Another of those quiz questions: What contributes a staggering £97bn to the British economy each year, is enjoyed by millions of us at some time or other, and resembles a bowl of fruit?
Answer: tourism in England.
OK, the bowl of fruit bit is rather obscure, but that’s how James Berresford, chief executive of VisitEngland, sees the role of his organisation.
But, under his allegory, VisitEngland is only the bowl. The fruits it contains are the important part: the Lake District, London, Cornwall, the Cotswolds and, increasingly, Shropshire.
VisitEngland is, in effect, the tourist board for England, and its main task is to sell the nation to the people who live here, and, to a lesser extent to visitors from overseas, which is the principal job of sister organisation VisitBritain.
Both organisations’ headquarters are situated near Buckingham Palace and, ironically, share their accommodation with the Department for International Affairs, which spends lots of our cash overseas.
The organisation is pretty slim in government agency, taxpayer-funded terms. Its budget is £8m a year, and the staff list contains 54 names. Compare that with the £60m handed out by the Edinburgh government each year to VisitScotland, although VisitScotland does finance tourist information centres north of the border. Centres in England are funded by a mix of local authorities and the private sector.
Along with most other organisations paid for by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, VisitEngland’s budget has been squeezed hard.
“I am absolutely not bleating about that because our modus operandi is to work with local partnerships at a destination level and a national level to match the money we get pound for pound with the private sector,” said Mr Berresford. “At a national level, I like to describe our role as a bowl of fruit. We hold the bowl up to the consumer and say ‘try this piece of fruit’.
“The piece of fruit might be the Cotswolds, it might be Shropshire, the Lake District, Bath or Bristol, but our role is to provide that platform, the bowl that actually presents it to the consumer.
“The role of the destinations is to make the pieces of fruit as shiny, as tasty, as appealing as possible,” said Mr Berresford.
Following the axeing of regional development authorities by the Coalition Government, VisitEngland works more and more with private-sector websites and holiday companies to show off the huge number of places and areas people can head for. It might then provide a high-visibility national campaign about, for example, the countryside or city breaks, and direct would-be visitors to specific websites.
“Localism works for tourism,” said the tourism chief. Instead of being constrained by RDA boundaries, management organisations should grow around special destinations and “follow the natural pattern of the visitor”.
He continued: “In Shropshire, for instance, Ironbridge is a destination within a destination. But Ironbridge clearly works with other destinations and other attractions in an area greater than the Ironbridge footprint, such as Ludlow, Shrewsbury, Wales, the Potteries.
“We absolutely encourage that. People want to retain as much tourism business as possible in any given area. I fully understand that, but we should not do that at the expense of trying to cut across the natural desire lines of tourists.”
Mr Berresford insisted that VisitEngland does not come blind to its campaigns. It carries out a great deal of research into consumer satisfaction, what people like and don’t like about places they visit.
“One countryside destination might score more heavily than another. Why is that? We will help and work with our destinations to say ‘Actually, you’re not performing in this area, you need to do x, y and z; or, the market wants this; you have got it but you’re not telling people about it.
In Shropshire, for instance, Ironbridge is a destination within a destination. But Ironbridge clearly works with other destinations and other attractions in an area greater than the Ironbridge footprint, such as Ludlow, Shrewsbury, Wales, the Potteries.
“We can encourage and share best practice with our destinations, but when it comes down to it, the promise of any marketing campaign can only be delivered by the destination. If people have a bad time, they will not come back.
“Ironbridge is a great example of the way it is managed as a destination: improving the product; improving the customer care; improving the catering.
“Places like Shrewsbury have a similar approach, but it’s more difficult because you don’t have control over the whole shooting match.
“Shrewsbury, for example, is a microcosm of a destination. The parking needs to be right, the signing needs to be right, the loos need to be clean, the pubs need to provide good, locally sourced food, the hotels need to be comfortable, clean, well priced.
“It’s so many things that make up the customer promise. You can stay in a wonderful hotel, shop in a lovely antique shop, and then you might have to go into a pub where the service is terrible, the beer’s awful and the food is just heated up seconds. And what do you remember?”
Mr Berresford said the modern consumer was very demanding, but he stressed that tourism in England had improved dramatically in recent years.
