Tourism Society Wales

Friday June 21, 2019

Tourism Society Wales response to Visit Wales Consultation on a new Tourism Strategy for Wales – ‘Let’s Shape the Future’

 

Introduction

Tourism Society Wales (TSW) is the Wales Chapter of the Tourism Society, the lead membership body for individuals working in all areas of the visitor economy – whether public, private or third sector and involved in operations, development, marketing and communications, destination management, education and training, research or consultancy. TSW has undertaken a number of initiatives over the years in support of its key aim - to encourage professional development within the sector in Wales.

TSW is a member of the Wales Tourism Alliance, but the views expressed in the response do not necessarily mirror WTA stated policies, but reflect discussions within and observations raised by TSW’s membership.

Your Questions

It is of both comfort and regret that the 10 questions asked are essentially identical to those posed each time we have had similar consultations in the past. Of course they remain valid, but are we really saying that we do not yet know how to assess the most productive markets and what they demand in terms of experience and quality? Why are we still struggling to join up functions of government (national and local) as well as private sector actors to deliver seamless, accessible and easily purchased experiences at the Wales or destination level? Perhaps ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak...’

Our responses to some of the issues raised can be found below:

The need for a Plan

We need hardly remind Welsh Government (WG) of the necessity and positive discipline but also the perils of strategy-making...

‘No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the enemy’ – von Moltke

‘I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable’ – Eisenhower

Frameworks for Action

‘Partnership for Growth’ runs from 2013 to 2020, sensibly shadowing the current (and final?) phase of EU Structural Funding in Wales. With each iteration of EU funds Visit Wales has proved singularly adept at securing substantial additional support for tourism development and marketing though a pragmatic, creative, persuasive and intelligent reading of the relevant programme priorities. It is hoped that any future substitute regional or thematic support can be better designed in terms of straightforward strategic fit, and that the sector itself is involved in that design.

It has been suggested to us that the most successful model among these successive programmes was the Tourism Growth Area concept which sought to integrate community and business engagement, quality improvement, product development and marketing alongside a robust approach to destination management. We believe that this kind of integrated approach might help revive the Destination Management initiative to which all parts of Wales signed up but which is now in danger of ‘withering on the vine’ as VW is perceived to have moved on to more exciting areas of work.

How long will the Plan last?

There is no indication in the consultation material for the new strategy how long a period it is due to cover. Given the warnings from (military) history above, together with the seismic and rapid shifts we have seen in terms of political context, technology, consumer demand, sentiment, environmental awareness, competitor activity and distribution channels evident over the past few years, it would be a brave government indeed which sought to ‘set in stone’ a tourism plan for a further 7 or more years, especially if the rationale of direct links to structural funding programmes has gone.

Over a decade we have seen exponential rises in, for example, cruise tourism, user-generated content and the sharing economy (all areas where Wales has sought to ‘catch up’), but also a subsequent and significant consumer, business or resident backlash against these. The biggest tourism brands are now, by default, the tech giants – not individual country/region destinations or traditional holiday companies – we need to harness their reach and influence to Wales’ advantage. For the first time the concept of ‘peak tourism’ is being discussed in a UK context (at least in England and Scotland if not yet in Wales) and positive action on climate change has, in 2019, become a ‘must do’ rather than an optional extra. Any tourism plans for Wales must therefore be flexible and agile enough to respond positively to such shorter-term external trends while maintaining enough strategic focus to avoid falling prey to internal and political ‘Whims of Iron....’

That is not to say that tourism should not be a key influencer and beneficiary of plans which do necessarily have to span more than one government term e.g. sustainability, education and skills development or long-term area regeneration of, for example, the Valleys.

Whose Plan is it?

Previous Wales tourism strategies have sought (albeit sometimes unconvincingly) to be fully inclusive i.e. plans for Wales rather than simply Welsh Government/Visit Wales. WG needs to be explicit about where this plan will sit in this regard – certainly the commentary and some of the questions read as the latter rather than

the former, but either way, the wider sector needs to know what its role(s) should be; good leadership needs willing and active ‘followership’. Too often in the past Welsh Government has confused leadership with control; this can be dangerous in such an individualistic and non-conformist area of the economy, or with LA partners resentful of perceived centralisation of roles and resources.

A Brand-led approach?

