the product mix in many built destinations and one or more traditional department stores, often the largest, anchor retailer in many of our popular medium to larger coastal resorts, market, historic town and smaller to larger City destinations. Where retail is part of fabric of the place there are bound to be serious issues when existing retailers suddenly begins to fail and there are equally suddenly far fewer, if any new retailers waiting to grab prime sites and other contenders, like casual dining, may be less forthcoming than they were in previous years.

The Beales sites are by nature centrally positioned and substantial in scale.  Many are unlikely to be simply filled by an equivalent retail operation, whilst finding positive alternate use for such large and very often older, organically developed buildings will not be easily or quick done. This is especially true in those towns that may already be facing the loss of a Debenhams and/or are wrestling with the future use of a former BHS, House of Fraser or any one of a number of other larger scale casualties of recent retail retrenchment.

For popular urban destinations, of any scale, the problem isn’t simply about retaining the viable purpose of the High Street, largely for the immediate benefit of the local population.  It is about retaining the quality of the product, the attractiveness of place, the experience and range of activities and attractions, that combined will continue to attract entirely discretionary, day and staying visitors in the sort of numbers, needed to sustain infrastructure and business activities, typically provided well in excess of that required to cater for local demand alone and increasingly doing it on a near 365 day basis.

The alternative to fixing the High Street is at worst obvious dereliction and decay in key central areas, or at best slow managed contraction towards a smaller more manageable retail hub. The latter is seldom achievable in the short to medium term or without unintended collateral damage to otherwise successful neighbouring businesses.  Witness the impact of the long, slow and generally socially and economically painful restructuring of the small hotel and guest house sector, in key areas of many coastal resorts during the late 1980 and 1990s onward.

Repurposing retail and the High Street in popular destinations is as much about sustaining existing and future hotels, accommodation businesses, restaurants bars, theatres, cultural and entertainment attractions and so on, as it is about saving some semblance of a retail offer itself.  Not all urban destinations rely on a strong retail offer now and in future other popular destinations may not necessarily need a strong retail offer to attract leisure and other visitors.  However, in the interim as we move towards a different future, empty shops, underutilised or poor utilised buildings in prime sites and a confused presentation and proposition, resulting from the loss of existing retail, will undoubtedly act as a direct disincentive to visit and an even strong barrier to return trips.  Such reputational damage, once established, tends to outlives the original cause and is, where possible, better avoided rather than painstakingly repaired after the event.  Again, witness the time lag between effective regeneration measures and the resurgence of popular appeal in many of our best loved coastal resorts and inland destinations.

The immediate focus for destination development and regeneration may need to be deliberately switched away from developing accommodation, attractions and public realm, etc. across the destination as a whole, towards a major, short sharp repurposing of their core, town centre (High Street) retail areas. Albeit that this repurposing may, almost certainly must, include elements of accommodation, attractions, entertainment, public space and services, housing, offices and work space, business services etc. within it.

In parallel a root and branch review of the purpose, structure and effect of business rates, rather than just more regular reviews of charges levied under the existing system is urgently required.   Repurposing our High Street without repurposing one of the most significant cost of doing business in them makes little practical sense.   Leaving a known fiscal and practical barrier to business success in place while trying to restructure the physical business environment would only serve to limit the likelihood of success.

The type of radical changes to business rates that may be needed will almost certainly have significance for both Central and Local Government resource and thus by default potentially for destination management, maintenance and development.  An eye to the law of unintended consequence is also therefore needed when debating the merits of any replacement for business rates.

At the same time some of the old financial certainties around private and public sector retail property holdings and rental returns are also being called in to question.  This too may have financial ramification that go well beyond a simple readjustment of the base cost of doing business from traditional High Street premises. The dynamics and the interrelationship, intended or otherwise, between rates and rents also need to be interrogated and fully understood if are to find a truly sustainable future for our all  High Streets and especially for those outside Central London and the core Cities.  They too have issues with retail but almost certainly of a differing nature due in part to the scale of footfall and their potential customer base that they typically now enjoy.

More on the specifics of Beales at:

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jan/20/beales-administration-full-list-stores-jobs

VisitBritain VisitEngland 2020, 5-year strategy published

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Today VisitBritain published its new 2020, 5-year strategy for itself and VisitEngland within it.  In addition to continuing to look to disperse international visitors there is a welcome new emphasis on support for the domestic market in England (Visit England strategy  is at page 19 onward).

