eTN: We are with Mr. Christopher Rodrigues, Chairman of VisitBritain, and for those that are unfamiliar with VisitBritain, please tell us what your organization’s functions and aims are.
CHRISTOPHER RODRIGUES: It’s really simple – we market Britain overseas as a tourist destination.
eTN: How did you get involved?
RODRIGUES: Just over 4 years ago, there was a search that took place for the next chairman of VisitBritain. My predecessor was Lord Colin Marshall who had run British Airways, and he’d done the job, in fact, a couple of times. And I was one of the candidates, and they were nice enough to invite me to do the job. The government said at the time that it was partly because in my previous work at Visa, obviously I’d been involved in the Olympics. I’d run Thomas Cook and had run American Express’ travel business in the UK and Russia so I had some understanding of the global tourism market, and I also had some background in the arts, so it was that combination of skills that were relevant to promoting Britain. They’ve been nice enough to invite me to do it for a second term; I’ve just been reappointed, so I now get to do it through the Olympics to 2014.
eTN: How long have you held the term?
RODRIGUES: I’ve had it for 4 years, and they just appointed me for another 4, then they will carry me out on a stretcher.
eTN: You’ve mentioned at the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s Global Tourism Forum that you are working on 4 major projects at the moment. What are these events, and what are VisitBritain’s objectives and aims for these projects?
RODRIGUES: We are in a particularly exciting period for marketing Britain as a tourism destination. As everyone knows, tourism has 2 parts: firstly, people have got to have the aspiration to visit your country, and secondly, you need the call to action. Most of the time the industry focuses on call to action, because it wants heads, and beds, and bottoms, and seats, and feet through the turnstiles, but actually, you have to build the aspiration to travel, particularly in those part of the world which are just starting to travel, like Asia and the sub-continent. What we have is a series of events starting this April, on the 29th of April 2011 with the royal wedding – Kate and William, followed in the summer of 2012 by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – only the 2nd time a monarch has been on the throne for 60 years; the previous one was Queen Victoria; strong women we have in our country. And that is going to be a true national celebration, because I think everyone has realized that we have been extremely fortunate, and we have a monarch who is iconic, both because the monarchy is a very important part of Britain’s attraction, but also that this woman has lived through war, political change, family turbulence – a whole manner of things – and has come out as retaining her dignity and widely respected as the head of the Commonwealth. So, the British Commonwealth and Britain itself are going to celebrate hugely in the summer of 2012, and then, of course, we have the Olympics and then the Paralympics. And then in 2013 and onwards, we have things like the Commonwealth Games. So, why is this important? Because, in the words of a British Prime Minister called Harold Macmillan, the thing that matters in politics is events, dear boy, events. And, of course, events are central to what we do, not just because they attract people to them, but because the world’s media cover them, and, therefore, I get back to where I started – what events do is allow you to showcase the country. In addition to being able to showcase London in the Olympics and also other parts of Britain, because the Olympic football takes place all around Britain, the Olympic sailing takes place down on the south coast of Portland and Weymouth. The royal wedding has connections all over Britain, because the royal family does, they’re going to live in Wales, in Anglesey, so there’s another connection. And, of course, the Diamond Jubilee will be celebrated all over Britain, and one of the things we do as a national tourism organization is to promote the whole of Britain, so it’s London plus. These events give us a wonderful opportunity to produce coverage, and obviously when you look at an event like the Olympics, the Paralympics, the broadcasting media want to be able to cover things beyond the games.
eTN: The royal wedding is being touted as a tourism attraction?
RODRIGUES: It is a tourism attraction, and there will probably be a million people in Britain, in London on the day. For us at VisitBritain, it’s not selling tickets for the event, it’s using the event to showcase Britain. So, yes, it will be a big tourism event, but that’s one day in 2011 – my job is 365, 24/7/365 – and so we are interested in using the event, harnessing the global communications, which will be extraordinary to go beyond Britain, and certainly, as far as we can see from the media interest… someone was just telling me – we’re here in Berlin for ITB – that I think almost unprecedented – both of them national television channels – would broadcast the wedding, and the private channels. So, it is going to be phenomenal coverage, and we’re crossing our fingers for a very happy wedding on a sunny day.
eTN: Regarding the Olympics, tour operators from the UK travel and tourism industry, particularly the European Tour Operators Association, argued that based on previous studies of the Olympics, hosting countries or cities – it disrupts the regular tourism. How has VisitBritain responded to ETOA’s concerns?
