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VEE Chairman Andy Wood: Working together to drive economic growth

This is the keynote speech Visit East of England Chairman Andy Wood gave at the VEE & Partners Visitor Economy Conference at the John Innes Centre, Norwich on Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Hello to you all and thank you for being here.

I know only too well, after a lifetime in the sector, that it’s never easy to find space in the diary for events of any cause or conversation, but I’m hopeful you’ll leave here knowing you made the right choice today, and that you’ve been part of some very special dialogue which will shape the future of a place you love.

I’d like to particularly acknowledge, before I start, the attendance of political leaders from both counties; Kay Mason-Billig from Norfolk, Richard Smith from Suffolk, and their teams.

Also to VisitEngland/VisitBritain, who we’re delighted to say are in attendance – thank you Victoria Borwick and Andrew Stokes.

Across the length and breadth of the UK, our dynamic tourism sector accounts for some £106bn of revenues (GDP) and sustains 2.6m jobs.

It is bigger, for example, than the automotive sector and financial services – those often-lauded sectors – and is one of the largest economic employers and contributors in the UK.

It also accounts for £31bn in inward investment from inbound tourism, and in so many respects is the nation’s ‘shop window’.

You could go so far as to bill us as brand UK’s visual identity, given we attract and entertain 37.5m foreign visitors.

Let’s sharpen the focus a little further on to our corner of the world.

What does this represent for Norfolk, and for Suffolk?

In Norfolk it accounts for £3.4bn in revenues and 70,000 jobs.

In Suffolk, it’s £2.1bn and 44,500 jobs.

Ah yes.

As I look around the room, I consider those who might be inclined to mutter ‘ah, but these are surely just many thousands of mere ‘low value jobs’.

And indeed, I’m often challenged with that suggestion.

My answer?

Well, yes, of course there are indeed a degree of low value roles in our bustling sector.

And guess what? There are in other walks of life too.

The difference, which I feel compelled to remind people of – is that in our incredibly varied and energetic sector, you can advance fast.

When I say fast, I mean breakneck fast.

If you’ve the aptitude and the ambition, and you want to face what customers throw at you in all weathers and all kinds of ‘whatabouterie’ situations – then you’ve a great trajectory ahead of you.

You’ll have to forgive me if I take a moment to indulge in ‘Brand Adnams’, but I think you’ll agree it’s a case in point.

In our busy East Anglian-born business, I have 30-year-olds running pubs and hotels responsible for revenues in multiple millions, managing teams of people, and yes, earning good salaries which create them a good lifestyle.

The sector is also an engine for social mobility.

Hands up if you’ve ever met my amazing Chief Operating Officer Karen Hester?
Have you heard her story?

She won’t mind me sharing – in fact she knows her journey is typical of what we enable people to achieve in this sector.

Karen Hester is a single mum, from an unprepossessing background, and she loves Suffolk.

She joined Adnams in the late 1980’s as a part-time cleaner, working the night-shifts to sustain her young family.

With the tenacity and infectious ambition that Karen exudes (and those of you who have met her, will certainly attest to that), she rose through the ranks, supported by our business and our industry.

Some 30 odd years later, Karen is Chief Operating Officer, has won numerous awards, including being acclaimed the East of England’s businesswoman of the year back in 2013, and, yes, she has enjoyed a wonderful well-paid career.

This is not an isolated story in tourism and hospitality.

It is upon us, within this special arena, to correct people when they ask of those working in the sector “when are you going to get a proper job?”

It’s worth noting that we are beginning to also see people in their second and third careers, embark on a transition into hospitality. One of the things I am most proud of, is seeing people in their 50’s move into the sector.

You may have seen in the news only this week that the number of people over the magic 50 age, working in our sector, is now up 14% since 2020.

In my view, that’s a great new vision of our industry.

Such employees bring with them a wealth of life experience, can empathise with customers and act as mentors to younger staff.  It’s a great asset all-round.