Find the report at: https://britishdestinations.net/strategies-and-policies/

Changes to the coastal team and CCF

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I have had a very positive response from colleagues in Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) assuring me that in practice the Cities & Local Growth Unit has always been a joint unit between MHCLG and BEIS.  The recent notification about the redeployment of the small but specifically coastal focused team was simply to let stakeholders know that they were taking  action to better joining up work on coastal areas with that on their wider inclusive growth agenda, in the light of Government’s commitment to supporting and levelling up areas across the country.

To achieve this there’s been some internal movement between departments but this we are assured doesn’t mean MHCLG and other departments won’t continue to support coastal areas as part of their work.  Indeed, one of the objectives of the moving staff is to ensure that MHCLG work better with those other departments. MHCLG also retain a dedicated community’s team within it.

There is no link with the changes in structure and personnel and any future plans for the Coastal Community Fund (CCF), which the coastal team helped administer.

The future of the CCF remains a matter for the forthcoming comprehensive spending review (CSR). Coastal interests can wait to see what the review recommends and then respond accordingly, or they may wish to continue to voice the critical importance of the fund, in order to ensure this is taken into account within HMCLG’s, wider Government and in particular Treasury’s CSR planning.

Better surely to work to have the continuance of a specific CCF written into the responsible departmental and wider Government CSR plans than to risk any potentially for having to fight to have it reinstated after the individual department and wider Government plans are announced?

Why the concern? CCF is a unique fund set up in recognition of the scale of difficulties and the unusual conditions experienced at the coast, unusually funded from a set percentage of Crown Estates marine revenues (current 33% down originally from 50%).  Those unusual conditions common to coastal communities have previously made it more difficult for them to compete successfully, on merit, in open competition for funding with all comers; hence the need for their own specific additional funding mechanism.  The post Brexit creation of a new “Shared Prosperity Fund” could easily be seen as an opportunity to simplify arrangements, possibly reverting to a single funding stream for all, in which case the coast may again find itself inadvertently disadvantaged?

What’s occurring?

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Three points of recent interest on coastal communities, short-term let licencing and tourism levies and on greening tourism for promotional advantage:

1. Coastal Communities Team. The Coastal Communities Team at the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) have announced a reorganisation:

“We are emailing to let you know that with the increasing focus on towns and regeneration, we are looking to integrate our work on coastal policy more deliberately with our approach to regeneration.  This will ensure a more joined-up approach going forward and avoid the risk of duplicative effort in engaging with similar issues through multiple channels.  By integrating our work this way, the coastal team in MHCLG has been assigned new roles within the Cities and Local Growth Unit”.

The full implications of this move and whether this, as we have feared for some time, may herald the potential loss or integration of the Coastal Communities Fund (CCF) in to the emerging “Shared Prosperity Fund” is as yet unclear.

The fund was originally created in recognition of both the scale of need and the unusual conditions found in coastal communities which often precluded regeneration initiatives gaining funding in open competitive bidding against all comers. The loss of a dedicated CCF would be a direct blow to coastal interest and would remove a potentially useful precedence for a similar funding mechanism for other similarly disadvantage areas, for example, rural destinations.   We are seeking further guidance from MHCLG on the full implications of the reorganisation.  Hopefully they are no more than an efficiency measure that will genuinely allow coastal interests to better represented within MHCLG and wider Government.

2. Short-term accommodation licencing and Transient Visitor Levy. After much debate and public consultation Local Authorities in Scotland will be able to introduce their own short-term accommodation licence schemes from spring 2021 onwards. The Scottish Government announcement made last week outlines an adoptive licencing scheme approach with what currently appears to be a significant degree of local flexibility about what and how the scheme will cover in any given local authority area. The proposals do not seem to stipulate conditions like guaranteeing grandfather rights to existing businesses, or any of the other typical caveats often centrally directed. This may change as the proposals emerge.

Beyond the near certainty that a scheme will be adopted in Edinburgh and potentially some other key City destinations there is growing speculation about what will or will not be embraced by this.  Will it cover all Airbnb style accommodation or only, for example, full property lets? Will it conceivably include more traditionally let holiday homes, self-catering or even some or all B&Bs?  The devil will lie in the detail and our reading of this is that it is largely up to each Council to decide what that might be?  The announcement mentions new mandatory safety requirement, the ability to designate control areas to allow appropriate planning controls to be applied and the consideration of appropriate future taxation for short-term lets, complementary to the Transient Visitor Levy, the legislation for which they state will be introduced later in the year. More to follow as the detail emerges.

