I’ve worked in the UK tourism industry for 30 years. The first 15 were in the inbound/domestic (public) sector and the second 15 were/are in the outbound (private) sector and I now know which is, by far, the most difficult arena.
Inbound and domestic tourism, in the public sector at least, is primarily about branding, positioning and consumer-facing marketing. It might talk about ‘selling’ a destination or a conference venue, but it isn’t really about selling at all, at least not in the commercial sense.
Of course, tourism officers and tourist board managers work hard and passionately and it can be noble work when using tourism to regenerate a community, but I don’t think I ever signed a commercial contract or dealt with hard money in the 15 years that I was doing that kind of work.
Conversely, when I entered the outbound sector, working as an ‘international representation’ or ‘in-market representation’ consultant, and promoting overseas destinations, hotels, conference venues and attractions to UK retailers and tour operators, I found myself very much in a commercial world and I was expected to generate measurable and traceable sales almost immediately.
I was also previously unaware how much outbound tourism benefits the UK economy, but it becomes obvious when you think about it.
All of the big ticket transactions connected with outbound travel and tourism actually take place within the UK, where high street travel agents or specialists tour operators sell international flights, local transfers accommodation, meals and entry fees etc. as one ‘all inclusive’ package.
Long haul specialists like Wendy Wu even include tips in this transaction, saying “Customers travelling with us don’t have to put their hand in their pockets”.
Large chunks of this cash will then stay in the UK as sales commission, gross profit on direct purchases or the result of hedging against currency movements.
Outbound tourism marketing is essentially B2B marketing. It’s distribution chain marketing in which you link up overseas destinations, hotels and other venues, products and services with UK tour operators (such as Abercrombie & Kent, Cox and Kings, Kuoni, Saga, Virgin and Wendu Wu, etc.) that sell direct to the public via their websites and brochures, via travel agents who act as retail outlets, or via specialist conference, business tourism or MICE agencies.
And, it’s big business. Have you noticed how town centre travel agencies continue to thrive while many other retailers have disappeared from the High Street?
For instance, I live and work in Gloucester, population 120,000, and there are at least six travel agents within 200m of my office, comprising Co-Op Travel, Flight Centre, Thomas Cook, Thomson, Virgin Holidays and the recently opened Miles Morgan Travel Shop, which now occupies a prime site in the very centre of the city that was, until a few weeks ago, a Starbucks coffee shop.
Outbound tourism is about sales, sales and more sales. Its primarily B2B marketing and distribution chain marketing and the promotional tools deployed usually comprise travel industry PR, sales calls and product training visits, trade shows, industry networking and digital newsletters, etc. directed at the tour operators who will, hopefully, sell your clients’ products and services via their brochures and websites and their travel agency or conference organiser partners.
At the other end of the pipeline are your clients – the DMCs, tourist boards, inbound tour operators, hoteliers and conference venues who will expect instant results and, if you can’t generate traceable sales, they will probably find someone who can.
More meaningful Outbound?
On the other hand, and over the last five years or so, I have represented a range of Latin American destinations and travel companies and rediscovered the importance of tourism as a force for good in the world.
I thought that I was doing important work as public sector tourism manager in the UK, representing my home city, but it was never anywhere near as important or meaningful as the work I found myself doing in the outbound sector, helping to take visitors from the UK to some very remote Chilean, Peruvian, Brazilian and Ecuadorian destinations, where tourism is the lifeblood that sustains what would otherwise be impoverished and threatened communities.
I also discovered the importance of excellent corporate social responsibility tourism programmes – especially when attached to business tourism – which I found when working with these and other ‘developing world’ countries but which hardly feature at all in the inbound/domestic sector.