The pandemic, followed by the cost-of-living crisis, has certainly taken its toll.

And yet – the sector is resilient.

Look back at how it dealt with the stop-start processes throughout the pandemic, and how the first things to appear when economic activity is ticking up, are small square footage hospitality venues.

This sector is an eco-system of largely small, medium enterprises that are fleet of foot and provide a ‘hedge’ against economic shocks.

Therein lies my first key point.

Whatever happens in forthcoming elections –  and it is not my role to be political, whether Team Blue, Red, Yellow, or Green or any other combination one might care to imagine – they are going to need to secure economic growth.

Our sector, with some sustained and appropriate recognition and support, can be one of the engines that powers much needed growth and contributes enormously to the levelling up agenda.

It’s responsive, it provides good jobs, it provides social mobility, it attracts visitors from abroad and it provides goods and services that make life worth living.

Central Government needs a collective push from us because with support and encouragement, our sector can be one of the big drivers of economic recovery.

Clearly, with the numbers talked of in the opening of my speech, that is absolutely true also in our own East Anglian heartland.

My second point is that organisation of the tourism landscape is changing.

The team and the British Tourist Authority, VisitBritain and VisitEngland are doing a great job implementing the Nick DeBois review.

Essentially, this is creating Local Visitor Economy Partnerships in sensible economic geographies throughout the country.

These partnerships, with the catchy acronym LVEPS, will receive support from VB/VE and represent and coordinate on behalf of their respective geographies.

Many areas have already been successful in achieving this status and I am ambitious that Norfolk and Suffolk can come together and build upon its collective status as a tourism economic powerhouse.

Sitting above those bodies will be Destination Development Partnerships (DDPs) who may receive Central Government Funding, particularly to generate inbound tourism.

We will be hearing from Sarah Green from the Newcastle and Gateshead Initiative which is conducting a pilot as a DDP.

She will tell us how she is working to transform the region and the various great cities of the North-East, to inspire people to visit, to live, to learn, and to invest.

Locally, it was announced earlier that Norfolk have committed support to Visit East of England becoming an LVEP and I am grateful to Kay Mason-Billing and her team for showing that faith in the team and the initiative.

There is a strategic review of tourism underway in Suffolk and the sector is completely respectful of that.

We do hope, however, that the benefits of working together with a larger collective voice are seized upon. Without doubt, a visitor economy worth a collective revenue of £5.5bn, employing 114,500 people, will certainly have a seat at any top table and grab the attention of Government. The door is wide open for Suffolk.

Thirdly, I was at a joint Visit Britain/Visit England strategy away-day last week and we heard from a range of great speakers.

Some of the themes emerging across our sector are profound.

  • Increasingly, customers are seeking out the ‘unique and authentic’ experiences when they travel. They want a local connection and real experiences.
  • There is a greater environmental dimension to their travel plans.
  • Self-Care is an important consideration. Customers evidence that they want the opportunity for quiet relaxation, quality time with family and friends and the ability to get closer to nature if they should wish to. We are seeing this come through with things such as the Belmond Royal Scotsman, with wellness being built into their journey through an onboard spa. And then there’s Zedwell, the hotel chain making some of their venues dedicated to good sleep.
  • The sector is also helping people to express themselves, and is embracing diversity into its offer. There is clearly broader inclusion for those with disability and older people in mind.
  • Travellers also want to feel welcome and safe. Severe heatwaves and adverse weather patterns are troubling. It’s a fact that around 70% of National Trust sites could face medium to high risk from climate related hazards by 2060, which is an increase from 30% today.
  • And the march of technology is still driving change in our industry. The omnichannel experience is set to become a bigger thing, with even more reviews and buying via social media. There is something of a dichotomy for our industry in that our customers want authentic, real and ‘back to nature’, whilst using the latest tech to support decisions, itineraries and payments they will also require human interaction. Our industry will need to become expert at managing that tension between the need for efficiency driven by automation, and the human interaction that we all crave.