The Scottish Government’s announcement is at: https://www.gov.scot/news/regulating-short-term-lets/ and typically more speculative media comment at:  https://inews.co.uk/news/scotland/scotland-launches-crackdown-on-airbnb-short-term-lets-1359110

3. Greening tourism. Following claims made last Autumn about its apparent green credentials Ryanair have now launched their spring and summer advertising campaign using much the same greenest, cleanest European airline as the central claim, appealing presumably to an ever increasingly environmentally conscious (guilty?) public.

The Ryanair business model has allowed them to produce a novel measure of CO2 emitted based on a per passenger per km flown.  As a short haul, high volume, full/near full flight operator using a new, lower CO2 emitting aircraft fleet they are by this, their own measure, the best performing airline in Europe. However, environmental groups and others point out that in terms of total CO2 emissions Ryanair are the 10th most polluting individual business of any kind in Europe. Some would argue that total impact is a far better measure of the company’s environmental credentials.

In addition, it is worth noting the other interesting snippet that their high-profile voluntary carbon offset donation scheme was only been supported by 2% of all Ryanair passengers.  The voluntary offset approach, lauded by some in the airline industry as the most appropriate way forward, may have some considerable way to go before it proves its true worth?

It is all too easy to view Ryanair’s approach as a cynical attempt to exploit the now more broadly held, but often shallowly based public interest in the environment and their own personal environmental impacts.  Whether or not it is just promotional hype, there is little we can do directly about Ryanair’s claims, other than to quickly learn lessons about what might be exercising some consumers’ minds and what highly successful commercial businesses are doing, right now, to influence consumer attitudes and behaviour.

I can’t help thinking that UK destinations, singularly and jointly, might be well advised to think more deeply about how to promote their own very real environmental advantages and benefits, especially to the UK domestic audience.  Any thoughts on novel joint messaging or potential joint campaigns that we might help facilitate, would be appreciated.

The Irish Times’ take on the Ryanair claims are at: https://www.irishtimes.com/business/transport-and-tourism/ryanair-s-climate-credentials-more-hot-air-1.4134261

In the news

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News and articles of potential interest that you may have missed over the 2019 festive period include:

1. May Bank holiday. The movement of the early, May Bank Holiday from the Monday 4th to the Friday 8th May to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE (Victor in Europe) day may have, or still come as, a surprise to many. The date has been widely published as the 4th in diaries and calendars or, in the absence of much advanced national publicity, some will have simply assumed the normal pattern. For many this will not present a problem, but for others who have already made firm plans based around the wrong date there may well be issues? Although the change/error has now been more widely reported it is still worth checking detail locally and taking action to ensure that both the industry and potential customers are fully aware of the altered dates.

2. Transport and pollution. A report by Bristol’s University of the West of England as part of an EU programme gained traction around 20 December with the headline news that research (in Bristol) showed that travel for “ shopping trips and leisure” ( at 51%) was contributing more than travel for commuting (at 20%). The broad use of the term “leisure” in the retelling is slightly worrying as it could easily be interpreted as meaning leisure and tourism and be projected in the public’s minds well beyond the specific and often very different traffic patterns and conditions found within major cities.

On reflection it probably isn’t that surprising that the intense but short peaks of commuting to and from work are less polluting than the totality of shopping and leisure trips of all types made by everyone else throughout the majority of the rest of the day, in a typical major city, that are all well served by rail and other public transport. Other activity including business travel (the movement of people, goods and services) presumably makes up the other 29% in Bristol’s case?  Outside the typical city the mix of road usage is likely to be very different (dependant on local circumstance) and the national figures, as a snap shot/average of all usage across the UK, different again.

We know from Government’s own transport figures that nationally road transport, and principally the private car, is the most significant means of transport for day and staying “tourism” activity, especially for the many destinations outside the Core Cities.  We also know that commuting and business travel combined are by far the greatest component of both rail and road travel within the UK as a whole.

Going forward toward a carbon neutral future it is vital that leisure and, in particular, tourism’s impacts are not misidentified, overestimated or seen as an easy, discretionary and less economically impactful, sacrificial lamb.  The latter may seem a potentially extreme concern but past and indeed current national policy, for example, network rails deliberate targeting of school and Bank holiday periods for major maintenance works are indicative of the current policy leaning. For more on the UWE’s reports and typical media coverage see: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-7813033/Using-car-shopping-trips-leisure-activities-creates-air-pollution-commuting.html

3. Sharing accommodation. The Eu Courts of Justice have ruled that Airbnb do not have to comply with French property law by holding an estate agent’s professional licence and by default comply with the regulation that this would require. The finding that Airbnb is an “information society service” means that Airbnb and other similar platforms have narrowly avoided increased regulation in France and by implication, in some other parts of the EU where it seems likely that, had the precedence been set, others would have looked to follow.

