Kate talks travel

What is the future for coastal tourism in Britain?

When the sun shines in Britain, we rush to the seaside like it might dry up before the day is out. We love the British coastline so much that we're prepared to sit in horrendous traffic jams to get there. And in our race to paddle in the sea, us Brits have acquired a fairly poor stereotype of forgetting to apply sunscreen.

However, the British weather and our haste to visit the coast when the climate is most favourable to being scantily clad does have another reality. In the main, we're not the greatest patrons of our coastal towns and resorts when the weather ain't so fine. 

So, what is the future for coastal tourism in Britain?

That very question is what spurred the inaugural Coastal Tourism Forum organised by the National Coastal Tourism Academy last September. It springs to mind now as BBC Breakfast's theme this week is what we love about the coast.  

A conglomeration of tourism academics, industry analysts, regional DMOs, council staff and BID team members brought stats, facts and vision to a hopeful and occasionally desperate forum of peers. 

Once the survey findings, small print powerpoints and excessively academic spiels had stirred the air, the guts of the day drew in. The reality of the morning's fanfares when succinctly formed on paper were thus...

The vision for Britain's coastline

If a vision is to be achievable it needs to be realistic. That, nodded the heads in the room, was largely the case with this hypothesis. It needed some tweaks of expectation. For example, why aim for world class service, when just good (read: better) British service would do? Who will lead a coastal tourism strategy? And how will it be funded at a regional level? 

The questions remain unanswered.

Depending on the part you play in the tourism industry, you'll have heard, retweeted or regurgitated the positively prosperous domestic tourism stats spewed from any and every travel company desperate to make a go of post-referendum socio-economics.

What's British tourism got going for it?

Perhaps, in the room I saw everything that's right and everything that's wrong with British tourism, but certainly clarification for why it's going to be an uphill battle. Too many cooks agreeing with a macro vision yet tied to their own micro objectives. 

There were certainly too many suits and corporate dresses in a room discussing travel. Maybe I've worked on the fluffy or tech side of the industry for too long but the fit felt odd. And while clearly a lot of passion and focus exists, some things just aren't academic, they're organic and dynamic. And that's why it's the entrepreneurs and the boutique tourism niches that are disrupting the industry and attracting consumers by volume. In much the same way they attract media attention. 

Travel - a disparate industry

Councils and DMOs are lacking funding and, for me, a sense of on-the-ground customer requirements for what makes them visit a destination. I couldn't believe I got caught up in a conversation about town centre signage! What's the point of signposting if what is being signposted has no brand value or promotion? Signs have little purpose if people don't know to come in the first place.

The travel and tourism industry is as disparate as they come. The traditional travel agency model still survives, just. Tour operators have boutique offices or are online behemoths. The cruise industry is evolving apace with customer expectations but still invests immense amounts on print advertising. In some quarters, travel businesses are selling to other travel businesses still as well as going direct to consumers. Aggregators continue to pop up to help one-stop shops achieve more air time. The sharing economy has given us all more than enough to think about. And social media has redefined the meaning of consumer choice. 

What's your coastal tourism story?

So how do you get your brand seen and heard nowadays without big budgets or huge resource?

Wherever you're allocating your hard invested cash, consider this: your brand, your message, your solution to the customer's problem needs to reach more than once for them to consider looking your way.

In fact, Google travel trend data suggests that a consumer can be exposed to a brand at least 12 times before deciding to actually book with that company. 

You don't need a full time team and a full on budget to achieve this. A smart thinking, holistic communications strategy will do the trick. And as you test and toss different ideas across a well-considered spectrum of marketing channels, you'll learn what works and how best to convert your customers.

For a more in-depth communications strategy conversation and to get your story heard, let's talk.  

Monarch: is there a travel company with a better brand reputation?

Monarch airlines brand reputation

Monarch has had the travel industry and its customers in a tizz since the end of September. The stalwart of low cost flights and cheap package holidays had a wobble of the financial variety. The timing of events tallied to the renewal of its ATOL certification (Air Travel Organisers Licence) and another holiday company appeared destined for the travel brand bench in the sky.

Speculation has never been so subdued

Yet for once, we saw an industry and a consumer base rally around this much loved household name. ATOL led the charge with its 12 day licence extension. The industry followed with its genuine support for Monarch CEO Andrew Swaffield. Consumer fears were allayed by proactive investment talks and forthcoming communications from the business.

As we waited with baited breath for news from down-to-the-wire talks, there was more hope in the air than has been sensed in the industry for many a month.

In 48 years of trading, Monarch has taken most of us somewhere in Europe. It has carved out niches. It has faced adversity. It has risen again and again. It’s about to do that all again.

Us Brits have a soft spot for a battler

You see Monarch hasn’t glided through the last few years with a silver spoon in its proverbial mouth. Its P&L has demonstrated more ups and downs than the average school kids yo-yo. But it’s a business that in the last two years has had the financial and strategic backing of a business saving investor (Greybull Capital).

During that young tenureship Greybull has proven its worth by bringing Monarch back into the profitable black. While it did so with some significantly difficult adjustments to its model and staff structure, it did it with grace and aplomb. The outcome: a robustly intact brand reputation and loyal customer following.

The reservists hate a bragger

Now Monarch won’t blow your socks off with its marketing. It’s unlikely to win any awards for brand innovations. If it did, I can’t imagine it shouting about them overtly. But Monarch is a pretty sound example of how sticking to what you know and doing it well, can curate a loyal following.

