The Big Interview: Joss Croft
Joss Croft is the new CEO at travel trade association UKinbound. Martin Fullard spoke to him at the association’s annual conference in Glasgow.
UKinbound’s primary focus is the wider tourism industry as a whole, but as we know, leisure and business tourism are both intrinsically linked. In order to remain competitive, both branches of the industry need to work together.
With uncertain times ahead, the best way the UK can keep its rivals in check is to offer visitors the best experience possible. Joss Croft certainly has a lot on his plate. As if Brexit wasn’t enough, the spectre of tourism taxes in Scotland provides another hurdle to overcome. Croft, a tall, imposing figure, certainly seems like the right man for the job.
How is the mood among your members?
Generally, the mood is good. We’ve just published the results of our business barometer, which we do every quarter, and we’ve seen confidence grow from a record low of 40% to a much healthier 60%.
We’re seeing some markets perform very well, notably the US market [for inbound tourism to the UK], we have a strong economy, and no elections are planned this year – which can impact. The US market is for regions the most important market, particularly in Scotland: it’s the most important in terms of spend and third most important in terms of numbers.
The long-haul market in general is positive, mainly the US and China, because Brexit doesn’t matter, not just the impact, but because a lot of people from those destinations don’t even know about it.
Among the European market there is indeed some concern. Bookings are holding up at the moment, but post-29 March people are certainly worried.
Is the face of the tourism industry as we know it about to undergo a huge change?
Tourism taxation, such as the one currently being discussed in Edinburgh, will bring about a fundamental change because it’s not how the industry operates at the moment. The UK is already one of the most heavily tourist taxed destinations in the world, only Denmark has a higher rate of VAT on accommodation than the UK within the EU. But even in Denmark tourists don’t suffer the air duty that UK tourists do.
Any type of taxation will be bad news in many ways. It makes us less competitive, potential visitors have choices on where they go so we can’t rest on our laurels. We could price ourselves out, not to mention the burden it would place on the existing infrastructure.
We would like to encourage the Scottish government not to proceed with this. However it does provide an opportunity on how the money raised is spent: tourists are an easy target, they don’t vote locally for example.
A level playing field would have to be ensured as certain parts of the accommodation sector, the so-called sharing economy, don’t have to register or comply with health and safety, so they wouldn’t be paying the tax, and would undermine registered providers.
That will put us at a disadvantage, surely?
We’ve already seen from WTCC a competitiveness study and the UK is 135thout of 136 on price competitiveness. Thank goodness we’re still such an attractive destination to the rest of the world. Record numbers are coming, and we have a superb brand. But yes, it’s going to be tough for a while.
What does the UK do well: where are our strengths and what brings people here?
A lot of visitors to the UK come for the heritage and culture: no one does heritage and culture quite like us. On the nation’s Brand Index the UK is very strong in this area. A lot of people don’t recognise the fantastic countryside we have, so that’s an area that can be pushed.
A lot of visitors are also very fond of our modern culture: the Spanish and Italians love our edgy city culture in places like Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester. For the US market then the top attraction is obviously the Royal Family.
On Brexit, are you satisfied the government is listening to you about the importance of this sector?
I think they have heard loud and clear on several areas, the areas that we were really concerned about, such as open skies and visa-free access for EU nationals. We have had some quite significant assurances, but there’s more to be done in getting that message out there.
One of the biggest concerns we have is around the immigration White Paper that says those earning under £30,000 will not be allowed to work in the UK. A lot of the tourism industry isn’t paid £30,000, and we rely on a lot of EU nationals to do some of the jobs, which they do fantastically.
It threatens to become a real barrier. Up here in Scotland [the location of the UKinbound annual convention] for example the industry is going to need another 150,000 workers by 2027, and we’re not sure where they are going to come from with the skills that we need. We will need people with language skills, mainly in French and German, and of course Chinese. We could get them, but it won’t happen overnight.
What is your message to service providers for the next few months?
It’s obviously very difficult because we have this lack of clarity. As the UK tries to negotiate a deal with EU it is withholding some key information. We’re trying to fill that gap as best we can and to try and update our members as regularly as we can with any changes. We recently updated our members on the use of identity cards, which is of huge importance for school groups coming to the UK – where school children from EU don’t have passports. If we force them to carry passports then potentially they won’t come to the UK anymore.
We sit on various industry groups and speak to government at the highest level, and we’re working with other industry associations to force the point that people really need the certainty.
It’s difficult for a single business to influence government policy, so what we’re telling them is that they need to service their guests in the best way possible and are given the best welcome they can possible offer, and continue to undertake the proactive marketing to try and secure business for the future. There are things that people don’t know about the moment, the progress on Brexit, so this is all they can do.