And so, some questions arise from my reflections….

  1. Can we in our region cater for greater demand for authenticity and cultural immersion?
  2. Can we mitigate and provide sustainable tourism?
  3. Can we reposition at least part of our offer around wellness?
  4. Can we be welcoming and help customers be themselves?
  5. Can we continue to be a proud, responsible and future-focused employer which serves those who work for us and for our industry?

I am confident the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ from us here in the East.

My absolute final point returns to growth and, in particular, to inbound tourism.

As VEE Executive Director Pete Waters so often says (and I’m sure many of you among us here today, have heard him say this, alongside his favourite ‘Bloody marvellous’ expression) he would very much like people to ‘turn right’ when they emerge from Stansted.

He, as would all of us who proudly celebrate the offering of East Anglia, would far rather see them make that directional choice, than turn left and instead head to a place called London.

US inbound tourism is doing well at the moment, and I was pleased to see Visit East of England represented in both San Francisco and in Northern Ireland alongside VisitBritain championing inbound tourism to our region.

I believe there are plans to have a similar presence in the Netherlands in the spring.

This is perhaps also the perfect point for me to share with you an update regarding our future Destination Management Plan… and how you play your part in that.

We’re very pleased to be in the process of recruiting a consultancy firm, whose responsibility it will be to create that all important Destination Management Plan over the course of the next few months.

This means a process of probing, questioning, clarifying and conversing.

We’ll be wanting to hear from all stakeholders about where we’re at and where we hope to be.

So, as you’d expect – we’ll be seeking to chat to those of you in this very room who have a critical role to play in our future shape and direction.

Now, moving on – do we have some movie fans among you today? A showing of hands perhaps?

Well, I’m glad to say we can finally start referencing the Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg £275m mini-series, Masters of the Air featuring the exploits of the American 8th Airforce in East Anglia.

For those of you with the right subscription (among the many!) this delight drops on Apple TV in January.

If ever there was an ad for East Anglia around the world, and particularly in the US, this is it.

We can undoubtedly look forward to more foreign visitors heading for our region off the back of this.

And so conference, in summary:

Our sector is strong and resilient; it provides jobs and creates wealth for young and old.

Indeed, such is its strength and resilience, that I can reveal today that our 2022 Volume and Value figures for Norfolk and Suffolk are just as high as the 2019 pre-Covid historic highs, with a record number of visitors.

Who would have seen that coming as soon as 2022?

Our sector can be a primary driver of economic growth and regeneration, we need to speak with one voice to Government and policy makers whilst respecting the huge diversity and individuality of our region.

The organisation of our sector is changing, and East Anglia should cooperate and be prepared to take our rightful seat at the top table.

Collectively represented here today is a sector worth £5.5bn that employs 144,500 people. That’s huge, and cannot be underestimated or overlooked.

At the same time as all this, customer and consumer needs and wants are changing.

They want back to nature, they want authenticity, they want wellness, and they want safety and they want ease of use.

We can do all those things with aplomb.

We have a major growth opportunity with inbound tourism, and we’ve even got a potential blockbuster about to shine its beaming spotlight all over us, for the world to see.

So…. what are we waiting for?

What’s to be shy about?

Why wouldn’t the world want to celebrate our incredible offering?

But… before they tell me I’m out of time and start coughing subtly to get me off stage…

This is about more than celebration and self-congratulation.
Today, it’s about reminding ourselves that yes, we’ve achieved a huge amount.

We’ve proved ourselves to be recovering well and to be agile, resourceful and dynamic in our ambition.

So, to every single one of you in front of me today, I urge you, ‘LET’S DO MORE AND DO IT TOGETHER’.

Collaboration is our key.

We’ve come so far, and achieved so much – now just imagine what, by working together, we could do next.

I’m in no doubt. This means we go forward, and we deliver the Suffolk-Norfolk LVEP Bid which will see our region thrive long into the future.

Let’s get to it!

Thank you.