One on One: Britain Set for 2012 Gala Activities



Travel Agent caught up with Christopher Rodrigues, chairman of Visit Britain at the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Global Travel and Tourism Summit recently to find out what’s happening in Great Britain. And there’s quite a lot that’s planned as a follow up to the Royal Wedding that recently captured and charmed the rest of the world.

Refocus on Funding

When David Cameron was named Prime Minister of the UK in May 2010, the attitude toward tourism changed, said Rodrigues, “both in understanding of its importance in the economy and its ability to earn foreign exchange. It’s the third biggest export in Britain. It’s the third-biggest foreign exchange and it’s the fifth biggest industry in Britain. It employs two million people directly and indirectly. “

Along with that fresh attention on tourism came some challenges. In fact, Rodrigues was called in by Britain’s Secretary of State who told him he wanted the best tourism marketing campaign that’s ever been done around the 2012 Summer Olympics. A goal of a 100 million pound campaign was set, which meant 50 million pounds was taken from Visit Britain’s existing budget, with another 50 million to come from the private sector.

With that challenge came the fact that Visit Britain had to recast its budget, removing some planned activities and scaling back staff around the world.

“One of the things we’re doing is now trying to focus on bigger theme campaigns, says Rodrigues. “When I arrived we were certainly doing a lot of small things.  If a partner wanted to advertise a small part of Britain, or a particular hotel and do it in Des Moines we’d probably say, ‘yes.’”

Besides, Visit Britain realized it has another big event to promote and that’s the Queen’s Jubilee, whose official anniversary will be celebrated June 2-5, 2012, but which will have a large variety of events celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years of reign.

“This will be a huge event,” Rodrigues told Travel Agent.

“Whereas the Royal Wedding was for 2,000 guests in the church, the rest watched on television. The Jubilee as an event is going to be celebrated all over Britain. And you’ll see the best of Britain, which you saw at the Royal Wedding, but you’ll see it duplicated all over the country. It will be a great time to be in the U.”

Agents need to stay up to date about what Britain has to offer, said Rodrigues. // All following images (c) 2011 Visit Britain

How to Sell Britain

So, what advice does Rodrigues have for travel agents? In a former career, Rodrigues served as the Group CEO of Thomas Cook from 1988 -1996. (“I used to stand behind the counter,” he told Travel Agent).

“The first thing I would want to do if I was a travel agent is to make sure I was up to date with contemporary Britain because whilst you probably know about history and culture, you may not realize the breadth of activity in contemporary culture that takes place day to day,” sasid Rodrigues.

“It’s whatever you like, from opera festivals and popular music festivals and theater--which continues to be stunning all over Britain, not just in London--to sports.”

Rodrigues said that the first thing travel agents should ask their clients planning to go to Britain is: “What are you passionate about?”

“It is just amazing how many things that people love doing are incomplete if they haven’t tried it in the UK. What if you love tennis and you haven’t been to Wimbledon?  What if you love golf and you haven’t played on the English or Scottish courses? Then you haven’t played golf. If you love opera and you haven’t come to the opera festivals in Britain, you’ve missed a huge thing. If you love modern or classical art, you must come to our galleries. Many of them are free.”

With a grin, Rodrigues also suggested coming to Britain’s beaches.

“I can’t guarantee you the same sun that you’ll get in Cancun, but I can guarantee you the beaches are beautiful.  Actually, dare I say, I think they’re more beautiful,” said Rodrigues, who used to go to the beach as a child.  “Whenever I was on holiday with my mother and my grandparents, we went to places like Wales, where we would visit Llangrannog in Cardigan Bay. It’s still has one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen in the world. Beautiful sands, wonderful rock formations. And if you go up to Scotland to the Western Isles, it’s extraordinary scenery.”

And the Food is Good!

It’s also vital that travel agents be up to date on cuisine in the UK, said Rodrigues. “The British have a reputation for things like soggy cabbage and overcooked roast beef. First of all, we cook British food a whole lot better.  And there’s a whole organic, local food movement, which has really transformed in the U.K. But secondly, it’s not just about British food; it’s food in Britain.  Most Indians will tell you the best Indian food in the world is in Britain.”

