What tickles the tourists?

Visit Britain thinks UK tourist attractions should be providing a ‘fuller experience’ to entice more bumbags on seats. Richard Clayton reports

Mr and Mrs Average Joe living in Wisconsin or Minnesota have probably heard of Stratford upon Avon and, if they’re really curious, a place called the Lake District. But getting potential tourists from Middle America – and a host of other markets – to broaden their horizons when visiting the UK is a major challenge.

Launching its annual report last week, Visit Britain declared it wanted to see more tourist income from the regions, with a greater emphasis on ‘experiential’ attractions (DW 30 October).

At the same time, the tourist authority is revising the way that it targets visitors – with an accent on ‘lifestyle marketing’, as opposed to the grand narratives of bricks and mortar.

‘We need a better understanding of what motivates customers to travel,’ says Seren Welch, Visit Britain head of international brands and product marketing. ‘With the rise of shorter breaks, motivations have changed for many people. A holiday is seen as a necessity, not a luxury. It’s not so much a “go-see” impulse that’s driving them. Today, perhaps well-being, relaxation or the wish to gain a fuller experience [are just as important].’

Corporate Edge has been working with Welch for nearly two years on elaborating a strategy, leading to a brand model and an identity.

Traditionally, Britain has been sold ‘very much [on] a power positioning’, says Corporate Edge director Jonathan Hall. In other words, its history commands attention and visitors almost feel obliged to tick certain icons off their itineraries.

‘You can’t jettison the past,’ according to Hall. ‘That’s what Cool Britannia tried to do and that was seen as ridiculous. [Nevertheless,] new truths and new reasons to visit can be layered over the traditional story.

‘At present, we talk of coastlines and heritage and gardens, but is that really going to hook people in? Does it mesh with having an experiential brand?’

First managing director Bob Bayman thinks the secret is to find a link with ‘things that people are already interested in’ and establish mainstream connections to contemporary culture.

‘At the end of the day, we’re all victims of this entertainment age’, he says. ‘So why not exploit a link to the Harry Potter films? It would provide tremendous motivation for the Japanese and the Americans to go that extra hour in the car to what might otherwise be an out-of-the-way location.’ Bayman adds, ‘I don’t think any – or many – of the big historical houses have really leveraged quintessential modern Britishness. It would be great if [stately homes like] Chatsworth, Burghley and Blenheim came out of the confines of their perimeter walls.’

What he means is brand extension. First worked with the National Trust on its standalone restaurants, one of which is piloting at Ightham Mote in Kent (11 April 2002).

‘How about a Blenheim range of clothes by Paul Smith or Burghley paints? The Tate gallery brand has pioneered lending its name to new products. What if one of the historic properties could own that sort of association?’

Land Design Studio creative director Peter Higgins endorses the ‘convergence of the cultural and the consumable’. That’s certainly the aim of the group’s work at the National Waterfront Museum Swansea (DW 15 August 2002).

The building will include a shopping mall, be open 18 hours a day and house ‘synergistic’ craft and heritage shops, as well as an interactive window that gives access to objects through touch-screen glass even when the museum’s doors are closed.

Higgins believes a large-scale attraction falters when it’s set up ‘without a bigger picture of how it fits into a city matrix’.

‘With Swansea – where we’re trying to bring to life what was really special about the Industrial Revolution – shopping and learning come together,’ he says.

‘It’s about extending the offer – and not in isolated sites. The museum meets the city and the city meets the museum.’

Although Higgins thinks UK venues can learn from the ‘professionalism’ of US attractions – such as Hearst Castle in California or Plimoth Plantation, Massachusets – it’s not theme-park history.

‘We’re blending the excitement of the immersive with the reality of people and things that have an emotional value – re-appropriating [Disney] techniques for real stories and real people.’

Consistent delivery, Hall adds, will reinforce the appeal of such destinations. ‘You don’t just throw something up and let it sink or swim. [Venues] need constant attention if they are to fight for the visitor dollar.’

And for all the input that coach-loads of brand consultants are having, it’s client-side expertise that makes or breaks an attraction.

Higgins would like to see a ‘new breed’ of creative impresarios in charge, people who might otherwise be running the National Theatre or the Edinburgh Festival.

Hall is more pragmatic. ‘They need to think like brand managers. It’s not just about big ideas, but meticulous delivery day-to-day.’

The Power of Potter

As the site of Hogwarts school in the Harry Potter films, Alnwick in Northumberland has seen a surge of visitors. The natural beauty of the area, its castle and the magic of Harry Potter are conspiring to make the area a popular destination for tourists.

Newcastle-based Guerilla Communications is helping the area to reinvent itself without losing its sense of history. ‘Alnwick deserves to be recognised on the world stage as a stunning place to visit and has its own magic,’ says Guerilla creative designer Geoff Foots.

The group’s 2004 Alnwick District Guide is out next month.

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