The finding follows on from a similar case against UBER in 2017 where a very different determination was made.  The difference in determination is interesting and helps establish in EU law the degree to which control or, “decisive influence” of the product sold by the platform is seen as the key factor.  There has been speculation that this isn’t the end of the issue in France as there are option left open to the French Government and others who are concerned about lack of corporate responsibility for the products sold and the disparity caused between what is seen as necessary regulation for traditional bricks and mortar based trade and little or none for those operating as web based distributors “selling” much the same or identical products.

Unsurprisingly, Airbnb appears to remain keen to avoid any issues that may reduce growth, dampen consumer demand or increase their own compliance costs ahead of their planned public offering later this year.  The BBC take on the issue can be accessed at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-50851419?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/cny6mxpgnk5t/airbnb&link_location=live-reporting-story

4. Unauthorised school absence in England. Despite efforts to discourage unauthorised school absence DfE have recently reported that unauthorised absence for holiday purposes is still running at c 10% of all reported absences. This follows on from reports in both early and mid-2019 that fines for unauthorised absence in England was at record level.  The issue is likely to keep running for some time to come and may well be picked up again at a policy level by the new Conservative administration?  Typical media coverage can be viewed at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7844021/Almost-one-10-children-miss-lessons-without-schools-permission.html

Our position has been and remains (until you direct otherwise) that we don’t support absence for purely financial reasons.  If you can physically holiday as a family within the designated school holiday period then you should, even if it means cutting your holiday cloth and your holiday expectation accordingly.  We do however recognise that modern working pattern make family holidays within school holidays a near impossibility for some families with members working in some sectors; most notably for us within the tourism and leisure sectors themselves, where holidaying in peak periods may not be permitted by employers, or not be practical for small business owners who predominate within some parts of the industry.  We would continue to urge that headmaster are given and them employee discretion based on known individual family circumstances (as per the approach adopted in Wales).  We also appreciate that applying a discretionary system may be far easier said than done; being open to potential parental abuse and producing a potentially significant local administrative burden an schools.

5. The CEO of the Lake District National Park has been quoted as saying that: “the park must change and diversify to attract a greater range of visitors” or “lose its relevance and justification for being called a National Park and receiving public funding”. The comments are almost certainly prompted by the National review published in September which makes recommendations for both National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (ANOB) in England. The report is critical of the lack of diversification in usage, users and in governance and proposes that National Parks and AONBs in England become part of “the same family”, served by a single National Landscapes Service.  For destinations that are or include National Parks and AONBs, including those outside England, the report is significant.  See the detail at: https://britishdestinations.net/strategies-and-policies/

Some of the subsequent reporting of CEO’s comments leans towards criticism of what some see as “political correctness” and/or the issues of perceived or existing over tourism: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7834365/Lake-District-National-Park-boss-says-destinations-rugged-landscape-excludes-people.html

6. Included in the Queen’s Speech were proposed measures to reduce the burden of risk to the state from the collapse of UK tour operators. The headline measure includes consideration of changes to legislation to allow the use of aircraft and other assets of the collapsed company in any future recovery operation, which is currently banned under existing insolvency regulation. Given the scale of demands made on it in the last few years, it also seems increasingly likely that the amount paid by the companies and recovered from the cost of each holiday taken to build up a recovery fund (Air Travel Organiser’s Licence [ATOL]) may now have to be increased.

There been a number of articles in media in recent weeks referring to the cost of the Thomas Cook collapse.  The figure involved are big but as yet it is still far from clear what if any of those costs will ultimately be carried by the public purse.  What is clear is that the impressive value of the out bound travel industry in terms of UK employment and direct UK earnings, for example via UK carriers, may now need to be reassessed.  It is unlikely to be as significant as it in 2016/17 when the last piece of major research on the subject was published: https://britishdestinations.net/1194-2/content/travelling-together-the-value-of-uk-outbound-tourism-2017/

Surly in future the hidden costs of potentially underwriting the risks of the package travel business model should also be a policy consideration, particular when debating the relative national value and policy support for domestic v domestic outbound travel?

