Rule, Britannia!

Vikki Carley sits down with VisitBritain’s new head of business visits, events and partner marketing, Simon Mills, to discuss how the convention bureau plans to generate new business for the country.

How do you hope to generate new business for the country, in light of the recent survey which found business visits to Britain have dropped 20 per cent?
Our strategy to arrest this decline is fourfold. We intend to get a better understanding of our markets through our overseas network and deliver high quality market insights, We want to raise our game and deliver support via eventBritain to the nations, cities and regions of Britain when they bid for large events. We aim to grow opportunities for industry partners in longer-haul and under-developed European markets. We want to take advantage of the Olympics opportunity, which will provide increased opportunities to view and profile Britain as a destination for business and event tourism; and as a destination for conferences in the run up to and after the Games. We are also fortunate that the exchange rate with the Euro is currently favourable, which puts us in a great position for bringing European events over to Britain.

Internationally, where have you seen the most business wins in the last year?
As a nation, we have seen wins from across the globe, which is encouraging in what has been a challenging time. Key markets for business to Britain continue to be France, Ireland Germany and the US.

Have you seen a rise in local clients?
VisitBritain’s sole role is to drive business visits from overseas markets. We focus only on inbound business and tourist visits.
Britain is doing better than most: visits from Europe have been fairly resilient to this year’s economic climate, helped in part by a weak pound improving Britain’s affordability. It is true that international business visits have dropped but by comparison domestic overnight business tourism was around 10 per cent lower in the year to August 2009 than in the year to December 2007. This year will see a sustained recovery in the volume of business tourism, if for no other reason than 2009 was so poor.

What have been some challenges VisitBritain has faced over the past year? How have you combated this?
Tourism is a £114bn industry supporting 2.7m jobs. As the fifth largest industry in the UK, we are well positioned to pull Britain out of this recession. Our goal at VisitBritain is to lead and support the industry across the sector and ensure that we are not sidetracked in achieving this, especially during hard times.

The global marketplace is more competitive than ever and a number of well-funded destinations are now appearing on the radar when a few years ago, they were not. 
We need to ensure that we seek support across the industry and communicate as one voice, and our leadership of the Business Visits and Events Partnership, which brings together 20 major associations, ensures this happens.

How is business bearing up in the current economic climate?
It is not the best of climates to operate in and 2009 will go down as a tough year. However, some of the partners that I have spoken to have seen some signs of recovery in the early months of this year, which is promising.

What would you say are Britain’s five major selling points in the international meetings arena?
Our facilities are excellent; our connectivity with the World is strong; our experience in managing large scale meetings is proven and we have strong industry backing to ensure that Britain continues to be a World leader in this sector. Britain also has such a rich tapestry which provides a magnificent backdrop to any meeting and is a draw all on its own.

How do you feel having a new ICC at Excel will help boost Britain’s attractiveness as an international meetings destination?
London has been crying out for a sizeable meeting venue for a number of years, one that is capable of hosting larger conferences. The new facility will provide another reason for overseas meeting planners to choose Britain as their destination of choice.

Which countries are you most interested in attracting to hold business events in the country?
Britain has always been one of the world’s great trading nations, so it is little wonder that, according to our figures, business visitors arrived on our shores from no fewer than 134 different countries last year.
I think this will become clearer when we have undertaken an internal audit to get a better understanding of some of our markets. The major markets that I have already described will of course continue to be a priority; but there is untapped potential in markets such as Russia, China and India.

Where have you positioned your marketing efforts this year and for the next? Why?
We are seeing this year as a transitional one as we start to get a better handle on our markets. But, we will continue to support the nations and regions of Britain when they are bidding for events.
We will provide a platform for the UK industry to meet overseas planners and buyers in particular at our bi-annual Discovery event which will take place in February 2011, but also at on-going events on territory. We also plan to take advantage of our leisure activity in markets and integrate extender messages into relevant leisure campaigns and also ensure we continue to inspire visitors to do business in the UK.

_Where are you seeing the greatest competition? How do you face this?
We have traditionally faced competition from nearby European countries and now a growing number of Middle Eastern countries, who are well funded and can offer good value to anyone wanting to hold a meeting or a conference. 
We also suffer as some of our competitors have the benefit of subvention to tempt perspective bidders. We can overcome this by focusing on our key USPs like our connectivity and the facilities we have. We can also use our networks to influence the decision makers in market and we can offer unique experiences for delegates that are pretty difficult to match.

Any new initiatives to announce?
We are currently conducting research into the extender opportunities from China and Russia, which will start to enable us to get a better handle on these important markets. 
We have also started rolling out an eventBritain shop, which we can white label to any event organiser who are attracting overseas delegates. 
This allows conference and event organisers to sell Rail passes, Oyster passes and other travel products to their overseas delegates, at a reduced rate, with their own event branding and we will fulfil the back-end of the system for them. The other incentive for the event organiser is a commissionable element that can be shared. 

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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