Last January, which probably seems like a decade ago for much of the industry, the general buzz in the UK’s travel sector surrounded reinvigorating interest in seaside resorts. That was before the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Because of its highly contagious nature, much of the UK's countryside was closed to travelers. At its peak, 30 to 40 new cases were being reported in cattle daily.
Ironically, those struggling seaside resorts that had been the source of so much concern saw boosts in occupancy. Britons who would otherwise have traveled to the country took to the coast – one of the few places to vacation without risking the fever and mouth blisters that are symptomatic of livestock suffering from foot-and-mouth.
However, the unintentional benefit enjoyed by the seaside resorts couldn't offset the hemorrhaging tourist industry. In the US, the UK's most significant source of international travelers, there were no wars or Presidential stalemates to offset the news from Britain. As a result, newspapers and news shows gave the livestock crisis top billing on a daily basis. That foot-and-mouth is difficult for humans to catch and relatively benign if contracted did little to slake the effects of gory pictures of burning cattle. Americans heard the words "animals, disease and contagious" mentioned in the same breath and that was all they needed to know. The prospect of vacationing in the UK became about as attractive as taking the kids to a petting zoo full of rabid dogs.
It wasn’t until the third day in May that Prime Minister Blair declared an end to the crisis. However still several weeks later, the government was estimating a loss of £ 125 million per week in tourism (US$ 176).
In the throes of the unprecedented crisis, the English Tourism Council undertook a major marketing campaign in an effort to breathe life back into the industry. Formally known as the English Tourist Board, the English Tourism Council (ETC) was stripped of its marketing and promotional remit two years ago when the government determined that England was best marketed on a regional level. Ten regional tourist boards were culled, each responsible for its own marketing and promotional campaigns. In the wake of foot-and-mouth, the need for a universal national marketing presence became painfully evident. With government funding, the ETC took to the airways to inform Britons of the state of the foot-and-mouth crisis and to instill confidence in the domestic traveler.
"The initial stages of the campaign sought to counteract some of the misconceptions the British public had about foot-and-mouth," said Ken Kelling, senior press officer at the ETC. "The first set of messages referred to the outbreak and to the countryside quite specifically. It encouraged people to find out what was open and reminded the public of all the things they could still do." Subsequently, the ads became a bit more generic, though they were backed with hotlines for more specific information.
Many of the areas hit hardest by foot-and-mouth experienced an exceptional rebound by summer's end – an indication that the ETC's efforts were not in vain. Countryside hoteliers were reporting a boom by the end of July, suggesting that if it had not been for foot-and-mouth, 2001 could have been a bumper year for certain niches in the industry.
Nevertheless, the financial impact of foot-and-mouth was stifling. The British Travel Authority estimates £1.5 billion in lost revenue from foot-and-mouth (US$ 2.1B). And while the industry had managed to win back the confidence of the UK's traveling population, there was still the question of re-stimulating foreign interest in returning to the UK. Specifically, a spike in American dollars would go a long way in nursing the industry's foot-and-mouth fever. Winning back the Yanks, however, was going to be challenging in light of recessionary trends, which had begun looming by summer's end.
As difficult as that objective might have been, the terrorist attacks on September 11 made it all but impossible to achieve.
In a typical year, foreign visitors account for one-fifth of the UK's £64 billion a year tourism industry (US$ 90B). The US is the UK's top foreign market, and more importantly, Americans are the biggest spenders: the Yanks fork over three times more than do the Germans, the UK's second most lucrative market.
Already bleeding red from foot-and-mouth, the British Tourist Authority's most recent projections are even more disconcerting. The terrorist attacks will result in another billion pounds of loss, totaling £2.5 billion for the year (US$ 3.5B).
Realizing that many would-be American travelers are hesitant to fly domestically, let alone internationally, the British Tourist Authority, which is responsible for promoting UK tourism in foreign markets, has engineered a new marketing campaign, hoping to attract more Europeans in lieu of Americans. The industry is also hedging its position with intensified campaigns to Britons that had planned to holiday in North America but have since re-thought their vacation plans.
The "The Four Greats" campaign will promote four aspects of UK travel: great cities, great countryside, great heritage and great sport. Four agencies are currently engineering creative proposals. If all goes according to plan, the new campaign will roll out in January and will run through March.
Orla Farren, corporate PR manager at the British Tourist Authority, explained some of the specifics of the campaign. "We'll promote the opening of a new national park and new walking trails, the Queen's Golden Jubilee, the Commonwealth Games in Manchester and the Rider Cup. We're also producing more literature on our great cities and a 'Hidden Britain' campaign, which will focus on areas that are off the typical tourist trail.
"If we can present the themes effectively and aggressively, we feel we can win back business for next year and beyond that. But it could be a gradual process," added Ms. Farren.
Germany, Belgium, Ireland, France, The Netherlands, Canada and the US will be the focus of the campaign. In the short term, the European markets will likely filter back to the UK before Americans mostly due to proximity. In the long run, the UK will need the American market to return the industry to its previous strength.