Catching Up with James Berresford, CEO of VisitEngland

Last week, we learned about unusual sporting events and activities in England. It got us thinking: What else should people—and travel agents in particular—know about the 2012 Summer Olympic host country? We talked with James Berresford, CEO of VisitEngland, to get some details.

“We’re working hard to try and present England as multifaceted offer,” Berresford said. “We’re a world leader in heritage and culture, and people recognize this. At the same time, we’re a contemporary offer.” The days of English food and English transportation being dismissed are in the past, he added. Throughout England, visitors can find great hotels, restaurants, pubs and plenty of culture—“which will manifest during the Olympics.”

Leading up to 2012, the country will host numerous cultural events that will present England in a different light, Berresford said. Visitors can attend iconic attractions like the National Shakespeare Festival, but they can also attend modern art installations or rock concerts in historic house settings. The goal, he explained, is to celebrate the diversity of England’s culture, but also to show visitors that England is more than its heritage. “We’re proud of our heritage,” he added quickly, “and we have been, but today’s visitor is looking for the new and the now.”

Another challenge England will face when the Olympics begin are the crowds that will inevitably descend on the competition areas. Berresford sees this as a great opportunity for agents to sell attractions that are off the beaten tracks. The traditional hotspots (think York, Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall) will be quieter with the masses at the games, and will offer opportunities for guests to see the “real England.” Other upcoming events for agents to remember include the arts festival in the Lake District, maritime festivals in Liverpool and the Robin Hood festival in Sherwood Forest.

“The important thing to remember about England is that everything is so close,” Berresford says. The tiny island has a “massive variety of activity” that, for a traveler, is “all on the plate.” In a matter of days, a visitor can enjoy the Robin Hood festival, then an art exhibit in Manchester, then a concert at the Baltic Center in Newcastle, and then maritime race in Liverpool or Bristol. “We have a real range and depth of quality products,” Berresford says with pride.

Of course, England can have its eccentricities, too. “We have things like Royal Shrovetide Football—it’s not soccer or football, but [in the town of Ashbourne] in Derbyshire before Easter, half of the town competes against the other half in getting a ball from one side of town to the other. It’s something the English do well: eccentric but charming.” In other towns, residents decorate their wells every year, continuing a medieval tradition. These quirks and traditions are as English, Berresford says, as Big Ben or the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and are just as worthy of attention from tourists.

So how should agents recommend England to their clients? “Pricing is good,” Berresford says. “Communication is good. The language barrier is non-existent.” And, as more airlines add more international flights to regional airports, other parts of the country are becoming more accessible to tourists. “You can fly to Manchester and enjoy another port of entry,” Berresford says. “As important as London is, England is so much more.”



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