Catching Up With VisitBritain's Karen Clarkson

Thanks to the recent announcement of one of the biggest Royal Weddings in a generation, combined with the anticipation of the 2012 Olympic Games and Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee, Britain is hotter than ever as a destination.

Looking for more info on how agents can make the most of the next two years in Britain, we chatted with with Karen Clarkson, who was recently named Vice President North America at VisitBritain.

“VisitBritain’s strategy is unchanged,” she said, adding that she will be working with networks throughout North America—primarily New York, Los Angeles and Toronto—to promote tourism. “Part of that is to maximize the legacy and benefit of the 2012 games,” she explained. “But what has changed is the Royal Wedding in April. We really have an unprecedented time of celebrating in Britain.”

The tourism board will not be promoting the wedding, she continued quickly, but promoting a wider cultural offering that Britain as a whole has to offer. Which is not to say that VisitBritain doesn’t plan on taking advantage of the opportunity.

“The monarchy generated £500 million in revenue for Britain’s tourism industry this year,” Clarkson said. “The Royal family draws people to certain iconic locations. Of the visitors who came to Britain last year, 500 million visited castles.”

Of all the icons of Britain—like the red phone boxes, Big Ben and fish & chips—Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II ranked more popular with visitors than anything else. But, Clarkson explained, “It’s not about promoting the Royal Wedding or the Olympics or the Jubilee.” The focus will be on the country, and on getting people there to see what is going on beyond those three key events, which will serve as a launchpad for their new campaign: Britain: You’re Invited. The campaign will launch in May, and VisitBritain is working with tour operators and agents to ensure that the focus is on Britain as a whole, and on things they can sell. For example, an agent might sell a royalty-themed luxury vacation that lets clients live like a Windsor (minus the scandals and paparazzi, of course).

“We’re making sure they’re capitalizing on the interest,” Clarkson said. Most importantly, she continued, VisitBritain is recognizing that while the focus for the wedding will be in London, Prince William and Kate both have connections that extend beyond the city.

“They studied in Scotland, they will live in Wales and they will have royal households throughout UK,” Clarkson said. “We’re working with people to book products, and with consumer media to make sure there are good stories out there…It’s the same as for the Olympics: Some events will be in London, but other events out of [the city]. It’s not about sports, but promoting culture and heritage throughout the UK.”

Clarkson appreciates that her new position will focus on the North American market to Britain, which, she says, is the largest for the UK as a whole. Still, numbers have been declining as the recession drags on, and she is eager to reinvigorate the market. “We have campaigns through 2013,” she said. “We’re generating buzz and inspiring people to visit Britain. We are working with colleagues to guarantee visibility. For agents who want to sell Britain to their clients, she said, it is important that they work with operator contacts and with VisitBritain, because they have latest info in terms of themed itineraries.

“We have info on the Olympics, and can field client questions.” Tickets for the Olympics go on sale in March, but they are already working with operators to organize trips. For 2011, one day will stand out from all the rest, Clarkson acknowledged—but it’s just one day. “Attractions throughout the country will be open as per usual,” she said. “Really, it’s one day. There are 364 more to explore.”

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