Following our last Ideas Exchange on tourism in 2022, on 2nd March 2023 the Coastal West Sussex Partnership and Experience West Sussex Partnership brought Sussex business leaders from across the industry together at the Fauna Taproom in Arundel to discuss the state of the sector in the UK and our region, the challenges and the opportunities.

Introducing the session, chief executive at always possible Richard Freeman observed that last time we were talking about tests and quarantine, which thankfully is no longer the conversation. But now there are other serious matters, from the war in Ukraine to the impact of Brexit and the movement of people and goods – and people have less money to spend. How much of this can we control, change and build resilience against?

Adam Bates from Blue Sail Consultancy presented insights on what’s going on nationally in the tourism industry and described “a perfect storm”. On the demand side, businesses have emerged from the pandemic into a challenging economic period. Statistics released by VisitEngland recently found that 62% of domestic visitors think things are going to get worse.

Currently the top barriers for people taking a domestic trip are:

  • Cost of living
  • Personal finances
  • Cost of holidays
  • Weather

The cost-of-living crisis means almost three quarters of the population (74%) are cautious with spending or have been hit hard, impacted by higher interest rates, fuel and energy costs and other household bills. However, Adam also highlighted that just over a quarter of population are largely unaffected or are even better off. There are still areas of opportunity for tourism and hospitality.

Despite the uncertainty, there are more UK trips planned by domestic visitors in 2023 than pre-2019, and there has been an overall increase in the preference for domestic vs overseas trips. However, spending on domestic trips is expected to be lower this year, with a focus on cheaper accommodation, free activities and a lower spend on eating out.

On the supply side, the cost of doing business has gone up, including energy, insurance, labour and interest rates. Reserves and cash flow are major concerns for businesses. Over 13,000 hospitality businesses have closed since 2020 and more closures are imminent without further intervention.

On top of that, additional factors having an impact on travel include industrial disputes, uncertain geopolitical tensions and forecasts for the UK having the lowest growth of all advanced economies in 2023/24. As local governments are squeezed, trusts are seeing funding cuts to museums, heritage sites and galleries. Across the UK, money for tourism and destination marketing is being reduced as local authorities struggle to fund statutory services.

While it’s certainly a challenging time, thankfully there are some silver linings. Adam explained that domestic visitors value their leisure time, and domestic trips are expected to increase. Weak sterling will see growth from some important markets (USA, Australia, New Zealand). Plus, there are some major events this year which will put the UK on the map, such as the King’s coronation and Eurovision.

Sussex ticks a lot of boxes for what visitors want – from heritage and culture to outdoor activities and getting into nature. People want family time, they value “getting away from it all”, and they want holidays and trips to be easy and active. They are looking for something distinct, authentic and different from the every day. 

Adam shared some recent trends and drivers:

  • Sustainability – people are increasingly keen to buy into doing the right thing, although buying behaviour shows they don’t always follow through.
  • Wellness – beyond spa breaks and yoga retreats, time out is what people value most.
  • Our ageing population has a more active lifestyle than those of that age ten – 20 years ago, presenting a great opportunity for tourism businesses to capitalise on.
  • Staycations – domestic trips grew in 2021 and 2022 and are expected to grow in 2023, although it is not clear if this will continue beyond 2024.
  • Outdoor activities: there’s been a huge growth in walking and cycling, paddleboarding and ‘glampervanning’ since the pandemic.
  • Multi-generational experiences: people are time-poor and increasingly cash poor and they want to cram in as much as possible in their holidays and leisure time.

So where are the opportunities?

Adam’s main pieces of advice for tourism businesses this year:

  • Focus on communicating what sets your business apart, as people only make practical decisions to travel after they’ve been inspired. The “We’ve got something for everyone” message is meaningless for the customer – better to focus on what makes you unique and target a specific audience.
  • Accessibility: be ready and able to cater for last minute trips.
  • Combine paid-for experiences with free ones and show how to package experiences through online itineraries.
  • Keep up the pressure in advocating for investment in public facilities – from toilets to roads, infrastructure quality also impacts the visitor experience.
  • Highlight big local events – they are a reason to visit now.

Jo Williams at Experience West Sussex shared an update on the work taking place between county councils in Sussex to build a stronger identity and create a Sussex story. With the help of Blue Sail, this is gaining momentum. A strategy for boosting wine tourism is also in the works, as an increasingly important driver for people to visit the county.

Experience West Sussex has a new business hub on their website and will be sharing all its reports in a monthly newsletter, so make sure you’re signed up for up-to-date industry intelligence.

Attendees then broke into small groups to answer some key questions, such as: how can we generate a mood of confidence and opportunity here, and can we improve the Sussex welcome?

Some of the ideas shared were:

  • Ensuring experiences are high quality and the offer is supported by the delivery – visitors need to feel confident their cash won’t be wasted to make a booking in the first place. A collaborative approach needs to ensure all partners are showcasing what is really high quality and inspiring.
  • Embracing a more fun and less formal tone of voice in communications, with the key message: You will have fun in Sussex!
  • Increase promotion for what visitors can do in Sussex outside of the main tourism season (April to October) and increasing the all-year-round offer.
  • In addition, collaborative working between partners to ensure attractions and places to eat and drink are open at the same time and on the same days as cultural events, so people aren’t impacted by Sunday/Monday closures, for example.
  • Support for businesses to reach net zero and showcasing the green champions, to demonstrate that sustainability is part of the Sussex identity.

These discussions help to drive forward strategic lobbying. Don’t miss the next tourism industry event to join the conversation and share your ideas – the West Sussex Tourism Symposium 2023 on 21st March at the South Downs Centre in Midhurst, hosted by Experience West Sussex.

Tourism Ideas Exchange: 2nd March 2023