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Queen Elizabeth II herself welcomed guests to the opening party of the first annual ExploreGB — well, sort of. Travel agents and buyers from 40 countries struck a pose with a wax representation of Her Majesty the Queen (on loan from the Madame Tussauds London museum), munched on fish and chips, networked with travel suppliers and glimpsed blacktip reef sharks on a submarine ride at Legoland Windsor, where the festivities commenced.
Formerly called Hosted Buyers Marketplace, VisitBritain’s new flagship event celebrates travel throughout the U.K. and gives businesses of all sizes an opportunity to connect with international buyers and travel agencies. On Feb. 25 and 26, in between bites of Welsh cakes and Irish stew, 251 hosted delegates had the opportunity to meet with 320 suppliers from Britain and Ireland at Ascot Racecourse in Berkshire, England.
In addition to one-on-one scheduled appointments, a networking dinner and a seminar program, delegates attended 13 unique fam trips to destinations throughout the U.K., from Wales and Scotland to Northern Ireland.
“It’s not just ‘come and meet,’ it’s ‘go and see’ as well,” said Sally Balcombe, who joined VisitBritain as CEO in September 2014. “This event was completely oversubscribed, and we could have had many more [attendees]. We didn’t know it was going to be this successful.”
According to Balcombe, ExploreGB will move around the U.K. each year and continue to grow in capacity. Liverpool, England, home of The Beatles and two iconic football clubs, will play host to the 2016 marketplace and an anticipated 800 or so attendees.
VisitBritain had much to celebrate at Ascot Racecourse, announcing its second successive record year in visitor number and visitor spending. The contribution of inbound tourism to the U.K. economy grew significantly in 2014, with international visitors spending some $32 billion.
“We’ve had over 35 million visitors, which is a 6 percent increase over the previous year,” Balcombe said. “We want to have a third year of record tourism, and we are forecasting it. We’re already seeing forward bookings that give every indication that it’s going to be another very good year.”
According to 2014 figures (January through September), inbound visits from the U.S. hit 2.4 million, an 8 percent uptick over 2013. In terms of spending, the U.S. is by far the most valuable market — worth more than $1.4 billion than the next most important market, Germany. Americans spent an estimated $3.3 billion while traveling in Britain, which represents a hefty 14 percent increase over the previous year.
A guest of ExploreGB, VisitBritain’s new flagship event, poses with a wax representation of Queen Elizabeth II. // © 2015 VisitBritain
Sally Balcombe joined VisitBritain as CEO in September 2014. // © 2015 VisitBritain
All U.K. countries were welcome to participate in ExploreGB. // © 2015 VisitBritain
More than 23,700 one-on-one appointments took place over the course of two days. // © 2015 VisitBritain
VisitBritain will continue to invest in its multimillion-dollar “Great” campaign. // © 2015 VisitBritain
Delegates from more than 40 countries were in attendance. // © 2015 VisitBritain
To continue the momentum, much of VisitBritain’s activity over the next year will focus on getting key markets to better understand lesser-known regions of the U.K. To that end, the tourism board will further invest in its multimillion-dollar “Great” campaign.
Since 2012, VisitBritain’s role in the Great campaign is to increase the aspiration of traveling to Britain and then turn that interest into bookings. Marketing messages call upon the key triggers for travel to Britain, including culture, heritage, the countryside, shopping, food, sports, adventure and music.
In January, VisitBritain launched a three-year “Countryside is Great” campaign in the U.S., which will position Britain’s countryside as a place to enjoy modern culture, top-notch food and world-class accommodations in scenic landscapes. VisitBritain’s research shows that visitors already enjoy the countryside, and the campaign aims to build upon this interest as well as show potential visitors where to find great experiences and how to get there. The regions highlighted in the first year of the campaign include the Scottish Highlands, the Peak District, the Cotswolds, Cornwall, Pembrokeshire, North Wales, Warwickshire, the Lake District and Yorkshire.
From a tourism perspective, there is, of course, plenty more to look forward to in 2015 and beyond. The following are just a few key developments that will help drive tourism to the U.K.
Film Production in the U.K.According to an article in The Guardian, 2014 was a record-breaking year for film production in the U.K., as international filmmakers flocked to British shores to take advantage of tax breaks. The region is poised to see this trend continue in the coming years, with films such as the next James Bond installment, “Spectre,” due for release at the end of 2015.
Actor and Bond star Daniel Craig has been spotted at several London locations (Camden, a speedboat on the River Thames) filming scenes from the movie, and fans can follow his footsteps by booking 007-themed excursions with Brit Movie Tours or a high-adrenaline speedboat tour with London Rib Voyage.
A Tarzan film, starring actors Samuel L. Jackson and Alexander Skarsgard, will be released in 2016. The upcoming action-adventure film will showcase Windsor Great Park, the National Trust-owned 18th-century mansion Kedleston Hall and Dinorwic Quarry in Llanberis, North Wales.
In May 2016, Disney will release “Through the Looking Glass,” a sequel to “Alice in Wonderland,” which was originally written by English author Lewis Carroll. Oxford is considered to be the birthplace of the story as Carroll lived there for most of his life.
Innovation, Architecture and Design in ScotlandNext year, Scotland will celebrate its achievements in innovation, architecture and design with a 12-month program of events. Visitors will want to head to Dundee in eastern Scotland to explore the first UNESCO City of Design in the U.K. With this designation, UNESCO recognized Dundee’s contribution to design worldwide, including leading biomedical research, comics, orange marmalade and video games such as “Grand Theft Auto.”
In addition, the National Museum of Scotland will open new galleries in 2016. The $20 million project will create 10 new galleries displaying the National Museums Scotland’s collections of science, technology, art and design. Showcasing more than 3,500 objects, the galleries will highlight works that have not been on permanent display for generations.
Shakespeare Experiences and ExhibitionsNext year will mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, and the regions of England that have ties to the famous playwright and poet will host a range of new exhibitions and celebrations.
These include a new immersive theatrical experience at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare’s school room, at King Edward VI School, where The Bard learned to read and write, will open its doors to guests for the very first time.
Meanwhile, also at the RSC, a new exhibition will open, highlighting the work of the directors, writers, actors and designers who have shaped the RSC throughout its history. Many hotels and accommodation providers in Shakespeare’s England (Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick, Kenilworth, Royal Leamington Spa and the wider Warwickshire region) will offer themed packages as well.