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LGA State of the Sector report: The Visitor Economy

As leaders of place, councils play a crucial role in planning and developing their local visitor economies. Councils are direct providers of visitor and tourist attractions, including castles, historic buildings, museums, theatres, galleries, piers and amusement parks, and they act as destination management organisations for their areas.

The policy context

In June 2021, the government published the Tourism Recovery Plan in response to the significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sector. The plan set out six clear objectives as part of a strategic framework for supporting and working with tourism and the wider visitor economy. Tourism contributes £106 billion to the British economy (GDP) and the visitor economy is one of the country’s strongest performing sectors. COVID-19 was hugely disruptive for the industry and it is also facing the economic challenges that have emerged since the Plan was launched in 2021.

As leaders of place, councils play a crucial role in planning and developing their local visitor economies. Councils are direct providers of visitor and tourist attractions, including castles, historic buildings, museums, theatres, galleries, piers and amusement parks, and they act as destination management organisations for their areas. They run over 350 museums, public archives, over 116 regional theatres and galleries, and are responsible for many monuments. 

Councils are the largest public investor in cultural activity, spending over £1.1 billion each year on cultural services and suppliers. Councils’ contribution to regional visitor economies is particularly significant, with many regional airports being directly or indirectly owned and managed by councils. These transport hubs are essential to ensuring all parts of the country benefit from the visitor economy.

Other services such as planning, business support, highways and environmental health, are also fundamental to creating thriving destinations that people want to visit.

The training programme

In 2023, the LGA commissioned a pilot programme of vital online training seminars for councils to bolster their support for the visitor economy. The programme consisted of three essential online training seminars, covering key areas of; visitor economy strategy, data and digital, sustainability and accessibility.

Following an open application process, which was heavily oversubscribed, 20 local government officers representing all types of council and geographic distribution, were invited to join a series of three online training seminars to look at the tools and resources councils can utilise in their role to support the visitor economy. Focusing on the key areas of economic strategy, data and digital, sustainability, and accessibility, each session included examples of best practice case studies from destinations across the country. 

The structure of each training seminar consisted of two keynote sector speakers, including Q and A facility, workshop discussions focusing on a range of questions to enable delegates to share ideas, experiences, local initiatives and insights to utilise in their role to support the visitor economy. 

Spotlighting an essential topic area for each session, the course aimed to create opportunities for members to share ideas, experiences and local initiatives. The presentation content would aim to highlight data resources available to members; to help maximise council’s strategic contribution to support and grow the visitor economy. Best practice case studies and a summary briefing report were provided after each session.

The sessions covered:

  • Visitor economy strategies and investment programmes
  • Data and Digital
  • Sustainability and Accessibility

More information on these sessions can be found in Annex A. 

Current state of the sector

In response to the substantial repercussions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to the tourism industry, the UK government published the Tourism Recovery Plan in June 2021. A further update by the government was published in March 2023, providing a progress report on the key objectives set out within the plan. 

The Tourism Recovery Plan outlined the following objectives, with the short- to medium- and medium- to long-term goals:

  1. Recover domestic overnight trip volume and spend to 2019 levels by the end of 2022, and inbound visitor numbers and spend by the end of 2023 – both at least a year faster than independent forecasts.
  2. Ensure that the sector’s recovery benefits every nation and region, with visitors staying longer, growing accommodation occupancy rates in the off-season and high levels of investment in tourism products and transport infrastructure.
  3. Build back better with a more productive, innovative and resilient industry, maximising the potential for technology and data to enhance the visitor experience and employing more UK nationals in year-round quality jobs.
  4. Ensure the tourism industry contributes to the enhancement and conservation of the country’s cultural, natural and historic heritage and minimises damage to the environment.
  5. Ensure the tourism industry provides an inclusive offer that is open to all, aiming for the UK to become the most accessible tourism destination in Europe by 2025.
  6. Make the UK a leading European nation for hosting business events.

The Plan remains the government’s strategic framework for supporting and working with the tourism sector. Whilst good progress has been made against all objectives, the majority of the Plan’s ambitions are for the medium and long term, focused on building a more resilient, productive, sustainable, accessible and innovative sector for the future. The Plan will continue to be reviewed and updated, including on the basis of evolving research and data collection, to ensure it remains an effective framework. 

In July 2022, the Government responded to the Independent Destination Management Organisation (DMO) review led by Nick De Bois. This aims to transform the visitor economy landscape into a robust structure of, ‘high-performing Local Visitor Economy Partnerships (LVEPs)’ to work alongside new Destination Development Partnerships (DDPs), which will set regional priorities for the visitor economy.