RODRIGUES: They are proper concerns in the sense that if you look at the history of events, they are good at showcasing, but the disruption is – and this has happened the world over, this is not a British issue, this is a big events issue – the disruption is that people think that’s the year they will give the country a miss. So you may get a halo effect afterwards, but in the year of the Games, if you do nothing, then there is a risk that there will be a drop in inbound tourism. The answer to that is, from the beginning, because we’ve had the experience and we’ve learned from others, we are being very clear that firstly, this is a 4-year… this is a marathon, not a hundred-meter dash. We have to start before the Games, which is what we are already doing, and we have to keep on through the Games, and we have to continue afterwards. So, start before the Games, thank you, royal wedding – it was very nice of Kate and Will to get married in 2011 – that will do a lot of good work in showcasing Britain and getting people to want to come. Secondly, we are working very hard with the trade plug the gap, to make sure that there is a coordinated effort to get people to recognize firstly that Britain is a small country, but there’s a lot of Britain outside of London, so why not come and see the Games in the same time zone, in the same country – the coverage will be nonstop – but while you’re at it, go see other things, go to the Cotswolds, go to Edinburgh, go to Cardiff, see the Welsh coast, go to the south of England – all of the things that you can do in Britain – and still enjoy the Olympics for part of the trip. So, that’s one thing we will do. The second thing is we will focus, and in particular, we will be focusing in continental Europe where the point-to-point connections are very good into multiple destinations in Britain in promoting local tourism, regional tourism I should say, from the regions of Europe into the regions of Britain, and low-cost carriers like easyJet, and Ryanair, and Wizz have very extensive coverage, so it’s very easy to disperse people. We will be reminding people about the rail network. Most of the things in Britain are 2 hours from London, even Scotland is only 4 ¼ hours from London. So, there’s an enormous amount you can do on what by most people’s standards is either a short- or only medium-length rail journey – it’s really easy to get around Britain.
eTN: Have there been dialogues between VisitBritain and the UK travel industry?
RODRIGUES: Our life is about dialogue. This whole 4-year program is anchored by a 100 million pound partnership between the government and represented by us and the trade, and we have this 100 million pound marketing campaign, which is harnessing these great events, built around it, and then built around using the… one would always like more money, but we all live in a time of austerity, as is well known, so you have to be smart, and what we will do is, we’ll use the events to showcase Britain, which is to build the aspiration, we use our PR and network around the world to amplify that, and then we use the partnerships with the trade to actually have the call to action. So, it’s a very simple program, but that’s why it should work. There is one issue – just came back to an earlier question – there is one issue which does concern me and concerns the inbound tour operators, and we are working on them, and that is that, as you know, in any inbound year, in any big event year, the Olympics secures a lot of London rooms – a lot of rooms in whatever event city. The trick, and often they then release them late, from an independent traveler’s perspective that’s great, because they get discounted rooms; from a tour operator’s perspective, that’s not great, and we need to see if we can find a middle ground to get some kind of progressive release so that tour operators can handle that during the event. The observation I would make, and one always focuses on the positive, is that I hope this is the year that tour operators go beyond their traditional buyers, which is to focus on London and focus on the rest of the country where the hotels rooms are not pre-booked by the Olympic organizers, and there is plenty of capacity.
eTN: For regular tourists who go to London for the theatres and for shopping, what do you say to them to try to get them to come to London during the Olympics?
RODRIGUES: I come back to what I said before – my job is 365/24/7. I like them every day of the year and not the just the 40 days of Olympics. I’ve been lucky enough to go as a sponsor and as a guest, to a number of Olympic events, and the excitement of the event is unmatched. The quality of the sport is extraordinary, and I think one of the things people need to be aware of, and they aren’t always aware of it until they’ve done it – I mean, I remember, is the wide breadth of quality. I remember being invited to go to Barcelona, and my host gave me some tickets to table tennis, or ping pong, as we call it in Britain, and I thought, okay, I’ll go and see the table tennis, although I’m not very interested in table tennis. It was spectacular, absolutely spectacular. When you see table tennis played, you see a table, and on top of that the bat, and on top of that the hat, their arms, and then their head, and their feet – you see, they’re upside down – it’s gymnastics while playing table tennis. You realize that at the world-class level, any sport is worth watching, it’s extraordinary. So, I think there are lots of sports to see; it isn’t just about being in the main stadium for the 100-meter finals – that’s over in under 10 seconds. So, I would encourage anyone who’s interested in sports to come and see any of the Olympic events around the country, but also to, as I said earlier, to come and see the country, because the spirit of excitement will be all over the country. For that, and for the Diamond Jubilee beforehand, which I think is going to be, from a tourism perspective, a fabulous… it’s the hidden secret in the next 4 events.
