When Deirdre Wells came to talk to our members during the summer about “Visit Kent”, she urged those of us who were passionate about Kent to become great ambassadors for the county.
Visit Kent is “the official Destination Management Organisation for Kent and Medway, responsible for supporting and growing the tourism industry”; Deirdre became CEO after taking over from her predecessor in September 2018. Before joining Visit Kent, Deirdre held a number of positions at government departments, several of which gave her a strong background in tourism.
During her talk Deirdre outlined why tourism is important for all of us, what attracts people to Kent, and how to focus activities that target certain tourists.
Deirdre started her presentation by stating that “Tourism and holidays are big business”. Because they are enjoyable, it’s all too easy to forget just how important travel and holidays are to the local economy. Tourism means jobs and brings in income to a region; altogether, it can make a place more desirable to live and vibrant too.
Last year Kent and Medway had 65 million visitors – that’s equivalent to £2.3 billion in value; these visitors provide, in essence, 77,000 jobs.
However, of the visitors, only around 5 million stay overnight (a small percentage of total visitors). Yet it is these overnight stayers that are important for the local economy, as overnight visitors spend more per person than day trippers – roughly £150 vs £30. And it is this spend that creates the most jobs.
Visit Kent’s aim (as the name suggests) is to encourage more people to visit Kent, and also to encourage these visitors to spend more time exploring the County. Many people pass through Kent on their way to and from cruises, for example. Visit Kent wants to encourage these people to stop off and find out what the County has to offer – they want to showcase Kent in such a way that people want to stay here rather than just pass through. The organisation’s biggest priority, therefore, is to “shift the overnight stay”.
The target set by Deirdre’s predecessor in 2017 was “5 years, 5 million visitors, 5,000 new jobs”. Deirdre wants to go further.
What are the things that are important to visitors to Kent? Tourism, travel, accommodation, retail, attractions, and food and drink. Of these, retail is of highest importance as “it’s the most desired things that tourists want to do!” The 2nd most desired thing that tourists to Kent want to do is go to the pub! Basically, it seems that visitors are looking for the “quintessential British experience”.
In order to attract more tourists, it’s important to understand tourism trends. Tourism is changing and technology is changing – so those working in the industry need to keep abreast of these changes. For instance, many tourists now book accommodation when in transit – it’s only then that they decide what they want to do. For the host region, this can make things hard to plan. One of Visit Kent’s job, therefore, is to “spot trends and do research, so that people are ready”.
In order to attract visitors, providers need to know what’s popular. Right now, “anything related to food and drink flies off the shelf,” says Deirdre, “especially if related to locally-sourced produce.” More and more people also want to have experiences, not just look at things. For example, they want to talk to people, fly balloons, do something unusual. Often, they also want to post pictures and share their experience on social media.
This means that the big, traditional attractions (such as the Cathedral) have two challenges: first, they need to keep their traditional audience happy, and second, they need to entertain those that want “something different”. They therefore need to think about how to “up-sell” themselves. As Deirdre points out, “Nowadays people want to engage with people, they want to be ‘brought in to an experience’”. Simply put, “it’s good if you can bring something to life”.
So, for example, an attraction might offer a chance to dine with local dignitaries, or talk to local individuals with an unusual passion or expertise. Diedre offered an example of the latter: “Fergus the Forager”. Fergus offers foraging experiences in Herne Bay. Basically, he shows people how to forage for food and then cook delicious food. “He’s fun, different, cool, Instagramme-able – plus he’s a phenomenal story teller!” says Deirdre.
Deirdre went on to describe a new initiative to get tourists interested in Kentish wines – the “Wine Garden of England”. This initiative involves seven Kent Vineyards working together. Although they ‘d normally be competitors, the Vineyards understand that working together will help increase the profile of Kent wine as a whole and generate more interest in their own products. The initiative is proving to be very successful. “We [now] have the ambition to be the next Napa Valley!” Deirdre says. Thanks to the exciting initiative, Kent is now “winning medals left, right and centre”. And all of this brings a new audience to Kent. (We even heard that the French are enjoying our wines, and recently the Westgate Hall hosted the first ever Canterbury wine festival, drawing visitors in from all around the country.)
Deirdre told us how the Government was giving out £40 million for funding of tourism – and Visit Kent had secured funds for two projects:
- Gourmet Garden Trails – which combines gourmet food and gardening. In order to attract European visitors (e.g. from French and Dutch markets), Visit Kent works with counterparts in other countries to develop suitable itineraries for tourists. (And it seems that although perceptions can take forever to shift, a recent French Tour group was very impressed with our British food!)
- England’s Creative Coast – which brings our wonderful coastline together with the creative arts. “Basically,” Deirdre says, “with this we’re linking jewels in the crown of the art world”. Under this scheme, visitors get a chance to visit artists’ homes and studios – often staying to watch or work with the artists. This creativity is reinforced with things like the Turner Contemporary, which has transformed the seaside town of Margate; the Turner prize this year means that international eyes are on Margate.
There are, however, numerous challenges for those working in the tourism industry. The most pressing is Brexit: “Things could be rocky for some time,” says Deirdre. Although the delay in the date for Brexit has given some breathing space to allow for planning, the country as a whole has seen a decrease in business since the referendum. In terms of tourism, for example, many group tours have cancelled. Hopefully these will re-book for next year.
Another challenge is attracting new audiences and encouraging them to spend more. Thanks to environmental lobbying, the concept of holidaying at home (“Staycationing”) is catching on more widely. But while it’s great to attract Brits, these “locals” need to be encouraged to spend as much as overseas tourists if they’re to help our economy. The best way to achieve this is for the industry to target millennials and families with attractions and things to do.
Deirdre also wants to build stronger links with France. Lately there’s been a decrease in foreign education groups travelling to the UK – largely due to Euro value changes and to perceived security threats in London etc. However, such groups bring in a lot of revenue; moreover, cultural exchange between young people is very important and should be encouraged as “it broadens the mind in a way that nothing else does".
Another challenge in Kent is accommodation “stock”. Basically, there aren’t enough hotel beds in Kent to cope with potential demand. There’s a need for three more good quality 200-bedroom hotels (as well as high quality “bijou” hotels). Although budget hotels have their place, Visit Kent wants to encourage high spenders to Kent, so needs to provide accommodation that would appeal to them. It’s a case of “visitor numbers versus visitor value,” as Deirdre calls it. The aim is to attract fewer, but much higher-spending visitors.
A final challenge is “managing a destination”. This is as important a marketing. Kent’s closeness to London has its disadvantages as well as its advantages – for example, it’s all too easy for visitors to head to London rather than stay in the local area. This needs to be considered when planning tourist activities. Placemaking is important – this means curating towns and cities to make them vibrant for tourists and residents.
A further challenge is one of globalisation. Kent is now not only competing with British destinations such as Sussex and Cornwall … global proximity means that it’s also competing with overseas destinations such as Paris and Barcelona.
Deirdre drew her presentation to a close by showing us a Summer Campaign video for West Kent, targeted at millennials; other campaigns target other demographics.
In summary, those who work in tourism need to remember that “people tend to go where they know” – so they need to encourage these visitors to do something different. All in all, Kent needs to give visitors truly “world class experiences”.
To find out more about Visit Kent, with great ideas of things to do locally, click here.
You can watch the West Kent campaign video on Visit Kent’s youtube page, here.
Other videos in the series can be seen here.
Picture: Deirdre talks to our members about Visit Kent. Picture credit: Rotary Club of Canterbury.