After some ten years as chief executive of South West Tourism, Redruth boy Malcolm Bell returned to his roots at the beginning of the year to head up VisitCornwall.
Bell explains what finally swayed him to move back west, and how he is looking forward to building upon Cornwall’s leading reputation as a holiday destination, not just in UK markets, but further afield as well.
He speaks of his fears of what could happen to the holiday home market, and why he hopes the Met Office will refrain from issuing any long range weather forecasts this year!
Business Cornwall: So a few weeks into the job now, how’s it been going in that short time?
Malcolm Bell: It’s been going well. I had three months in the run up to officially starting here, which gave me a lot of thinking time and talking to people. And that was a nice luxury really. It meant I could step back from dealing with the urgent to be thinking about the important.
BC: Ten years leading South West Tourism, how did this new post present itself and why did you take it?
MB: A couple of things really. About three years ago I was approached to go for a job in Abu Dhabi as a government adviser. I went out there for the interviews out ofcuriosity, and the sort of package they were offering me, I was incredibly tempted.
But there was a prolonged negotiation, as there often is in those countries, and I was sitting on the beach, I have to admit in Devon, and someone leaned back and said ‘you can’t get it much better than this’.
That helped me realise I didn’t want to go to Abu Dhabi, that I was quite happy here in the south west. And I thought if I move anywhere, it will probably be west, not east! (laughs).
But what really made it, and not everyone will agree with this, but in terms of tourism services, Cornwall has great advantages now being Cornwall Council. We’ve now got a chance to deliver an integrated tourism service for Cornwall. In terms of a business perspective, and certainly a visitor perspective, they see Cornwall, not the districts. I think most Cornish people would struggle if I put them on a road between Falmouth and Helston and asked them where does Kerrier start.
With regionalisation you get increasingly away from working with businesses, and I get my biggest fulfilment working with businesses. There was this unique opportunity of working with the new unitary, and then this issue that it would be part of the Cornwall Development Company, working closely with investment business services and others, rather than tourism being in a silo.
So rather a cake mix of reasons. And when I went to the interview, I told them had it not been a unitary, I wouldn’t be here. And if it hadn’t been an integrated service working alongside the other economic development operations, I wouldn’t be here.
BC: So a couple of years ago you wouldn’t have taken the job?
MB: No, despite my desire to move westwards. And even today, had it still been a two-tier system with tourism over there, and other things over there, I would still have said no to the job.
I’m 55 now, and there comes a time when you get more impatient spending time away from doing what you want to do – progressing the tourism agenda and supporting businesses. In your 30s and
40s, some of the politics of life can be interesting, but it becomes a case of ‘been there, done that, got the t shirt’. I’d rather be sitting in Newquay, solving Newquay’s problems than sitting in a fancy glass building in London talking a load of rubbish about things that won’t happen.
BC: How will your new role differ from South West Tourism?
MB: It will be back working a lot more closely with the industry. Part of the challenges with the south west is that it is too diverse and large a region to actually have an identity. It covers a huge area, and as far east as Tewksbury, Stonehenge and Bournemouth. Most people view the south west as Devon and Cornwall, and maybe a bit of Somerset and Dorset.
There is an over obsession with regionalisation, which I’m increasingly not convinced of. And Cornwall is such a strong brand, but equally vulnerable because when you are the top people want
to knock you off, and it’s easy to become complacent and not develop the product.
But this is one of the premier brands in the UK. If I was being incredibly modest, I would say that Cornwall is one of the top three destinations in the UK. If I was being positive, I would say it’s the top one, but it never drops below the top three. Now we need to build that reputation in the overseas markets as well.
BC: How is Cornwall marketed and perceived abroad? I’ve heard criticism that it has not been marketed that strongly.
MB: It’s a problem with money really, but it’s good to diversify your market base. Like the Brits will go the mountains because we haven’t got them, we have such a spectacular coast; I reckon there’s
plenty in central Europe, in the German markets and some of the emerging markets as well, that it would appeal to.
We’ll be a European niche market with our coast, but we can build it. In as far as the British tourist is concerned, if you are in a tourist destination where there are overseas visitors, it reinforces your belief that that is a top destination. If you go somewhere there are only Brits, there’s a tendency to feel this is the best that Britain can do, but not really up there punching it with the rest.
BC: What are overseas visitor numbers like?
