Barely two months have passed since I sat in the University of Birmingham’s Great Hall, celebrating the very best of the West Midlands’ visitor economy at the sector’s Regional Tourism Awards ceremony.
That night, we championed a vibrant industry, which accounts for one in every 10 jobs in the West Midlands and 7% of England’s total visitor expenditure.
When thinking back to that February evening, it seems remarkable just how much the world has changed in such a short amount of time.
Since becoming the West Midlands Growth Company in 2017, one of our goals is to encourage tourism and build on the great potential of our visitor economy.
It is clear to us all that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a major challenge for the region’s tourism ambitions and serious trauma to our businesses. The curtain of coronavirus has fallen at a time when many approached the year with optimism, with some posting record-breaking early figures.
Indeed, on a national scale, VisitBritain had forecast inbound tourism to grow by 2.9% to 39.7 million visits. Regionally, the West Midlands attracted more than 131 million visits in 2018.
When we became aware of the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was all hands on deck to support our tourism industry – the sector hit first and hardest by the impact of the virus.
Together with our partners across the West Midlands, we have kept in close contact with the region’s tourism firms throughout this period to ensure the voices of this sector are heard.
We have instigated a series of surveys to assess the business impact of coronavirus. This information has been critical in informing regional and national decision makers – right up to central government – about specific challenges in the West Midlands. We continue to ensure that our sector’s issues are raised at the very highest level.
In the face of understandable adversity, one striking aspect of our recent surveys are the successful adaptations to different business models, as we adjust to the global health emergency.
I have witnessed the spirit and resilience of a sector that continues to make its mark and pull together.
We have promoted the fantastic innovation of these firms, who have maximised their online presence to retain customer loyalty. Within days of our ‘At Home in the West Midlands’ section going live on our visitor-facing websites, we saw the flexibility, ingenuity and speed of these businesses in providing new digital ideas. From Wolverhampton Art Gallery’s virtual tours to the Michelin-starred ‘Peel’s to the People’ delivery service, our tourism organisations are ensuring that residents and visitors can continue to enjoy and experience the region.
As government funding streams have become available for tourism firms during this period, we have highlighted where to access grants and loans. We welcome the latest Treasury extension to the job retention scheme until October, but it remains crucial that our region’s tourism businesses receive sustained support while we cautiously ease out of lockdown.
This industry will play a fundamental role in the West Midlands’ economic recovery, and in the restoration of our residents’ own wellbeing, once family and friends have the opportunity to meet up again.
While the West Midlands’ visitor economy sector collectively holds its breath for the world to re-open, the coming months present an opportunity to make the most of what is on our doorstep and to enjoy our local venues and businesses.
Nearly 60% of tourism firms that we have spoken to state that, once conditions are right, they could be back in business within a week. Let us collectively help to make this figure higher by supporting them as we pick up momentum ahead of a defining period in the West Midlands.
In this region, more than most, we have so much to be excited about. New hotel and leisure developments continue to take shape. Major capital projects such as construction of the West Midlands’ new HS2 stations will pick up speed.
Next year’s City of Culture celebrations in Coventry and the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games will also provide a valuable platform to get the region – and the UK – back on its feet.
As we build towards a post-COVID 19 landscape and prepare to deliver more amazing experiences for our visitors, I look forward to toasting the sector’s stars again, with our Regional Tourism Awards winners competing – virtually – for national honours later this summer.