Having taken up the role of chief executive with trade body UKinbound in November last year, Joss Croft brings more than two decades of experience to the position.
Here he sits down with Breaking Travel News editor Chris O’Toole to discuss the health of the UK tourism industry, the impact of the interminable Brexit saga and his ambitions for the organisation over the coming year.
Breaking Travel News: You were appointed chief executive of UKinbound late last year, following a career with the department for international trade and VisitBritain. What are your ambitions for the role?
Joss Croft: I have joined the association at an interesting time!
Currently, we have the highest number of members to date with many more wanting to join which is fantastic.
Clearly tourism businesses want to harness the opportunities of working with the UK travel trade, but businesses are also looking for leadership during these challenging times and help with representing their interests with government, all of which UKinbound provides.
One of my ambitions is to keep growing the organisation but not at the expense of losing that personal touch with our members, or our excellent customer service levels, which are a real strength of the organisation – it is all about being relevant to our members.
Another ambition of mine is to increase the number of commercial opportunities for our 400-plus members, so we are looking at new international business opportunities and also how we can help our members who are based outside of London to access all our events.
We need to ensure that membership of UKinbound drives solid returns on their investment.
I really like the fact that UKinbound has excellent working relationships with the other industry associations and another ambition of mine is to build on this, specifically with regards to our lobbying work.
Working together will mean that our voices will be louder and stronger which is always a good thing when it comes to talking to ministers and influencing policy.
BTN: UKinbound is a travel trade association and the only one which focuses solely on the interests of the inbound tourism sector in the UK. How will this role develop under your leadership?
JC: Representing the interests of the inbound tourism industry (which contributed £23 billion to the UK economy last year) is a key part of my role.
There are several areas which our members have asked us to focus on and these include employment and skills (particularly post Brexit), reducing taxation such as air passenger duty and VAT, and taking part in the debate about a new, potential tourism tax.
The efficiency and cost competitiveness of the UK’s visa regime is also an issue that our members contact us about frequently.
We’re recently written to the new minister for arts, heritage and tourism, Rebecca Pow, to welcome her to the role and to request a meeting to discuss the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for the UK’s inbound tourism industry.
I intend to discuss all of the above issues with her and I’ll also be requesting a progress update on the ‘tourism sector deal’, which is currently being finalised and which we support wholeheartedly.
BTN: During your previous role with VisitBritain you were instrumental in bringing the GREAT Britain campaign to life. How far will this experience assist you as leader of UKinbound?
JC: It was brilliant to have the opportunity to work on the GREAT Britain campaign and showcase to the world what the UK has to offer and why we’re such a fantastic destination.
The campaign helped me to understand the needs of our key international markets and develop strong relationships within the industry both in the UK and around the world – and I have called upon this knowledge and relationships a lot already during my short time at UKinbound.
And the core values that sit behind the GREAT Britain campaign are welcome, authenticity and creativity – not far off the way that I want us to operate as UKinbound.
BTN: The dreaded Brexit question – now the process has been kicked into the (semi-) long grass, how are the members of UKinbound fairing this summer? Has there been any negative impact?
JC: Until early this year, Brexit had had little negative impact, in fact the devaluation of the pound has helped to encourage more visitors than ever before - 2017 was a bumper year!
In recent months however, the Brexit negotiations have generated (mostly negative) headlines all over the world and some of our tour operator members have told us that this has had an impact on future bookings for visitors from markets in northern Europe; likewise we know that there has been an impact to the perceptions of the UK from these markets.
Fortunately, our American and Chinese visitors don’t appear to care about Brexit as both these markets are showing strong growth.
Now that the deadline for Brexit has moved to the end of October, we’re slightly more optimistic about the summer season.
We’ve just released our latest Business Barometer results, based on member’s business activity in March and April 2019, and they revealed that bookings/visitor numbers/customer orders were the same or higher than March/April 2018 for 74 per cent of businesses.
Yields were also the same or up for 78 per cent of companies during the same periods.
My own view is that the UK will remain an enduringly appealing destination – and one of the biggest impacts of Brexit is likely to be the difficulty that our membership will face in recruiting the right skills they need to be able to operate their businesses as effectively as possible with harsher immigration policies.
BTN: Has the fall in the value of the pound attributed to the decision to leave the European Union in fact benefited the UK hospitality sector, making it more attractive to visit?
JC: Yes, it has made the UK more attractive, but the UK has always been a desirable place to visit and there are solid, enduring reasons why we are the seventh most visited country in the world.
One of the aspects that I really enjoy about the job at UKinbound is the chance to hear about all of the latest innovations in the industry.
With the move towards more sustainable tourism and also more immersive, interactive and authentic experiences – our members are really delivering what visitors want.
In the last few months alone, members have launched the first 100 per cent electric and hence ‘green’ bus in London (The Original Tour), an app that ties in “journeys with a purpose” and social enterprise in Edinburgh (GeoTourist) and a new immersive attraction ‘Jeff Wayne’s the War of the Worlds’ which I had the good fortune to experience before it opened in May and is nothing like I have ever experienced before!
So yes – a fall in the value of the pound does of course make a visit to the UK better value, but does also increase the costs for our membership in terms of international marketing.
The UK has always been a world leader in iconic, unique attractions which keeps our visitors coming back year after year.
BTN: KPMG recently released research suggesting a number of UK tourism firms are barely keeping their heads above water. How would you assess the financial health of the sector from your perspective?
JC: Our latest Business Barometer showed that yields were the same or up for 78 per cent of our members businesses between March and April this year, compared to 2018, however we know this isn’t the case for all tourism businesses across the UK.
Whether it’s embracing new technology, adapting to consumer trends or exploring new business opportunities, the UK tourism industry needs to continually grow and develop to stay competitive.
We know that tourism is a global, competitive business which is why so many tourism businesses choose to join UKinbound to get help with marketing their products and services to international visitors via our tour operator members.
UKinbound is a travel trade association and the only one which focuses solely on the interests of the inbound tourism sector in the UK.
The organisation addresses and engages with government, the media, travel trade and the general public to raise awareness of the importance of inbound tourism to the UK economy.
Find out more on the official website.