eTN: You said 100 million pounds (approximately US$161 million) is being allocated for the Olympics alone?
RODRIGUES: No, over 4 years.
eTN: How much of that is being allocated for the Olympics?
RODRIGUES: We don’t have to advertise the Olympics. I think from a tourism marketing perspective, the thing to remember is, as I’ve said before, it is not about advertising the event. The event gets people – I don’t need to advertise the Olympics. I need to promote Britain, and promote Britain at other times. There is a fundamental difference – the people who are dealing with the Olympics – the Olympic ticket sellers – absolutely need to promote that, and in 5 day’s time, tickets go on sale in the UK. I’ve just been to an event promoting ticket sales in Mexico, so that’s starting. That’s not my big problem. People know about the Olympics, they know it’s in London. Those who want to go need to know how to get their tickets – that’s not a big issue. The challenge is to promote the country.
eTN: On a different subject, you recently attended UNWTO’s Global Tourism Forum. What did you take away from your experience?
RODRIGUES: I was quite encouraged, because I think, strangely, the pressure of the recession has caused people, as it often does, to collaborate more, and instead of everyone being terribly wealthy and having lots of money, and all doing their own thing, and not wanting to talk to each other. It’s evident that tourism, particularly leisure tourism, has been very resilient. It’s evident there’s a big opportunity, because it creates jobs, and that’s what the world needs. I think what we saw there under Taleb Rifai’s leadership, is a real sense that the industry… I mean the industry’s been around for 50 or 60 years – it’s been around a lot longer since Thomas Cook started it in 1841, but the industry is getting to another level of its sophistication. And I think it’s beginning to realize that to really promote and to defend its position, because there are some who don’t like growth in tourism, it needs to hold hands and work in a collaborative sense, and I think there was a real sense that that phase of our development has begun and that we’re committed to it.
eTN: The UK government and some other governments have been criticized for what has been termed excessive taxation. What’s your view on the issue?
RODRIGUES: I’d love the taxes to be lower, but the government has a major funding gap, and tourism is a resilient industry, and people in the treasury recognize that it’s a good way to raise money. It would be better if it was lower.
eTN: Jeffrey Sachs urged the travel and tourism industry – public and private – to raise their voices to tell their governments to get more serious on environmental issues, as well as food and energy issues. Your response?
RODRIGUES: I think that most of the environmental work that needs to be done by the tourism industry, needs to be done by the industry. If you look at the tourism footprint, first of all, you have to worry about what it does to the environment. Certainly in Britain, we take very good care, not least through the national trust of our physical environment. The airline industry is making considerable progress on fuel economy. Water and waste processing by hotels, which is a big source of carbon emissions – it economically makes sense for people to look at that, and they are. So, I think actually it’s happening. I’m not sure; I think there are some things you can do by legislation, but people want to travel. What you want them to do is to travel economically. Rail is Europe’s big answer to… high-speed rail is a big contributor that’s being supported in Britain; it’s supported all over Europe. I think we’re never doing enough, but I think we’re doing a whole lot more as an industry, and I don’t think government regulation will accelerate this.
eTN: Andorra, which doesn’t even have an aviation industry, quantified travel and tourism to be its biggest industry, raking in about 1 billion Euros with 8 million tourists a year – that’s 35% of Andorra’s GDP. What is it in Britain or UK?
RODRIGUES: Eight percent to GDP, fifth biggest industry, third biggest foreign exchange, employs 2.5 million people. It’s a very serious industry, and on the fifth of January 2011, the Prime Minister [David Cameron] recognized this by hosting an event, which kicked off our promotion, the 100 million pound campaign.
eTN: Any final words, Christopher?
RODRIGUES: Visit Britain!