English Tourism Week celebrates all that’s best about visiting the country, from palaces to pubs, high tea to historic sites. This week’s events also serve as a reminder that tourism isn’t just for tourists.
As England’s third largest industry tourism contributes £97 billion in GDP and supports over 200,000 businesses. What’s more it flourishes in the regions as well as the major cities, benefiting communities across the country that might otherwise suffer low employment.
Around 80 percent of these companies are small businesses such as hotels, restaurants and tour operators. Many employ fewer than ten people, but they are legion. Their success has a direct impact on the industry’s fortunes and indeed the wider economy’s.
However they’re far from easy businesses to run. Leaders often have to deal with everything from temporary workforces to seasonal lows and now even the uncertain threat of how leaving the EU may affect business.
So what can we do to ensure small tourism firms continue to flourish
1. Decent digital infrastructure
According to a recent Visit England study, rural tourism is on the rise. Since the recession, leisure trips to England’s countryside have doubled as holidays and day trips together are attracting over £10bn in spending each year.
These small rural tourism businesses are disproportionately suffering the impact of England’s 2-speed digital economy, threatening their ability to compete and grow.
Figures from the Federation of Small Businesses have shown that 49 per cent of rural small firms are dissatisfied with the quality of their broadband provision compared to just 28 percent of urban small businesses.
Small hotels, for example, are at particular risk of being let down by poor broadband speeds. Given hotel owners’ reliance on broadband for processing online bookings, developing and maintaining a content-rich website and ensuring guests have access to high speed Wi-Fi, any interruptions or problems with the service could adversely impact their ability to attract and retain customers.
With rural tourism increasing, the government needs to set more ambitious targets for improving business access to superfast broadband. Without the right tools, these small firms are going to miss out on great opportunities to grow.
2. Better training
With opportunities to travel, meet visitors from all over the world and work in exciting locations, tourism can be a great career. Yet the sector is facing an on-going skills shortage. Monarch Group CEO Andrew Swaffield recently said at the ABTA travel conference that the UK’s travel and tourism sector faces a ‘demographic time bomb’ due to a lack of potential skilled workers from 2023 onwards.
Attracting and training entry level candidates can be particularly challenging for smaller tourism businesses, which often lack the resources to run structured training programmes like the Hiltons of the world.
To remedy this, it would be great to see the government guiding smaller firms on the support available in terms of funded apprenticeships and work placements. In particular I’d love to see the apprenticeship funding models simplified, so that more tourism business owners can get involved. In a small team, having the right staff is critical and can make or break a business.
These programmes also need to be adapted to the unique features of small tourism businesses, such as seasonality and uncertainty in customer demand.
3. Make England (even) more welcoming to visitors
While England has no shortage of visitors, more could still be done to encourage greater levels of tourism and support the small businesses that are so vital to the industry.
A year ago this month, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee published a report arguing that the contribution tourism makes is not given sufficient recognition by policy-makers. As a result, some decisions are potentially limiting visitor numbers and consequently revenue for the range of small firms supporting the industry.
The Committee made a number of proposals on how the government could make the UK a more appealing destination. These included reductions in VAT and Air Passenger Duty to offer holidaymakers, business travellers and students better value for money, as well as improvements to visa processing. One year on and the UK still has among the highest Air Passenger Duty rates in the world, while tight visa restrictions can also act as a disincentive.
Further government support is necessary to lay the foundations for a more prosperous industry where small companies can thrive.
On a more positive note, small tourism businesses may benefit from tax changes being considered in the hope of helping all UK small firms. The Office of Tax Simplification recently published a review into small company taxes and recommended a number of measures to make business structures and tax obligations better suited to their needs. Any steps to reduce the burden of administration on small tourism firms would be very welcome, so it’s to be hoped these calls will be listened to.
While English Tourism Week is a great initiative helping raise awareness of all that’s on offer for visitors, it’s also a good time to remember all the people that make it possible and create more favourable conditions to help their businesses grow.
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