“We now have good gastropubs, good restaurants, good bed and breakfast. I am not talking about high-end stuff necessarily, I am talking about good value for money, delivered with style, panache and distinction.
“We do that well. Fifteen or 20 years ago, we did not do it so well.”
He pointed to Ludlow which has taken forward the food revolution and become a “food destination”.
“That’s exactly what we want to see in England: more destinations grasping their uniqueness. Shropshire has a good feel to it, but has it really understood its differentiating factors? I don’t know.
“I talked about the bowl of fruit, but if I were just selling apples, my job wouldn’t be good because once you’ve had an apple, you’ve had an apple. We want pineapples, we want pears, plums and oranges.
“Once people have tasted a bit of fruit and had a good time, they want to go somewhere else that’s different – that’s the potential in Shropshire. It feels different, and it can be even more different.”
Mr Berresford describes the Olympics and Paralympics as “the best advertisement ever for Britain”, and he wants people up and down the land to follow the example of the Games Ambassadors by becoming ambassadors for their own areas, to be encouraged to know what’s in their own back yard.
“The Games have broken a mould in this country. We have a persona overseas of being a little cold and a little detached, but actually we have proved we can do the welcome pretty well.
“We are knowledgeable, but we just need to be more knowledgeable and more confident about our own tourist projects.
“That whole ambassadorial role is a massive untapped resource. Just imagine if everyone in Shropshire could speak knowledgeably about things in Shropshire.
“You would be amazed at people’s lack of awareness. We Britons don’t know enough about our country. If you asked the average person where The Wrekin was, only one in 10 would put it in the right place, and that’s being generous. We don’t know enough about the jewels in our crown.”
Although the Olympics have left a potentially lucrative legacy for tourism and sense of national pride, Mr Berresford warned: “What we don’t want to do, as other countries have done, is just assume that the job is done, and say ‘the world watched us on TV, therefore they will come’. That does not always happen. You have got to follow it up with campaigns.”
With the Olympics dominating the diary, the tourism chief enjoyed a short break with his family in the Lake District this year, and acknowledges that England cannot compete if holidaymakers just want the searing summer heat of the Mediterranean and beyond.
“We are seeing increasing growth in ‘long’ short breaks. Hard-pressed business people cannot always go away for two weeks. They’d love to, but they can’t. They can have a relaxing, easy break in this country.
“Four or five days is what I did this year, and had a brilliant and refreshing break in the Lake District. “Next time, Shropshire,” he added with a smile.
And what of the government’s role in promoting and supporting such an important industry?
Mr Berresford is phlegmatic about the loss of tourism minister John Penrose in David Cameron’s September reshuffle, pointing out that Sports Minister Hugh Robertson, who now takes on tourism, is a higher ranking Minister of State.
He singled out the £19m-plus from the Regional Growth Fund to be spent on tourism, and added: “As long as tourism is taken serious across government, I’m happy. It’s not just about money, it’s about effort and time and support behind it.”
The Prime Minister has stressed that tourism should be a major factor when policies and strategies are being worked out in departments beyond Culture, Media and Sport – in Transport and Business, for example.
Mr Berresford does not have a car and so he uses the railways a great deal, but he worries that public transport projects are not always fully planned ahead.
“The current government mantra is ‘jobs and growth’. Which other industry at this time can offer the jobs and growth that tourism can? And jobs for young people. I’m not going to pretend that all tourism jobs are paid at the same levels as neuro-surgeons or physicists. They are not, but there are many entry-level jobs, great career progression, and there are jobs out there in all parts of the country, not just London.
“Tourism has got to prove itself, and it’s got to start providing the jobs and make its case to government.
“I think it does that well, but it’s a difficult industry to throw your hat on. It’s not like car manufacturing where you put technology and metal in one end, and out comes a car.
“Tourism is a bit of a shop, it’s a bit of transport, it’s a bit of a tourist attraction, it’s a bit of a conference venue. It’s a whole range of things and so it’s quite difficult to say what actually is tourism,” said Mr Berresford.
Not that difficult. Tourism is, in fact, a bowl of fruit. And, whether you are an apple, a pear or a pineapple, you have got to be shiny, tasty and appealing.