7. There was also a good deal in the press about water quality and beach management from reports on toxic plastic bead pollution on UK beaches from UK and European water treatment plants, through the sewage pollution-based perils of the increasingly popular wild swimming in English rivers, to the disruptive behaviour of jet skiers and other leisure users, on this occasion with an emphasis on their impact on bird and marine life, including the deliberate disturbance of dolphins and seals. More detail on these bathing waters and beach management issues will be notified via the UKBMF (UK Beach Management Forum) website and blog:  https://britishdestinations.net/uk-beach-management-forum-ukbmf/ .

A once in a generation lobbying opportunity?

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First day of the new Government and there is already speculation that the Johnson administration intend to make some radical changes to how things are done and to some of the seemingly fixed rules and views that have, in particular, directed Treasury investment for generations.  If it is true then this represents a massive potential opportunity for UK tourism and especially for domestic tourism which we jointly need to grasp.

You will be aware that for the last three or four years we have been busy sowing seeds around a new way to view tourism’s economic effect and purpose; that of an economic redistributor that takes wealth, increasingly generated in a few major Cities and parts of England’s South East, and moves it to rural and more economically or physically remote locations, many of which have limited alternative economic strengths.  Viewed in this way tourism becomes a powerful tool that Government can use to support many of those places left behind or struggling in some other way economically. Initially at least much can be done without the need for large scale capital programmes and investment.

The barrier we have been trying to overcome is the ingrained view in Treasury that tourism and domestic tourism, in particular, is a purely displacement activity and not simply in terms of the displacing tourism from one part of the UK to another.  The Treasury view is that tourism is a displacement for economic activity per se; a pound not spent on tourism will be spent on something else, somewhere else in the economy and isn’t lost to it.  In this the Treasury view there is no justification for public support or public funding for tourism management and development or for “tourism marketing” as it is usually, over simplistically represented at the centre. To do so is to disadvantage some other industry, service or activity, for no gain to HM Treasury.

It is for this reason that local authority spending on tourism has seldom been encourage by the Westminster Government. This is almost certainly, in large part, why England ultimately lost its independent Tourist Board and why VisitEngland within VisitBritain are now largely focused on managing international tourism within England with little or no role in domestic tourism support and development.  It is also why the Home Nation’s strong domestic marketing efforts sometime appear to be resented in Westminster and it probably has much to do with past friction between the home nations in the international marketing sphere.  Needless to say, the Treasury are also reluctant to accept that a domestic holiday taken in preference to an overseas holiday benefits the UK economy. The overseas industry is a UK earner, even if latterly it has come with a couple of eye wateringly large financial stings in the tail for UK tax papers. The fact that Treasury are fundamentally wrong about tourism, an activity where the consumer moves to the product to consume it and not the other way around, has until now never been successfully challenged.

If Government are now seriously considering changing the Treasury rules and conventions and, in particular as it has been suggested, those rules that demand relatively short-term return on any investments made, we have a once in a generation opportunity to change how tourism is viewed in the UK.  If done correctly that could remove a raft a barrier and we might then see targeted investment in place making and capital projects that will drive more tourist to more British destinations and greater support for those organisations managing destinations and ultimately making them places well worth visiting and, thus, worth marketing as destinations.  We need to be clear that we are not necessarily seeking any funding for marketing destinations as such but for the necessary support for those organisations and structure that facilitate joint local working among businesses and the public sector that build and maintain product and places worth selling domestically and internationally.

We will continue to press the argument national, in the meantime it would be extremely helpful and potentially timely if local destinations made similar noises about the benefits of viewing tourism as a tool of economic redistribution. If Government are truly receptive to new ideas and truly intent on taking action to rebalance the economy and redistribute wealth to all parts of the UK, as they appear to be saying, then here is an “over ready” means to help them achieve it.

Airbnb “verification” what is being offered:

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Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO surprise announcement on 100% “verification” of all hosts by the end of 2020, to include “minimum standards” and “basic safety protocol”, a new guest guarantee, if the accommodation listing is wrong (an equal or better alternative or 100% refund), a 24/7/365 manned neighbour complaints hotline and manual checks on all high risk booking (example given of a young person booking a large apartment in their own home town).

Mr Chesky makes it clear that this is a direct reaction to a recent mass killing at a US Airbnb party property and rising complaints about scam listings. He doesn’t give much detail on any of the promises, pointing out that this is an ongoing process, prompted by his very recent decision to change the way Airbnb does business.  He also confirms the intention to take the  company public next year.

The following article includes a link to the interview where the announcement was made.  The written detail and the interview combined allow you to make own judgement’s about exactly what is being offered and what that might or might not include:

https://www.theverge.com/2019/11/6/20951695/airbnb-100-percent-verified-listings-guest-guarantee