MB: It’s about 4% or 5%.
BC: Geography must be a problem?
MB: It is, but we’ve got the airport which is a great thing. We forget, a lot of Europeans don’t like driving much in this country and not just because it’s on the wrong side of the road, but also because we do have some very congested roads in this country.
BC: And how important is it the airport expands, because there aren’t many flights coming in from Europe?
MB: No, but I think these days people are getting more used to multi-plane route travel. There are a lot more routes and that is part of the issue we have to explain. With Air Southwest and FlyBe, for example, if you can get to Charles de Gaulle, you can get to Exeter and then down here. Or if you can get to Manchester, you can then fly down to Newquay, and so on.
I would love to see more direct flights come in, but the cruelty of commercial arithmetic comes in. But we should play up that we have quite a good connecting system, albeit with different airlines.
BC: What’s Cornwall’s USP?
MB: Two things. The quality of life and the quality of the environment. Businesses that have moved down here buy into the concept, a bit like the Victor Kiam advert, I liked it so much I bought the company. On the inward investment side, the message is if you can’t bring your business down here, come down as soon as possible on holiday to enjoy what we enjoy, respect what we respect.
My view with tourist development is that you cannot have tourist development that alienates the host population. I remember the 1970s and a lot of people came here with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, because they wanted to go to Torremolinos but couldn’t afford it. Ironically they probably go to Torremolinos now because they can’t afford Cornwall!
There has been such a transformation in British tourism. You look at some of the accommodation now. In my youth, people tended to trade down and compromised to go on holiday, but now the standard of hotels, and particularly the cottages, people are living a dream. They’ll pay for that. People tend to compromise more when paying for the sun abroad.
A wonderful Cornish farmer said to me: ‘boy, I don’t understand this bloody tourism. When I was younger when we finished with a mattress we put it in the holiday cottage. Now I’ve got to wait for them to finish with it before I get a new mattress’! And there is a bit of truth in that. There is some staggering quality now.
In a business sense, if you’re going to compete purely on price for a commodity product, then you can only operate in a low cost-base country. But Britain, Cornwall, is not a low-cost base area. So you have to compete on distinctiveness and quality.
BC: Where does the image of Newquay fit in with all this?
MB: In tourism terms I think of Newquay as two sides of the same coin. Sometimes we tend to think people who go to Newquay don’t go anywhere else. But the issue for Newquay and Cornwall, is you cannot separate them. When people are down staying in nice hotels and cottages, they will go into Newquay. It has its market, it’s like living in a suburb and going into a city centre for that vibrant urban experience.
The challenge for Newquay is how you manage the ‘night economy’. But that isn’t just a Newquay problem, there’s as much going on in Newquay as you will find in Cheltenham, or Oxford. Forget the Manchesters and Birminghams, it’s going on in the Cheltenhams and Oxfords too. And they are actually putting plans in there to manage it. And being somewhere that is able to manage what we call a celebration market, well, is a good thing. Because otherwise what are we saying? We don’t want that business? Because that would weaken the Cornwall product.
And I would like to think people who might not have come here with their parents, come down here after their A levels, after their degree, to give us the chance to give them a good feeling about the place, so later on when they have children they start coming back to Cornwall. You have to look at the ‘through time value’ to Cornwall. Newquay’s got issues, but they’re all fixable because the base product is superb.
BC: What’s your view on second homes and the proposed tax changes?
MB: I have to say, boy is this the biggest example of law of unintended consequences. It’s being trailed as ‘this will teach the second home owners a lesson’, but in reality there will be a big economic impact. At the moment, for someone to get those (tax) benefits, they have to trade as a business, they have to let for at least ten weeks. And if you take the average cottage, it’s probably got about £1.5k of spend a week.
So you’re taking a lot of money out of the rest of the Cornish economy. Only about half the money goes on travel and accommodation and the other half goes on everything else, food etc. So rather than tackling second homes, it is more likely to encourage people not to let, which is worse. If people have a second home, I want them to let it for the economic benefit of Cornwall, not be
discouraged from letting it and keeping it for their private use. There is an issue of affordable housing in Cornwall, but the cottage and the rented second home market is a very important part of the tourist economy.
BC: It’s a tricky balancing act isn’t it? On the other hand, second homes are being blamed for the closures of schools, shops, whole communities out of season.
