If post-Brexit Britain is looking like the Wild West, UKinbound has the right man in charge.
Joss Croft began his tourism career working in a cowboy-themed Disneyland Paris bar, so has first-hand experience of how vital overseas staff are on the front line in tourism.
It’s one issue high on his agenda for 2020 as UKinbound members prepare to meet in Bristol next month.
Croft is now 14 months into his role, having joined from the Department for International Trade (DIT), where he was managing director of marketing.
He previously spent 16 years at VisitBritain, heading up its marketing operation during the 2012 Olympics.
“I did miss tourism,” he confesses. His time at the DIT “taught him how politicians operate”, but he clearly prefers his new role: “Actually being able to make a decision is really good; your span of influence is also much greater.”
So what’s on his to-do list? “We’re recruiting more members,” he says. “We’re now over 400.”
UKinbound’s roots as an inbound tour operators’ association means Croft is keen to attract more accommodation providers and those from the wider industry, such as OTAs, and to encourage them to interact.
“What we are trying to do is make each others’ businesses as sustainable as possible,” he explains.
Croft foresees sustainability as a big issue post-Brexit – but not in the sense of environmental concerns.
Back to the role of overseas staff again, Croft is sceptical of the government’s estimate that EU nationals make up only 10% of the tourist industry’s workforce.
“We don’t really believe that,” he says, adding that, in London, the figure can be “up to 90%”. But his biggest Brexit worry is how the industry will find enough staff with languages and other skills.
“If 65% of businesses say they will struggle without access to EU labour, inbound tourism has to make that point to government,” he says, adding lobbying on this issue will be a key activity in 2020.
This year will also see UKinbound focus on members and activities outside London. A representation company has been appointed in the North West, and Scotland is also being targeted.
Other parts of the country may get similar emphasis if the pilot scheme is successful.
Inbound operators may justifiably be approaching the Brexit year with some trepidation.
For a start, there’s the lingering perception the UK is not as welcoming to overseas visitors as it was. The impact on the image of the UK, he says, has been particularly pronounced in Germany.
Croft says visits from the “EU 15” countries were down 1% in 2019, which he describes as “a complicated year”, but one that was “very good” for a lot of members.
Summing up 2019, he says: “It won’t be a record, but it’s probably ahead of 2018.”
There’s some good news, however, as 2020 “is predicted to be a record”.
There might be some reticence from some European visitors, but Croft says other markets will hopefully make up for this.
“The US is booming, it’s up 10% this year; they are always looking for new product outside of London.”
China is another obvious target to make up the European shortfall. “I’m imagining China will be top five in terms of spend, it’s now 11th,” he says.
However, he added there were still misunderstandings about how easy it was for Chinese visitors to get UK visas.
“96% of those that apply get them, but the US offers a 10-year visa and we don’t. And we have to recognise the Chinese can visit 26 European countries on one Schengen visa.”
India is another target, but Croft said visa approval for Indian tourists was “nothing like 96%”.
Another issue post-Brexit is the use of ID cards as passports by EU nationals.
“We’re a creative, welcoming and tolerant destination where you can have unique experiences”
The government’s current position is it will stop accepting ID cards as a valid document “during 2021”. Croft fears the young, in particular, will not go to the expense of buying a passport for a short break in the UK, choosing another European destination instead.
This year will see a new Immigration Bill, into which Croft believes tourism must be allowed input. “We need to try and affect what that says. We want different parts of the country to be able to recruit the skills they need. We want languages to be on the occupational shortage list.
“Languages are a key skill our members need to operate both internationally and on the front desk.”
This requirement, he says, would need to be reviewed annually.
Another bugbear is Air Passenger Duty. “We continue to push for a reduction, but I know that’s hard with the environmental lobby.
“Some members are saying clients are starting to come via Amsterdam or Paris and reducing their length of stay. At the same time, you’re having two take-offs and landings instead of one, so it’s driving strange behaviour.”
All this will doubtless be on the agenda at the Bristol conference.
The meeting will focus on innovation; appropriate, he says, in a city like Bristol. “It’s a 5G test bed, and it’s the home of Brunel and Concorde.”
He wants delegates to leave with “a list of actions they need to undertake in their business”.
“I want it to be a little bit more challenging, I don’t necessarily want it to be fluffy and nice.”
He stresses, however, that it will be fun.
Despite all the issues, there is no doubt the UK remains one of the world’s great tourist destinations.
Asked to sum up what makes the UK a great place to visit in one brief phrase, Croft pauses briefly and replies: “When I was at VisitBritain, I commissioned a film that looked at how people saw the UK.
“One of the most wonderful quotes was from an American. He said Britain was ‘a very civilised experience, except when it’s not’.
“We’re a creative, welcoming and tolerant destination where you can have unique experiences. That’s when we’re at our best.”