By the end of 2023, a total of 26 LVEPs have obtained accreditation, with the ambition to extend this number into the new year across further regions of the country. Details on the latest developments from the LVEP programme can be found here.

The recovery picture at the beginning of 2023 is mixed, with additional challenges arising from a series of global pressures, the cost of living crisis and some sector specific problems. Labour shortages across the tourism and hospitality sector remain a significant challenge for the industry, which is compounded by difficulties around staff retention, due to the ‘seasonality’ around demand and the global travel market has become increasingly competitive. There are also historic challenges around funding for DMOs and the continuing uncertainty and economic damage from conflict zones.

Delegate insights and observations

Visitor economy strategy

  • Local authorities recognise the economic and social benefits of a vibrant visitor economy in their areas. Therefore, local policy is designed to be supportive of the visitor economy and to align with national frameworks such as the Tourism Recovery Plan and Levelling Up.
  • The pandemic has increased awareness of the importance of the visitor economy to the wider economy. Local authority stakeholders have focused their attention around providing leadership for the sector and supporting businesses in their ambitions to develop their offer. 
  • Despite a positive policy environment, local authority officers believe there should be more alignment in workstreams across council teams as well as greater collaboration with the private sector in order to support and develop the visitor economy. The optimal way of working would be for ‘place teams’ to operate seamlessly across local authority directorates and with other councils, agencies, and the private sector. These integrated teams will be best placed to deliver given the visitor economy touches so many different aspects of place – including planning, transport, economic development, arts and culture, and health and wellbeing.
  • Many local authority officers with responsibility for the visitor economy are new to role, given the post-pandemic focus on the sector and its impact on place-shaping. While this focus on the visitor economy and place (and the broader local ‘devolution’ agenda) is welcome, there is uncertainty about where funding may come from for new initiatives given the pressures on public sector finances. Partnerships with the private sector are seen as essential to ensuring future investment and for the credibility of bids for central government funding.
  • LVEP is seen as an opportunity for neighbouring destinations to collaborate with each other, to access strategic support from VisitBritain/VisitEngland, and as a way to access potential new sources of funding for strategic projects. However, there is some uncertainty about what LVEP means for current ways of working within a local authority area while ensuring effective collaboration across a destination with neighbouring authorities.
  • More up-to-date data and insights are needed to aid destination management, development, and marketing. Neighbouring authorities should work together to develop a cohesive approach to data collection for their area – one that makes data sharing easy and transparent and that potentially offers cost efficiencies. Insights that identify the impact and opportunities the visitor economy can deliver will make the sector a more prominent consideration in local decision-making on issues which affect the visitor experience (e.g. transport, planning, public realm etc.)
  • Not all local authority areas are running at the same ‘speed’ when it comes to the development of their destination management structures and capabilities. Consequently, there is an opportunity for those at an earlier stage of the journey to learn from others who have gone before them. Networks and forums such as the LGA will play a vital role in sharing learning and celebrating success.

Data and digital

  • There is a desire for more granular information at a local authority level but also a recognition that it may be more cost-effective to commission research by working collaboratively as part of an LVEP.
  • Local authorities are looking for data and evidence that strategic approaches are working e.g. converting day to overnight visits. There is broad consensus that more insights are needed about visitors. Who they are, where they are from, what motivates them to visit, what perceptions they have of the destination etc.
  • There is an opportunity to use digital and technological tools to capture and understand visitor data. However, it is extremely hard to get data from businesses and there is a lack of trust in sharing commercial data with local authorities.
  • There are lots of different data sources and research tools but it is not always clear what is available to local authorities. There is plenty of use of Steam and Cambridge for local economic impact data but it is hard to compare results from different studies and there is a desire to be able to do so.
  • Local authorities have different audiences for marketing (internal – residents and business; external – visitors) and sometimes a missed opportunity to use skills to work across different audiences and platforms. There can also be missed opportunities to make the most of ‘internal’ audiences to drive for example, visiting friends and relatives (VFR). 
  • It is important to target digital marketing given limited resources (human and financial) and using data and insights to support that.
  • It can be hard to measure digital marketing performance for a destination. How does the destination know if the marketing is achieving the desired outcomes when there is not a direct transaction? So perhaps there is a need to consider building in a transaction e.g. competition to grow database.
  • Need to think about how owned platforms are being used as a ‘stage’ for others to ‘perform’ on. Not just about the local authority in broadcast mode. How does the local authority link in to wider partnerships to get messages across.
  • Importance of relating the digital marketing activity back to a clearly articulated digital marketing strategy; and also use the strategy to help determine the right content (which can be expensive) and narrative.
  • Creative marketing through good use of local images to effectively showcase a destination’s unique selling point, will provide an ‘authentic’ visitor experience. Highlighting what makes your destination different to others, by focusing on it’s scenery, whether it’s natural or urban landscapes, coastal or urban townscape can inspire visitors to come to see what sets your destination apart from others.
  • Whether an established or ‘aspiring’ destination, many of local authorities represented on the training course could identify with idea of using some of the following themed campaigns as selling points to promote their respective destination: 
  • Walking and cycling trails with links to landscapes, villages, pub and cafe trails. 
  • Coastal Experiences – linking to national routes.
  • Local Events and festivals.
  • Gateways to the destination and major transport links.
  • Locally produced food and drink suppliers, with possible creative packages around art and craft suppliers, local producers and experiences such as vineyards, wine tasting etc.
  • Cultural and Heritage experiences – Utilise creative images from events/festivals held in historic settings, houses and landscapes.

