Tourism: there will be casualties, but there will be resilience

Inevitably there will be casualties, tourist attractions that simply won’t survive the coronavirus shutdown.

Saturday, 25th April 2020, 8:25 am
Fran Downton, the new chief executive officer of Tourism South East
Fran Downton, the new chief executive officer of Tourism South East

But so too will there be resilience, says Fran Downton, the new chief executive officer of Tourism South East.

“We will have closures,” Fran says. “I think that that’s a certainty. It is just the duration that it goes on for that will show us the extent.

“It is a fairly bleak time, but I think within the industry it is already heart-warming to know that people do rally around each other and that they do support each other. I do think there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We will come out of this. That will inevitably happen. It is just a question of working through it and encouraging all our members to make the best of the government support packages.”

Fran took up her job earlier this year – at a time when nobody could possibly have foreseen the monumental challenges 2020 would bring.

Covering counties including Sussex, Hampshire, Kent, Surrey, Oxfordshire and into Dorset, Tourism South East is the largest regional tourism body outside London: “From the regional tourism point of view, we have more than £12 billion spend coming into the region, based on 2018.”

The tragedy is that, for the foreseeable future, that spend has been completely and utterly wiped out. Inevitably, tourism was one of the first industries to be hit – and arguably it has been hit the hardest of any. When we start to come out of the crisis, it will be crucial to speak with one voice to get government support to get the industry back on its feet, Fran says. For the moment, it is about navigating deeply troubling times: “As a nation, we are not used to living on a day-by-day basis, but that is exactly what we are having to do at the moment, just to see what unfolds in the hope of getting more clarity as to when we might start to get out of this.”

For tourism, the timing couldn’t possibly be worse. All the tourist attractions have missed out on Easter: “And the more we get towards summer, the harder the loss of revenue will be to sustain.”

The point is that an estimated 70-plus per cent of income for our visitor attractions will come in between April and September – precisely the period which is looking likely to be hardest hit: “As an industry, we have weathered storms in the past, but not on this scale. But there have been crises in the past that we have got through. We had foot and mouth and we have had SARS. They had a far lesser impact, but we were able to recover from them, and when it did happen, it happened fairly rapidly. At the moment, it is just about finding the positives.

“And for the moment, we are really, really proud of what our members are doing. We have got distilleries around our region which have changed their production and are now making hand sanitiser. We have got hoteliers who are giving their rooms to front-line NHS staff and the homeless. And we have transport providers who are doing runs to get help to the vulnerable.”

As for keeping themselves in people’s minds, a lot of visitor attractions are adapting their websites to enable people to enjoy the venues as much as possible from the comfort and safety of their own armchair. There are a number of 360 tours available online; and a number of theatres, including Chichester Festival Theatre, have started to stream past productions. And a number of castles and museums around the country are embracing educational activities for children online. There is a lot of really creative stuff that is coming out. The angle is to keep people engaged until such time as they can visit again safely.”

And before then as we begin to re-emerge, as Fran says, Tourism South East will do its bit to make sure the attractions speak with a collective voice when it comes to making sure the government helps them enter the post-COVID world…