It popped up in my calendar about three weeks ago that it was the third anniversary of my time as CEO of UKinbound. And I can still remember the excitement (and yes, OK, some trepidation) on taking up the role.
It was just after WTM in 2018 when I started, and the UK had received record numbers of visitors that year and was on track to do the same for 2019. We were very concerned about the implications of Brexit – particularly on the ability of members to recruit the staff they needed with the skills required.
The first few months were very much about making sure all was working under the bonnet. We were well into the swing of our annual events programme and we had a fantastic Convention in Glasgow, a great Summer Ball and were providing the opportunities for our suppliers and buyers to do business and generate the returns on their membership investment. We had 66 partners on our stand at WTM in 2019 and we approached our next Convention in Bristol with huge positivity in February 2020.
There had been a swirl of news of a virus in China, but I don’t think anyone thought that this would anything other than a temporary minor blip; although having worked through Foot and Mouth in 2001 I was worried. Little did we know.
We spun up our virtual events programme immediately, and started our regular Covid-19 updates to members that I know they have found critical for their business – 642 days later we still continue with these. We started a community page for current, but also retired, resigned or redundant members to keep in touch and share information, and we have been lobbying government incessantly. Albeit we have had more success in Scotland in securing grants than we have been in England, we have had some strong wins with changes to guidance on grants and travel and testing regulations that will have a direct benefit on member businesses. We have also undertaken a huge amount of media engagement, and it is reassuring that we are the go-to organisation for any inbound matters.
Having worked in Government I have seen first-hand when lobbying goes wrong (buy me a drink and I might tell!) – and getting the balance between data-driven, robust conversations with ministers and officials whilst remaining a trusted partner has been a challenge – but no matter how frustrating it has often been, we are in this for the long haul and will need to influence Government from within over the years ahead. A lot of the tools we use come from the data you supply, so thank you for this – it is essential that we have a robust evidence-based argument.
Then at the end of November this year – coinciding exactly with that 3-year anniversary – we had news of the Omicron variant. I know many of our members were aghast, that the hard work rebuilding for late 2021 and into 2022 might come to naught. It is still too early to say what the health and business impacts will be, and we must hope (and keep pushing governments across the UK) that the newly implemented restrictions can safely be lifted for the fully vaccinated as soon as possible in the new year.
Inbound tourism is the industry that was first hit, deepest hit and will be hit for the longest. There are signs of positivity with operators getting strong levels of enquiries and the feelings of confidence were evident at WTM in November (we were the busiest stand in the whole exhibition) and at a wonderful Annual Convention in Manchester in September. We have also held our first in-person fam trips and our first networking events in London and Scotland to get members together to network and do business.
Whilst there had been strong positivity and demand for the UK for next year, it will be a lengthy recovery from this long Covid – many businesses are highly indebted and only have a proportion of their 2019 business coming back next year. And not forgetting that many operators will not be getting the cash in until their customers travel later next year – so perhaps an even more challenging 6 months than the preceding 18. But as they say, it is often darkest before the dawn; the UK remains an attractive must-see destination for many.
Despite the positivity and the knowledge that we will recover, there are many headwinds the industry still faces – from demand-side issues of the removal of ID cards and tax-free shopping, the image of Britain, APD, visas and more, to supply-side issues of availability and cost of accommodation, the sustainability of the DMC infrastructure, lack of staff and skills…what an unenviable list! There was a recent CNN article that brought these together and notwithstanding that working so closely on these issues, we do see the whole picture, it made salutary reading. The recently announced DCMS Select Committee enquiry into the promotion of Britain internationally gives the industry an opportunity to show the entirety of challenges we face.
I don’t know why I am surprised by it, but I have been massively heartened by the inbound industry’s resilience. People have held on when many others would simply have let go. And although it has, and continues to be, a shockingly awful time for members, worried about their businesses, their friends, colleagues and families, they never cease to amaze me with their can-do attitude, flexibility and ability to adapt and continue, in the face of huge adversity. This has not been an easy 22 months on anyone, least of all those involved in inbound tourism, but some silver linings would be:
- The acceptance of the impact this has had on everyone’s mental health and that we are more readily able to talk about this.
- The collective work with other industry associations to have a one voice approach for Government. I have received massive personal and professional support from outbound and domestic colleagues – you know who you are!
- That my team have stood up, unceasingly working in high pressure situations and helping our members, many of whom were and remain in crisis, growing, learning and developing as a team and as individuals. Passionate, committed and expert – stars the lot of them.
- That I know our Board has our back – a particular mention to my Chairman James Aitken for his support and counsel.
And maybe that emerging light at the end of the tunnel will allow us to spend less time putting out fires (notwithstanding the inevitable bumps in the road ahead) and continue to build our relevance for members in the longer term.
I sincerely wish you a very merry Christmas and with very best wishes for you, your family and your business as we move into what I hope will be a better 2022.
– Joss Croft, CEO