Sustainability and accessibility

  • Auditing what is happening and what is happening well needs to be the starting point for each area.
  • Businesses don’t necessarily see the benefits of being accessible and so an education piece is needed. SMEs in particular find it a struggle to prioritise this when there are other pressing things to deal with 
  • Many businesses/organisations in the visitor economy are based in historic buildings or at heritage sites where there is a limit as to what you can do in terms of improving physical accessibility.
  • There are lots of good things happening within councils (eg digital compliancy) but it is difficult to reach businesses and share that expertise.
  • In-house budgets and resources are not always available but external funding is often there, just hidden in broader programmes (eg Rural Prosperity Fund for things like Changing Places).
  • Businesses should be encouraged to celebrate what they do (awards, marketing) around accessibility, not what they don’t do.
  • Councils should make greater use, and encourage greater use, of VisitEngland’s resources and toolkits around accessibility.
  • Councils have in-house good practice as public sector providers which could be shared with local businesses. Councils have a leadership and convening role here.
  • There has been more work and understanding of physical access needs, although still much further to go, but less awareness of and action on ‘hidden’ disabilities like neurodiversity.
  • Sustainability is a very live topic with many of the councils in the room having declared a climate emergency in recent years which is driving decisions and work programmes, but there are some difficulties in aligning priorities around sustainability vs growth and the visitor economy isn’t always linked in with low carbon initiatives.
  • Charters and pledges do seem to be a good way of raising awareness, celebrating success, sharing best practice etc but can be difficult to regulate.
  • There is a need to make it easy for businesses who are starting on their journey to become more sustainable – start small to avoid overwhelming them. Businesses, especially SMEs don’t always have the finances or time to make improvements in this area (particularly food and drink) so there is a need to show them the benefits.
  • Some fear of greenwashing is evident among businesses. It is important to talk to the right people, which isn’t always those who usually engage with a DMO
  • LVEPs and partnership working is crucial to create more resource and expertise in this area.

Areas of further training and support

Training Need 1

Not all local authority areas are running at the same ‘speed’ when it comes to the development of their destination management structures and capabilities; and many local authority officers with responsibility for the visitor economy are new to role.

Support Recommendation: The LGA will explore the option of future courses, in recognition of the levels of unmet demand.

Membership of organisational bodies such as LGA and TMI can support members through networking opportunities and forums and communication of the latest updates from across the sector. 

Training Need 2

The Local Visitor Economy Partnership Programme is seen as an opportunity for neighbouring destinations to collaborate with each other, to access strategic support from VisitBritain/VisitEngland, and as a way to access potential new sources of funding for strategic projects. However, there is some uncertainty about what LVEP means for current ways of working within a local authority area while ensuring effective collaboration across a destination and with neighbouring authorities. 

Support Recommendation: Visit England/Visit Britain will provide councils further updates as the programme progresses with consultations about people, place and partnership to help feed into the development of the new VB/VE Strategy. The LGA and TMI will promote these updates to their membership. 

Training Need 3

Despite a positive policy environment, local authority officers believe there should be more alignment in workstreams across council teams as well as greater collaboration with the private sector in order to support and develop the visitor economy. 

Support Recommendation: The LVEP programme aims to deliver better outcomes for visitors through place-shaping, while at the same time providing a link to the national strategic framework set out by DCMS. As The LVEP programme progresses, engagement by VB/VE at a local level will widen existing visitor economy contacts, providing greater awareness of the national strategy and opportunities for councils to consider best practice case studies from those working effectively with other local agencies and organisations across the private sector.

Training Need 4

There was mixed awareness of data tools available to councils to inform visitor economy strategies. 

