Visit Kent – a voice for the visitor economy
Known the world over as the Garden of England, Kent attracts some 65 million visitors every year. They are drawn to the county’s fabulous beaches, historic towns and cities, an exciting and growing food scene, and its wide-open spaces.
Tourism and hospitality is responsible for over 80,000 jobs in the country generating an astonishing £4 billion in revenue a year.
For a county so close to London and the gateway to Europe, this tourism success story is in no small part down to the heroic efforts of Visit Kent, a not-for-profit destination management organisation.
But, as Chief Executive Deirdre Wells OBE explains, there is more to Visit Kent than its high-profile marketing campaigns. It is, she says, the voice for a vitally important industry.
Wells joined Visit Kent in 2018 following a high-flying civil service career with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) and as Chief Executive of UKinbound, a trade association. As part of the team delivering the Millennium Dome, Liverpool’s European City of Culture programme and the tourism opportunities surrounding the enormously successful 2012 Olympic Games, she was well-placed to make the transition into a destination management organisation bridging government and the visitor economy.
“A lot of my career focused on major event activity with the golden thread being the visitor economy,” Wells explains. “I fell in love with the industry and when you find something that you really love, you ask ‘how can I stay in that in that area’.”
Destination management organisations (DMOs), such as Visit Kent, are a vital cog in the delivery of “on the ground” support for tourism and hospitality businesses. They have a deep picture of what a county can offer, its tourism assets, and what those businesses need.
“What is interesting about any DMO is that most people only see the marketing bit,” explains Wells. “But there is a reason the M stands for management rather than marketing. Our role is to look at what the sector needs to thrive.
“Kent and its places are diverse, all with different needs. We talk less about tourism and more about the visitor economy… it’s about the economic impact. We focus on the quality of engagement and spend as that is what drives economic impact and, ultimately, jobs. We provide strategic leadership for Kent’s visitor economy.”
A key part of the support Visit Kent offers tourism businesses is its high-quality research that points to future trends and is used by its public and our private sector partners to inform future decision-making. It has, for example, highlighted a lack of investment in quality hotels and the barriers behind that, alongside the demand for experiential tourism.
“The product development and business support, taking ideas from businesses and turning them into something that can sell, the lobbying and advocacy that we do on behalf of the sector is largely hidden from public view,” says Wells.
Yet this became immensely valuable when the Covid pandemic closed the hospitality sector entirely. Wells and her 21-strong team held weekly meetings with Government officials providing advice and guidance to its members. We were, she says, the trusted voice that interpreted a rapidly changing landscape.
“We helped businesses understand what they could and couldn’t do,” says Wells. “They were desperate for footfall but understandably nervous as there were a lot of restrictions.”
Visit Kent’s funding comes from a mix of public and private sector funds. The need to balance the very public-facing campaigns with the support given to businesses and the results delivered has created a lean yet impactful organisation.
“Our credibility comes from talking to and understanding businesses. If two or three businesses are telling you the same thing is happening, you need to listen and act,” explains Wells. “Yet we also need to show empirical numbers, a return on the investment made in us… if you give us X, we give you back Y in terms of jobs and contributions to the economy.
“It’s about talking to businesses and residents in Kent, to wider national and international decision-makers and giving real-time examples of the challenges the sector faces. When English Heritage, for example, told us last summer that visitor numbers were down 50% due to Operation Brock, Ministers sit up and listen.”
It’s In Our Nature
Visit Kent’s 2023 campaign headline, It’s In Our Nature, captures both the growing trend for experiential tourism and the county’s stunning landscape. It captures too the vibrancy and diversity of opportunities for those visiting Kent, whether for just a few days or longer, and most importantly, our welcome and hospitality.
“If you want bluebells in gorgeous woodlands, dog-friendly hotels, vibrant events, or a fantastic foodie weekend, Kent has it all,” says Wells. “It also recognises that Kent is a large county and often its best ambassadors are those that live here.”
Visit Kent is one of the larger DMOs in the UK. Its commercial arm, Go To Places, offers full DMO services to other parts of the UK, providing a valuable and diversified income. A strong team that encompasses both research and creative services allows it to offer high-quality insights and expertise without high “agency prices”, cherishing its not-for-profit status.
The need for an experienced and strong accountancy firm that understands its business and funding models, often with its sometimes-complex tax implications is vital.
“We have a brilliant finance team of three people – they are superstars,” says Wells, “and we have to be very conscious that this is public money. Stewardship of our budget is critical. Kreston Reeves gives us the assurance that we are doing it right.
“Kreston Reeves is also a quality Kent brand and that is important to our board and wider stakeholders. Those stakeholders need to understand the complexity of what we doing and that we are, ultimately, about reinvesting in the sector, and Kreston Reeves helps us achieve that.”
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