René Dee is CEO of one of the country’s most dynamic groups of venues, The Westminster Collection. In the first of a series of articles, he argues that venue collectives have largely replaced government and council backed organisations in terms of meaningful communications to customers and the generation of business opportunities.
'The theme of this article is how venue collectives like ours have progressively had to fill what has become an increasingly wide gap between the historical and perceived role of support organisations, such as Visit London, and the reality of their role in today’s environment. It is a gap that stems from the continuing lack of empathy that government, and even regional and local public organisations have had - and by and large continue to have - in respect of business tourism.
When The Westminster Collection first came into being in 2003, it was partly as a response to what many of the capital’s venues had come to see as fundamental deficiencies in the activities of government and local ‘leisure and tourism’ support organisations. The perception was that they were primary business generators to their partners: the reality was rather different. The major area of concern was, naturally enough, Visit London.
Of course, Visit London has gone now: its successor London & Partners is progressing under an interim chairman, board, and CEO as consultation takes place as to its ultimate form and focus, but not with us. It is difficult to see any radical re-focusing of strategy - and therefore resource - that will provide more help to the venues sector and its customers: for starters, the overall funding available is almost certainly going to be even less than the insufficient funding that Visit London was given before it went into Administration. However, it still seems intent on continuing a partnership scheme that will charge its partner/members and, therefore, compete with the private sector collectives and organisations.
From the early 1990’s, I was involved with Visit London, both as a client and as a member of a number of advisory committees. Then, and for many years afterwards, the assumption on the part of the venues sector was that Visit London would be the primary agency for generating leads and business to its members. But, in truth, apart from a select few, it has never fully achieved that. It fairly quickly became clear that the organisation was too broadly targeted on the leisure market, and even in those days, too under-resourced to provide real, practical help to the great majority of venues in London, even those it had partnership agreements with.
It all stemmed from an almost wilful reluctance to understand the value of business tourism and to give it the weight that it deserves and needs. In my view, the ‘authorities’ have never had, or attempted to achieve, a properly quantified understanding of its true significance as a critical income stream, both locally and nationally. They knew a lot about yardsticks such as bed nights, but beyond that it's been as though they were thinking 'Business tourism does OK, so let’s leave them to get on with it … in any case, if we concentrate on leisure tourism, that will bring in the business tourism with it.'
That attitude, which still prevails in some critical areas even today, was and is clearly bad for the venues, especially those that are paying membership fees for the privilege. Business customers aren’t leisure tourists: their needs are very different.
That’s why the collectives, and there are now 5 in London, as well as a number of other prominent private sector marketing associations and organisations have now effectively superseded the formal authorities as the motive force in generating venue business and communicating with the business tourism buyer. There are venues – the very largest and most prominent ones, of course – who have benefited, and will continue to benefit, from the central activity. But medium sized and smaller venues have pretty much had to look after themselves for several years, or pay through the nose to get the crumbs from the table. The Westminster Collection, for example, has evolved in a relatively short space of time to become a comprehensive business engine for its members: promoting, developing tangible business leads, forming a significant bridge between them and potential customers. Without any meaningful central support activity, we will have to work even harder at that in future: only those collectives who do so will prosper rather than fall away.
You do see positive signs from time to time that the authorities are developing a more enlightened attitude. After all, at national level we now have a Minister for Tourism! And when the Westminster Collection recently celebrated its 50th member, Westminster Council’s cabinet member for business enterprise and skills agreed to attend: indeed he complimented the Westminster Collection on its achievement in making the Council much more aware of the size, scope and significance of the business tourism sector.
That’s progress, but in general it has taken politicians far too long to achieve that understanding - and there is still a long way to go. Venue collectives must fight for their members and their customers: no-one else will.'