Support Recommendation: The LGA and TMI will consider standalone data sessions to explore data tools available within the visitor economy; and support to help officers use them. 

Visit Britain research and insights provides the latest consumer data and insights on domestic and inbound international tourism, enabling destinations to gain greater analysis and understanding of trends, visitor types and markets. VB should consider how these are communicated to councils and consider targeted distribution. 

The LVEP programme should provide better links between neighbouring authorities to encourage a cohesive approach to data collection for their area, which could make data sharing easy and transparent, in turn leading to potential cost saving efficiencies. 

Training Need 5

Local authorities are seeking to ensure that the visitor economy is integrated into local economic strategies. 

Support Recommendation: Officers should work closely with their DMO/LVEP to analyse local baseline studies and visitor research to widen their knowledge of tourism products, value, and volume of the local visitor economy. TMI and the LGA can provide networking opportunities and future training seminars where officers can learn from best practice case examples. New officers can be signposted to VisitBritain’s Resource Hub to access guidance on developing a destination management plan.

Training Need 6

With increasing financial pressures on public sector finances, officers will need to adapt their skills to attract a wider range of funding sources. 

Support Recommendation: Collaboration with the private sector is crucial not only for attracting future investment in the visitor economy but also for successful bids for central government funding. The LGA and membership organisations such as TMI can continue to play a significant future role in supporting council officers by highlighting successful Levelling up funds and community investments. Digital communication from DCMS will play an important role highlighting Arms Length Bodies awards and investments in regional culture and heritage, which support local visitor economies. The LGA’s, Cornerstones of Culture Report indicates, ‘greater collaborative work between councils and cultural partners, combined with streamlined place-based funding from government, is crucial to supporting one of the fastest growing parts of the economy.’

Training Need 7

Councils face challenges in applying national level data to local visitor economies and understanding how best to feed the data into economic development strategies.

Support Recommendation: Councils can access a variety of national level information sources such as Visit Britain’s research and insights data to help understand consumer spend and sentiment tracker reports from domestic and inbound tourism surveys. Further economic impact modelling at a regional and local level is available through delivery models such as Steam and Cambridge. Obtaining data at a more granular level to improve understanding of local trends and requirements such as occupancy rates and local visitor trends can be sourced through accommodation audits and by encouraging hospitality businesses and tourism attractions to share up to date footfall figures. Local ‘perception’ and ‘how’s business’ surveys are an effective way of gathering local sentiment data and footfall from events which help provide better management for the future. Going forward, the LVEP programme can play a role by providing data from across a broader regional area, enabling a more effective, ‘joined up’ approach. By providing a platform of networking events, TMI can create opportunities for destination managers to voice their requirements and provide feedback to VB/VE and DCMS via local engagement forums.

Training Need 8

Effective marketing for destinations with limited resources. 

Support Recommendation: To create an effective marketing campaign, local authorities should recognize their role as a platform for sharing success stories, understanding that their platform serves as a stage for others to contribute content and share narratives that align with the destination's strengths. It is important that digital activity clearly relates to a well-defined digital marketing strategy, which sets the standard in terms of content and narrative. 

Training Need 9

Local authorities face challenges when it comes to improving destination accessibility.

Support Recommendation: Councils would benefit from an audit of local accessibility initiatives alongside some light-touch guidance on understanding what ‘accessibility’ means in practice, looking at examples such as how Visit Birmingham and West Midlands created an accessible tourism hub, with online learning guides and modules to support businesses on their accessibility and inclusivity journey. VisitBritain offers ‘Make Your Business Accessible and Inclusive’ toolkits.

Local authorities can play a key role in encouraging businesses to see the benefits of being accessible and how this will boost the visitor economy. Alongside this, there is a need to ensure that digital platforms are compliant, online training resources are available for local businesses and ‘accessibility’ is embedded within local authority contracts.

Training Need 10

Local authorities face challenges when it comes to balancing priorities between sustainability and growth and integrating the visitor economy with low carbon initiatives.

Support Recommendation: Many councils have declared a climate emergency and carbon neutral action plan, so it is important for local authorities to consider how this applies to sustainable and regenerative tourism locally. Councils can help to set the agenda but more importantly, they can provide a platform to share stories and celebrate successes. Charters and pledges are a good starting point, alongside low cost digital initiatives, such as providing a sustainability tourism hub with guidance and training modules. A number of local authorities have signed up to the Global Destination Sustainability Index as a good measurement tool for benchmarking and accreditation. The LVEP programme could be used to provide a very clear direction for sustainable tourism and provide more resource by signposting destinations to relevant expertise in the area.

Annex A