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The BIG Interview: Pam Foden, VisitEngland

Zoe 17 December 2013

PMCF22Pam Foden is currently head of industry development at VisitEngland and was also a member of the nomination committee for the Independent Hotel Show awards. Here, she shares her advice on riding the economic storm

Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you came to your current role?
My first career was teaching French, followed by a spell doing regular supply teaching when my children were small. I then started a small outside catering business, running anything from cocktail parties to wedding receptions. This led on to setting up a B&B business just outside Chichester that morphed into a small hotel, which I ran for about seven years. From there I got involved in local tourism activities and eventually took a job running the newly created West Sussex Tourism, working for several years with local accommodation and visitor attractions running marketing campaigns, funded training programmes and business support activities.

In 2006, I joined the Quality team at VisitBritain and soon after moved into the newly-created VisitEngland, working mainly with the accommodation sector and destinations on quality standards, providing advice and guidance on regulatory matters affecting tourism accommodation and editing the VisitEngland Quality Edge magazine. My current job is focused on helping tourism businesses thrive through the work of the 50 plus professional assessors who, on VisitEngland’s behalf, carry out annual visits to award star ratings and provide advice and guidance. I work closely with colleagues in the other national tourist boards and the AA to ensure the schemes remain current and relevant.

How have you seen the UK tourism industry change since you started working at VisitEngland?
Customers have high expectations and are more demanding. As the industry becomes increasingly professional and standards of service and hospitality improve, some operators find they are struggling to maintain their market share. In addition we’ve seen the growth of the budget hotel chains. It can sometimes be particularly hard for those who have been in the industry for a while, whether a B&B owner, self-catering operator or hotelier, who may see a gradual or even sudden decline in bookings, as the new operators come in with fresh ideas that capture the attention of the customers.

Advances in technology have also had a huge impact. Operators have had to learn new skills rapidly. It’s not enough simply to be able to send an email and update online availability – the whole area of social media and managing online reputation puts a strain on a small business. It’s difficult to maintain a focus on looking after guests and providing a world-class welcome when the managing of online bookings and reputation continually distracts.

What do you think sets the UK hotel market apart from others around the world?
The diversity has to be our USP. The big chains are vital to our visitor economy, but in this country you can stay in castles, follies, historic stately homes, a converted prison or a former Victorian hospital, Art Deco buildings, cutting edge architect-designed, eco-hotels and town houses.

Very often these are run by independent operators with backgrounds as varied as their properties. Local knowledge and expertise might include bird-watching, local history, art, crafts or wine-making. From their previous careers they often bring a fresh approach to hotel-keeping and the job now has a status at all levels that it certainly did not have 25 years ago.

Some of the main obstacles that the tourism and hospitality industry has had to overcome in recent years include:

  • We are in a global marketplace and the competition is fierce. We need to work together to present England as an aspirational destination for business and leisure travel.
  • Recruitment and staff retention issues (hospitality provides a wide range of career and job opportunities – we need to build awareness of this).
  • Shorter lead-in time for bookings
  • Decline in the two-week holiday (impact felt mostly in coastal resorts).
  • Fierce competition from low-cost airlines encouraging Brits to take short-breaks in Europe.
  • Hotel sector is being challenged by the growth and sophistication of the self-catering sector, which at the top end is offering concierge-style services in the large party houses that rival what the best hotels provide.
  • Online Travel Agents are a great source of businesses but have driven down margins
  • Strength and popularity of the budget sector has threatened many smaller businesses.
  • High rate of VAT puts those who are registered at a disadvantage compared with the small businesses who operate below the threshold.

Innovative use of technology to streamline services such as check-in and using tablets for room service and wine selection when ordering in restaurants has certainly made its impact on the hospitality sector.
Also, operators offering something different to ‘wow’ their guests is something that many have picked up on. We came across a B&B and luxury hotel who both offer to loan their guests pre-loaded sat-navs for their days out to local attractions and recommended places to eat.

There has also been massive growth in informal dining. Hoteliers need to juggle the needs of those guests that want to dress for dinner alongside those who want to ‘chill out’. Increasing consumer interest in the provenance of the food that is served and for ‘authenticity’.

Our research has shown that the economy is still viewed as the main challenge affecting businesses, with consumer confidence low and the desire for cost-savings high. The desire for quality experiences at reduced prices remains strong, which continues to put pressure on already squeezed businesses. VisitEngland collects information about visitor satisfaction, however, each week interviewing 100 English residents who have taken a holiday in England within the past 12 months and asking them to provide details of their trip – which destination they visited the type of accommodation they stayed in, the length of stay and so on. From the visitors’ point of view, the UK hotel industry is currently performing well with holiday makers positively acknowledging the quality of accommodation, cleanliness, customer service and value for money.

VisitEngland exists to help tourism in England and its operators thrive. We have a renewed focus on supporting the industry, ensuring that the service we offer is built on unbiased market intelligence and research. Our aim is to ensure that local businesses have the infrastructure and information they need to develop. In my area of work this is largely through the large teams of assessors who visit about 30,000 businesses every year. They are well-qualified to identify trends and spread good practice. They provide each operator with detailed evidence of how and why their ‘quality’ scores are achieved and how the business compares with the average in their sector and region. This can assist the operator if they want to raise their game and be more competitive. This advice is not prescriptive, each business is different and we want to encourage and nurture business success, whatever the market each operator chooses to target.