Since introducing the Monarch blog in 2011, they’ve maintained open communication with their customers. From their blog you’ll find the latest flight routes, destination inspiration and behind the scenes insight as well as their latest news and press statements.

Monarch’s social media activity has that pleasant, easy-on-the-eye look, feel and tone to it too. What’s not to like.

And Monarch’s handling of recent events has taken a similar tone and strategy - open and informative as and when was possible and appropriate. Because Monarch doesn’t do shock tactics and sensationalism, its customers and peers gave the brand the time it needed to come to a resolution they all hoped for and expected. This time around it worked.

A case in point for the travel industry

However, Monarch’s brush with ATOL retirement and financial obscurity naturally raises the questions how and why did this happen. The difficult trading conditions created by terrorism, the Brexit vote and weaker Pound have all contributed to a challenging 2016 for tour operators, accommodation providers and the aviation industry. For Monarch in particular it prevented them from selling holidays to Egypt - a significant proportion of their business - and impacted sales of package holidays to Turkey.

To weather this unpredictable storm, Monarch needs a cash injection to continue the roll out of its efficiency strategy and the economies of scale that will come from having a new fleet of more efficient planes.

But Monarch isn’t alone in this challenge. To put an appropriately positive spin on things, the travel industry is dynamic and constantly evolving. The agility required of travel brands in the current climate will continue to be tested in 2017. The brand loyalty accrued by Monarch in the last 48 years and bolstered by its digital marketing strategy will be the envy of many a travel company.

What shape is your brand reputation in?

How do your customers think of you? What do you do in the name of customer loyalty to drive repeat business? How would your customers and industry peers react if your business found itself in a similar situation? 

Whatever you do, if you think you could do it better, let’s talk.

 

Term time holidays: is the travel industry to blame?

In case you missed Friday afternoon’s breaking news, there was a landmark ruling in the High Court that struck a chord for parents, headteachers and the Department for Education.

The highest court in the country acquitted a father of failing to pay fines for taking his daughter on an unauthorised term time holiday. Magistrates informed Isle of Wight councillors, who had brought the case, that the child had attended school regularly and a seven day consecutive absence failed to demonstrate otherwise.

 

That’s the background. But why are we talking about this?

I was asked to comment on the day’s events, both before and after the ruling, from a travel industry perspective. The crux of the questioning? What’s the travel industry playing at hiking prices so significantly during school holiday periods.

Like it or lump it (and I’m a parent too), this is business. When supply outweighs demand, prices go up.

Call it advantageous. Call it greedy. Call it tactical back-covering to pay for quieter periods in the year. But find me a business that doesn’t increase it prices when there’s a timely and relevant opportunity to maximise a peak in demand...

 

Time for an analogy or two

When I was talking to Danny Kelly on BBC Radio WM, he talked about the butcher with the last turkey on Christmas Eve. I borrowed that analogy for my slot on the BBC News Channel to simply demonstrate that the travel sector is not alone in its practices.

Can you find many restaurants that charge the same for Christmas Day lunch as they do the rest of the year? And what about supermarket ‘express’ and ‘metro’ stores – they openly admit their prices are more expensive than in their larger stores. They blame logistics, but if the store wasn’t there the community would have to travel to grab that must-have ingredient for tonight’s supper. We call that demand – the price you pay for having access to a corner shop at all.

 

Why such a hot topic now?

Landmark court case aside, this only rears its head as a topic for debate because in 2013 the rules changed. Until then parents had 10 days discretionary leave to take their kids out of school during term time. Since then tens of thousands of parents have been fined between £60 and £120 for taking their children out of school for an absence of at least five consecutive days.

 

Is the travel industry to blame?

Given such a recent rule change, it’s funny (or not) how many commentators on this seem to forget how things used to be. Yet they don’t seem to recall that the travel industry has always had peak season pricing.

Ad infinitum, it has been more expensive to travel during school holiday periods. I remember, back in my studious childhood days, being geekily fascinated by a hotel tariff table. Its peaks and troughs, and how wonderful it would be to come here twice a year if we could only come at cheaper times of the year. Not to be.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, called for the travel industry to do something while talking on the BBC Breakfast sofa on Saturday morning. But then she can’t be expected to say anything else. Although I’m inclined (as a parent) to interpret her remit with rather more discretion: “promote and protect children’s right to make life better for children and young people in England.”

 

Should the travel industry find its moral compass?

The challenge presented to parents who have school age children and wish to take a holiday, is that of school holiday period price hikes on accommodation and flights.

Should the travel industry be allowed to inflict holiday price hikes? Should parents be allowed to take children out of school for holidays? What is defined as ‘exceptional circumstances’? How do you manage ‘discretion’? And what is the purpose of a fine if it doesn’t sufficiently deter unauthorised absences?

Without wishing to be drawn on the debate that naturally leads towards the topics of school performance, tests and league tables, let’s just remember that the travel industry is a marketplace: the arena of commercial dealings.

 

What happens next?

The Department for Education’s response to the ruling said that a child’s school attendance was “non-negotiable”. So we’ll likely see an attempt to legislate the matter.

I said on air today that this was a landmark day for parents and a landmark day for the DfE, but that it was unlikely to make waves in the travel sector. And I stand by that.

Dragging the travel industry across hot coals just doesn’t fit. It’s too easy a response from the pedagogues. And this is a matter that needs an objective eye if a sensible solution is to be achieved.

Peak season pricing is going nowhere. Criminalising parents for affording their children a holiday is daft. Maybe there’ll be a compromise on discretionary leave once more. With hindsight, 10 days seems excessive, wouldn’t five be enough…?