MB: There are some challenges in planning. We should encourage more complexes with bespoke accommodation for people to buy into, like managed lets. Going back to Victor Kiam, these are people who like Cornwall so much they want to buy into it. But we need to be creative in terms of how we do that. We don’t want to be the Algarve, you have to get the balance right, but there needs to be an offering to stop people just buying into the general housing stock. But as a Government thing, it will do nothing to deter second homes, it will just deter people from renting them out to the holiday market.
BC: How has the development of new tourist accommodation coming onto the market been affected by the recession?
MB: A bit early to say. The Scarlett, Cornwall Spa etc, in a way they were pipeline momentum things. I think what we will see is a tapering off, but hopefully not for too long. Partly because of credit squeezing and partly because of a nervousness of what is happening generally. And then there’s the public spending cuts, so people are a bit cautious.
We’ve done well out of the weak pound – it is expensive to go abroad, but on the other hand the three bad summers haven’t encouraged much either.
BC: How reliant is Cornwall on the weather?
MB: Probably for 44 weeks of the year, not so much. It’s just nice to have. But for the six to eight weeks of the main summer, when families come down in the school holidays, people want to be sitting on the beach. They will make the best of it and have a good time in the rain, but the truth of the matter is that it makes it harder to come back again next year.
BC: The long-range weather forecast was quite encouraging last year.
MB: And that’s part of the problem. The dear old Met Office, I just hope they keep their mouths shut! And I’ll really get mad if they say this year is going to be a poor summer. They should just say it’s too variable, we can’t give a forecast. They gave a very clear impression last year – barbeque summer! Although it started well, but as soon as the schools broke up…and summer for most people is the school holidays.
BC: What does tourism contribute to the Cornish GDP at the moment?
MB: About 25%. And that’s about right. You want to balance your economy out, but I do get frustrated when people say we don’t want tourism anymore. For God’s sake, it’s one of the biggest strengths we’ve got. Everybody else is piling into tourism. Yorkshire is spending £12 million, and it’s not because they’re stupid, they see the value of tourism. If we go around not willing to support tourism, we could end up feeling pretty sick when other things don’t come off. By all means concentrate on the other 75%, but not at the expense of tourism.
BC: Many hotels appear to be closing regularly, are they the hardest hit at the moment?
MB: I think B&Bs have been hit the hardest. There’s been a polarisation in the hotel market –selling on price and selling on service. Also now, there’s the self catering market, with people who prefer the privacy.
And in the last ten years, there’s been a great renaissance in Cornwall of the food and drink sector. Previously people renting a cottage would stay in and cook every night, but now they don’t need to because there’s so much choice on eating out. People no longer think they have to go to a hotel to eat out every night. It’s part of the overall package of quality of life and quality of environment. If you had quality of life and quality of environment but the food was crap, you would turn off a lot of people from coming back.
But there is now some indication from research of a worrying trend of too much London prices. Don’t take the Michael.
People like quality and will pay for exceptional quality, but will not pay high prices for just ‘good’ food. And now you get the likes of Marks & Spencer £10 meal deals, which can match the quality of many catering outlets, and people think why am I paying £45 for this? And this is where service comes in. You have got to make it an experience. Quality of food should be taken as read, it’s the experience that makes a difference. If the food was ‘good’, but the service and atmosphere was a bit flat, that’s when the £10 v £45 comes into it.
BC: Any predictions for forthcoming season?
MB: I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m not saying it’s going to be a fantastic season, but I think it will be a good season. Reasons to be positive? First off, the exchange rate. Although it is a bit worrying that the main positive is something we don’t have control of.
Number 2, airlines like Ryan Air and Easy Jet have taken something like two million seats out of the UK. Low cost operators are starting to move to central Europe. And number three, despite these levels of uncertainty, we have a strong range of quality at the right price. Holiday parks are very strong, self catering is very strong. We have a good range to meet all budget and taste requirements.
The main negatives are the World Cup and General Election. World Cup, because people tend to stay home to watch it. General Election, because it tends to act as a distraction and people worry what’s going to come out of it. But what we must avoid is reckless discounting. We’ve been there before, where Mrs Wiggins is £20 a night, I’ll do £18.50, then she does £17 and so on. What people have got to look at is perceived value to make a package more attractive, and generally the industry is very good at this.
There are more reasons to be positive than negative, but let’s not get distracted by reckless discounting.