16 MAY 2019: It was a good week to be in Britain for ExploreGB, VisitBritain’s flagship travel trade event (May 8-10). Harry and Meghan conveniently had a baby, Brexit was on a relatively low boil, Liverpool and Tottenham both staged comebacks for the ages to qualify for the Champions League soccer final (against each other), and it didn’t snow. The locals were most excited.

As were attendees at the fifth annual event, not the least because of the lovely setting in Harrogate, Yorkshire, but also because the show had moved to May to avoid a recurrence of the bad weather (blizzard) that marred last year’s conference in Newcastle in March.

But no matter the time of year, the event is intended to showcase Britain’s iconic attractions and new innovations and products to international buyers (and media), who in turn, it is hoped, will help sell the U.K. to the world. This year, Harrogate attracted 250 delegates from 31 countries, including Canada, which sent nearly two dozen tour operator reps and travel agents, almost all of whom also visited Devon and Cornwall on a pre-conference fam led by VisitBritain’s travel trade manager for Canada, Lynda Falcone, and new office recruit Natalie Szubert.

“ExploreGB is an extremely valuable business tool, giving UK travel suppliers and destinations the chance to get their products in front of hundreds of top global buyers, forge international business connections and ultimately inspire more visitors to book a trip to the UK,” VisitBritain chief executive Sally Balcombe told delegates. “What happens here drives millions of pounds in trade and creates lasting memories for visitors who come to Britain,” she added.

To that end, 2019 is “hotting up,” to be “a really good year,” for Britain, Balcombe announced, singling out sport (including the ICC Cricket World Cupand ), TV & film (such as Game of Thrones and Bond 25) as significant drivers of tourism, the latter inspiring fully a third of all visitors according to surveys.

Regionally, Balcombe cited Wales’ Year of Discovery campaign in 2019, a new V&A museum in Dundee, Scotland, and “new accommodations opening, new product, and unrivalled cuisine across the country,” as adding to the offerings this year.

Indeed, with the Discover England development fund nearing the end of its three-year lifespan, more than 66 projects, 1,000-plus new products and 1,000-plus re-imagined products involving over 3,000 tourism businesses have been created – product that is designed to appeal to international visitors, is bookable by the trade, and goes beyond London.

“Fifty percent of visitors go to London, but it’s not the only product we have,” emphasized VisitEngland director Andrew Stokes.

On the pre-fam, Canadian delegates got a taste of such offerings on a fishing expedition out of Plymouth, at a cooking class and visits to a vineyard and Britain’s only tea farm.

But VisitBritain execs acknowledge that simply having new product isn’t enough without the ability to bring it to market, which has prompted VisitBritain to use its position as an “enabler” to offer training to grassroots suppliers to help raise their product and service standards and marketing savvy, and by launching the new B2B Tourism Exchange Great Britain Platform – a “first for VisitBritain” – which will encourage and help connect regional suppliers with unique products and “hidden gems” to a global audience, including the trade.

VisitBritain has also partnered with Google Digital Garage to help incorporate practical, real life data from consumers to inform its efforts.

As for Canada, projections are for visitations to Britain to increase by about 6 percent to nearly 900,000 this year, VisitBritain director of strategy and communications Patricia Yates told Travel Industry Today, noting that VisitBritain is working ever more closely with the travel trade in Canada, including a recently launched tourism industry council, of which three members (Stephanie Bishop, Globus; Erin Oddleifson, Transat; and Frank DeMarinis, TravelBrands) were on hand in Harrowgate for meetings.

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Such tactics are a long way from the type of activities conducted 50 years ago when the British Tourist Authority was formed in 1969 and Britain welcomed four or five million visitors as compared to 40 million today, CEO Balcombe noted.

Indeed, “What tourism offers today is almost unrecognizable to what people experienced all those years ago,” she said.

“But the essence hasn’t changed,” she observed. “What Britain offers in heritage, in landscape, in people, in welcome, is unique to us and you cannot find it anywhere else. We’ve been here 50 years, we’ve been here a long time, and we look forward to being here for another 50.”

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Michael Baginski

Editor at Large, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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