For those who love Italian food, he recommended the River Café [on the Thames Wharf in London].

Britain also has a “gastro pubs” movement going on. 

“People say, ‘Yeah, pubs are smoky places where people drink beer,’" said Rodrigues. "Well, two things happened: First of all you can’t smoke in pubs anymore. You have to go outside. And secondly, you can’t drink a lot and drive because you’ll be driving under the influence. The result of that was that the pubs, to keep their business going, had to develop something else.  And what they’ve developed is this relatively low-cost dining.  For $30 a head you can have a fabulous meal at pubs all over Britain.  They’re not all great pubs, but they are both great value and very local. You’re not going to a chain.

Rodrigues also noted that Prince Charles is a huge fan of the gastro pub movement: “He’s absolutely passionate about local food.”

Riding the Rails

“I think that a good travel agent owes it to his or her customer to understand their passion and be able to explain how you can fulfill those passions in Britain. People know about London, but what the other people forget is they forget to explain the geography. We’re a small country. You can go everywhere by train.  In two hours you can get halfway up the country. You get to York in two hours.  You get to Edinburgh in four.  You can get to Cambridge or Oxford or Bath in an hour.”

Noting that these are “easy train journeys,” Rodrigues advised that good travel agents should know whether clients should get a BritRail Pass or purchase regular tickets in advance.

“I always say to people, ‘Don’t turn up at 8:30 in the morning and book a ticket to York.’ It’s expensive to buy like that because the price goes up; it’s like an airline ticket.” Rodrigues, who travels to the north of England frequently on business, said that he pays one-third of the sticker price of a train ticket because he purchases it in advance.

Another message Rodrigues was eager to share with travel agents is that “Britain’s moved on.” Says Rodrigues: “It’s not the Britain you used to sell 10, 15, or 20 years ago. It’s a contemporary Britain and one of the things about contemporary Britain is it’s balanced. It’s still got the great history. It’s ceremonial. I mean, you also have Royal Weddings like you just saw and we do it better than any other country in the world. No one does it like us.”

Keeping Britain contemporary is the new image that Will and Kate are projecting, he said.

“They’re actually symbolic of the new excitement,” Rodrigues remarked


Making Britain more affordable these days is the expanding number of three-star hotels, said Rodrigues, with the two main suppliers being Premier Inn and Travelodge.

“They advertise rooms from 19 pounds a night upwards. And these are good beds, they’re simple, straightforward, comfortable bed, with a bathroom ensuite. What they’ve done is what classic brands do. They do it to a standard … And it’s good value,” he said.

Visit During the Olympics

One thing Rodrigues wants to make clear is that London’s 120,000 hotel rooms will not all be full for all 40 days during the 2012 Summer Olympics, which will be held July 27 to August 12, 2012.

“During the Olympics, all of the rooms won’t be taken. They just might be a bit more expensive during that period."

And, above all, don’t skip on a Britain vacation during the Olympic year.

The Olympics takes place over 40 days, so, that’s 325 days that aren’t Olympics,” he told Travel Agent. “So, if I really was a smart traveler, I would be saying, ‘2012 is a year when I absolutely should be thinking of coming to the UK.' First of all, the aspiration is there.  Secondly, there’s going to be some great value around the country, all year.”

When all is said and done, Rodrigues said that travel agents can look for the following message from the 100-million-pound Visit Britain campaign: “We’re celebrating.  You’re invited.”

“So, what we need are travel agents who are ready to help their customers take up their invitation, he says. “Following the Olympics, another message will be pushed through: ‘Now, come see for yourself.’ And a lot of that is going to be about delivering value.”

The reality is, however, that Britain has already had one of its most successful public relations campaigns ever and that was the recent  Royal Wedding.

“It was the biggest, above-the-line campaign you could have asked for," said Rodrigues. "We all knew it would be great, but who knew it would be like that?”



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