UK on site: Scotland is delegation's first stop

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The hoof-and-mouth crises prompted the British Tourist Authority to invite a delegation of industry leaders on a fact-finding mission to the U.K. Travel Weekly editor in chief Nadine Godwin currently is on site in the U.K. Her first report follows:

INVERNESS, Scotland -- In the Scottish Highlands, not one animal has sickened with the hoof-and-mouth disease that has led to the destruction of thousands of animals in the U.K.

Indeed, in Scotland, only a few cases have been spotted in the southern border area, well away from Glasglow and Edinburgh.

Nevertheless, according to Norman Lauritsen, chairman of the Highlands Tourist Board, the Highlands have experienced tourist cancellations. At first, they were mostly domestic short breaks. Then, a few European groups failed to sell well enough and were canceled.

Editor in chief Nadine Godwin.Now, as peak season approaches, Lauritsen said, he fears overseas travelers will cancel in greater numbers if prospective visitors are not assured quickly enough that the U.K. is a safe place to travel despite the hoof-and-mouth crisis.

Local officials were eager to tell the world that in the Highlands, all attractions, the parks and footpaths for walking are open as normal.

Lauritsen and a number of his tourism colleagues were among hosts here to a group of U.S., Canadian and Japanese travel industry personnel who are in the U.K. this week as part of a VIP whirlwind tour sponsored by the British Tourist Authority. The purpose is to give the group a firsthand look at travel conditions in the country.

The 20 or so guests are travel agent leaders, tour operators and press. At various points, the group is being joined by local political and other prominent figures and will meet with Prime Minister Tony Blair at week's end.

The event, which the BTA calls the 2001 Travel Leaders Summit, has brought out groups of local and national U.K. print and electronic media representatives who are filming and interviewing tour members at various points in the tour schedule.

ASTA president Richard Copland seems to be the most frequently interviewed, but most of the trade delegation has been interviewed, including some of the press. Reporters from the BBC and CNN are traveling with the group, as well.

Jeff Hamblin, BTA chief executive, told the group that British tourist interests looked for members to use their on-site experience to help spread the word that Britain is "open for business" and that it is safe to travel here, that there is no reason for most tourists to cancel or put off a trip.

However, Hamblin said, "we are not going to sugarcoat the experience by pretending that there is no problem here."

Of necessity, he said, there has been the closure of certain locations, such as footpaths near livestock in affected areas. But across the U.K., he said, 80% of attractions and 90% of events are open for business as usual.

He said the British tourism industry wanted something else from trip participants: ideas for counteracting the damage the hoof-and-mouth outbreak has done to the tourism industry.

Participating tour operators offered up several ideas, some in response to a query from Travel Weekly Crossroads plus a few in a dinner table conversation.

  • Peter Tauck, co-president, Tauck World Discovery, said he and his marketing staff worked up a proposal that he will present to the tourism officials here. It involves immediate targeted marketing, which he said he believes would be the most effective and quickest way to bring in business to the U.K. before the spring selling season is over.
  • The Tauck plan envisions printing a new U.K.-only brochure that the tour company would mail to 400,000 travelers in the Tauck database with a cover letter from Peter Tauck, explaining the situation here. The mailing would go to 13,000 travel agents with a different cover letter, he said.

    He said he hoped the U.K. would benefit from the endorsement of the Tauck tour company, relying on the firm's good reputation among its agents and customers. He said he would seek major funding support because the cost (about $190,000) would produced too high a "cost of conversion" for the tour firm to justify on its own.

  • Brian Stack, president of CIE Tours, said the BTA needs to "spend a huge amount of money in public relations and advertising."
  • He said he has suggested that the BTA use the services of someone like actor John Cleese to carry the message in advertising. He said the actor "has a way of getting across a message" and can "get away with saying" almost anything that might encourage bookings.

  • Patrick O'Shea, vice president, Far & Wide, said "BTA needs to carry the flag" with some kind of advertorial aimed at the public. "The trade is knowledgeable already, but there is a perception problem" among the public.
  • The BTA, he said, needs to deal with this "forcefully, swiftly" and with statements about hoof-and-mouth "that are attributable to unimpeachable sources" to ensure the public believes reassurances.

  • O'Shea also urged that the BTA provide to group participants copies of tapes and transcripts that result from the wide range of TV and other interviews being conducted by British journalists. He said the operators and trade groups could redistribute that material to local press outlets in the U.S.
  • Stack added he has seen where various "Web sites are killing us." For example, he said, at Ireland.com, he found language saying don't go to the countryside in Ireland.
  • The problem is, he said, "countryside" does not mean the same thing to all readers. Americans are likely to understand that to mean not to visit Ireland's small towns, he said. He said he has been calling operators of Web sites to ask for clarification where he sees such issues, sometimes effecting the changes he seeks.

    However, he urged, the BTA and all tourism interests need to monitor Web sites in a systematic way to look for these problems and to contact the site operators to seek appropriate changes.

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