We believe, however, that over the past few years VW has genuinely earned its leadership spurs as evidenced by:

  • The creation and roll-out of a clear, confident and enduring Wales brand 

  • Practical and effective ways for the sector to buy in to and ‘walk the talk’ of the brand through e.g. ‘Years of...’, Wales Way and targeted investments 
(and thus) 

  • Moving VW from a reactive promotional body to a proactive strategic 
marketing body 

  • Tackling head-on harder to reach/convince markets where Wales has 
underperformed e.g. overseas and business. 
We would encourage VW to go further both in internal processes and in working with the industry by ensuring its development priorities are more clearly driven by marketing insights and, increasingly, foresights and that, in turn, marketing activity is genuinely related to the reality of the products, quality and experience on offer. Most importantly, VW, in its leadership role, should be more explicit about the gaps in provision related to specific market needs and locations. This suggests increasing resources on forward-looking research, and perhaps saving funds elsewhere by (finally) agreeing a single methodology for measuring past performance applicable at both a national and destination level. 
Investment 
There is an inherent tension between encouraging tourism development across the whole country, while at the same time seeking ‘big ticket’ must see/do investments which clearly offer better economic returns. There has been much talk of transformative projects but...
  • Projects which are transformative for the visitor economy may not always be tourism projects – the sector must take full advantage of other planned investments especially transport and connectivity infrastructure (not least those yet to come such as electric vehicle charging points)
  • Transformation may occur through the impact of new major capital investment but also ‘smarter’ coordination between existing provision to create new product or new ways of collaborative working on development, marketing and destination management
  • ‘Attractors’ (attractions, activities, venues and events as well as the wider business economy) will drive accommodation quality, demand and development rather than vice versa
  • A relatively modest investment in national terms can have a truly transformative impact at a local destination level in terms of community pride and benefit as well as visitor perception and profile (as in the latest TAD investments) 

  • Left to the market, major investments will agglomerate around existing successful hubs e.g. Business Tourism in SE Wales or Adventure Tourism in NW Wales. It is therefore a political decision to invest elsewhere, for wider local economic, social or cultural objectives, with a potential opportunity cost in terms of viability and ROI. 
The Political Dimension 
Integration of VW into WG has brought significant advantages of synergy, access to resources and influence. Of all the areas of WG policy and delivery, however, Tourism is probably the least divisive, with significant agreement across all political parties about its importance to Wales. It is unfortunate, albeit perhaps an inevitable function of governmental status, that so much of VW’s focus and resources are therefore dedicated to pleasing internal customers (i.e. Ministers) rather than looking externally to the needs of visitors, communities and  businesses. We would gently remind WG to keep VW’s status under review bearing in mind best practice from other countries where arms-length dedicated Destination Management Organisations remain the norm.

Who Pays?

Public sector resources continue to reduce, especially for the unheralded but vital ‘public goods’ at destination level, while the private sector (characterised by SMEs) are typically not able or willing to pick up the slack, whether to fund marketing, events, destination management or even their own voice or representation (through WTA, Tourism Associations or Destination Management Organisations). On this basis we need to move to new funding partnership models. We recommend a forensic (rather than emotional) examination of the options such as the Tourism Business Improvement District model in Greater Yarmouth and Torbay or a locally gathered, retained and spent ‘taxe de sejour’ under consideration in Bath and Edinburgh. We do not support a centrally controlled tourism tax as there is no certainty that it would benefit local provision.

Given uncertainties about future investment and marketing funds we believe VW should worry less about controlling funding in-house and engage more with a wider range of external funders e.g. Arts Council, Sports Council, Lottery, Coastal Communities Fund, City Deal etc. as a facilitator and honest broker. Its working relationship with the Development Bank for Wales is an encouraging development, however we have had industry feedback to the effect that DBfW does not necessarily yet have an empathic ‘feel’ for the sector and therefore terms available can be less favourable than those available from commercial lenders. There may be more ‘missionary’ work for us all to do with lenders and grant-givers in underlining the contribution, sustainability and resilience of the sector.

What about the People?

Despite employing 1 in 10 welsh workers we have collectively failed to make a career in the visitor economy aspirational and the sector continues to struggle in

terms of recruitment, retention and skill levels. We have also been guilty of offering a limited palette of opportunities, concentrating on a narrow headline range of hospitality skills, while our sector needs entrepreneurs, engineers, marketers, curators, interpreters and accountants as much as chefs and waiters. Previous plans have assumed that others (outside VW and/or outside Tourism) will pick up this responsibility but there is no evidence that this has been successful. We believe that this is an area where VW should be using its leadership role more positively because, with the loss of a straightforward source of additional labour from the EU, Wales will soon be thrown back onto internal resources and, quite simply, without enough of the right people with the right skills we do not have an industry of any kind, let alone a sustainable one.