Head of Visit Isle of Man, Angela Byrne, reflects on the events of 2020; what the Visit Agency has learnt over the year and what plans are in the pipeline for 2021 and beyond...

1. 2020 has obviously been a difficult year for the travel and tourism industry - as we approach year end, what are your thoughts as we look back over the year?

I recall the start of the year being a very optimistic one. In February, we launched our 2020-2023 strategy and hosted one of our most attended Industry Days, with feedback from the sector being that bookings for 2020 were the best they had ever been.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and everything changed. By the 27th March, our borders were closed, we were in a national lockdown and everything we and industry were working towards was put on ‘hold’- and no one knew for how long. We all went into survival mode, and the Agency and wider Government had to react quickly to ensure we were prepared and ready to support businesses and protect our economy. In these first few weeks, my priority was to secure emergency funding for the sector and since March, we have secured over £19 million worth of funding for our industry. Although we have sadly had some casualties along the way, we have also seen many local businesses and individuals in the sector resiliently rise up to the challenges faced. Many have adapted, evolved and helped the wider community; with numerous accommodation providers offering beds for those requiring to self-isolate and key workers.

During the Island-wide lockdown, the Visit Agency held weekly virtual Board meetings with our members, in which the Strategic Capacity Scheme, a vital lifeline of financial support, was born. Towards the end of lockdown, we then commenced work on a recovery plan, working with the Board and wider industry to ensure we had a strong financial business support framework in place to continue to protect industry moving forward. We are now at Round Three of the Strategic Capacity Scheme and have also collaborated with other areas of Government to ensure our industry are eligible for alternative forms of support, such as the Salary Support Scheme, Coronavirus Business Support Scheme and Financial Assistance Scheme.

The 'staycation' concept also emerged from the recovery plan process. Myself, the wider Agency and industry are delighted at how successful the campaign has been. The Agency initially launched the campaign to run through the summer period, however due to uptake and the positive feedback received from residents (and accommodation providers) we have continued it through autumn, and now winter. This campaign has supported a variety of businesses in the sector, and it has without a doubt helped create local ambassadors, as Islanders have rediscovered what is on their doorstep. Something I also believe will help stimulate growth in the Visiting Friends and Relatives (VFR) market in the future.

 2. How has the Agency made in-roads throughout 2020 following the outbreak of COVID-19?

This year has highlighted the importance of engagement with our industry. We’ve never engaged as much with our sectors as we have done this year, and this will continue into 2021 and beyond. However, we do recognise that we can always do this better and that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach, we launched an engagement survey in November with on-Island trade which will determine how we progress this. 

The Agency has also hosted a number of industry forums over the last several months to ensure we are regularly engaging with a cross section of industry. The majority of these have been face to face, and included our industry ‘coffee and cake’ drop in sessions and a joint event with the Department for Enterprise’s Enterprise Support team, focusing on the support schemes available to our sectors. 

The last few months have also identified opportunities for improvement with our communications and training, and in 2021 we will be upping our virtual training and development programme, covering a range of topics industry have asked for, including marketing and business skills such as revenue management and driving profit. We will of course continue to offer training and development programmes in person as we appreciate that the virtual method isn’t suitable for all. In the latter part of this year we reinstated our face to face ‘drop in sessions’ with industry across the Island. Following the sessions’ success, we will be continuing with these quarterly throughout 2021 and will ensure we provide plenty of notice regarding the schedule. 

Last month we also launched our ‘Safe, Clean & Legal™ COVID-19' accreditation scheme in conjunction with tourism and hospitality quality assessment provider; Quality in Tourism (QiT). This is a free scheme that will assess properties on cleaning protocols and public safety measures; areas that will be so important to consumers moving forwards. QiT will also be delivering a series of complimentary training and educational webinars for industry over the coming months.

Although our biggest priority this year has been supporting industry, it has been a circuit breaker too, and has given us valuable time to reflect and commission a number of key pieces of work to help identify gaps in the market, and understand consumer changes when considering holiday destinations moving forward. This has included a substantive piece of ‘Visitor Insights’ research covering the UK and Ireland; a product audit of the Isle of Man’s visitor propositions; the on-Island trade survey and in the New Year, a resident survey, focusing on the staycation market, as well as the Island’s product offering. Many of these projects were all significant elements of the Agency’s 2020—2023 strategic plan, so we have been able to bring these forward and go into the New Year (and new world) with not just a renewed focus, but one that will take into consideration the changes in consumer behaviours.  Alongside the recently commissioned work, the Agency continues to also work with Hotel Solutions to understand the accommodation offering and its suitability for our ambitious growth targets and potential new markets. The actions outstanding from the work commissioned prior to the new strategy remain a priority for the Agency as we look to deliver a visitor proposition which meets visitor expectations. Our Visitor First Committee, a cross Government initiative which commenced during lockdown, is also underway and further details will be laid out in the New Year with a chance for our industry to feed in.

3. Can you tell us what plans the Agency are developing for 2021 and beyond and what are the Agency’s promotion/marketing plans for when the borders do reopen? 

Our research and audit work will be coming to fruition towards the end of 2020 and this will drive our strategic focus both in the short to medium, and long term and more details will be communicated to industry in early 2021. We also still have ambitious targets for 2030; our product audit will enable us to focus our efforts on the most attractive propositions the Island has to offer visitors, as we look to our 10 year growth strategy. We hope our visitor insights work will also provide us with clear information for short term wins, as we move forward.

We are maximising the time we have available in this interim period, to ensure that when we do reopen, we are in the strongest possible position, especially given we will be in a competitive market place.

The Agency is preparing to go to market with an extensive marketing campaign when the time is right. Although we may not be in a position to promote a ‘book now’ message, we can ensure that we remain front of mind and a close to home ‘option’ for visitors ahead of reopening the borders.  The results of the visitor insight work, and the campaign overview will be distributed and communicated to industry early next year.

Our key information point for industry remains the Visit Isle of Man trade website – and we will be relaunching this in the New Year in an attempt to more effectively meet the requirements of our partners, following feedback from the trade engagement survey. This will include a greater focus on transparency and regular strategy and marketing updates.

As previously mentioned, the Visiting Friends and Relatives (VFR) market will be a vital element of our recovery, as will the higher yielding / specialist group market, and the Agency team have been working very closely with travel trade partners over the last few months, to ensure we have the right routes to market in place to reach new and existing markets effectively. Leveraging these important partnerships will also enable us to both capitalise on their ability to promote the ‘book with confidence’ message and ‘package up’ travel, accommodation and products into targeted offerings for both existing and new target markets. 

Events form a key pillar within the revised 2020-2023 Visit Isle of Man Strategy, and post-COVID, will play a key part in increasing visitor growth during 2021 and beyond.  With the cancellation of the 2021 TT, the Agency now has even more impetus to develop our events calendar to reach new markets, but to also extend it beyond the traditional tourism season. 

4. Are there any new markets or areas that the Agency will be entering in 2021 and beyond?

For 2021 and possibly 2022, we will remain focused on the UK and Ireland staycation markets. Pre-COVID we were investigating reaching into the wider German-speaking European (DACH) markets, and leveraging opportunities more globally, for example the American markets, and this will continue to form a large part of our 10 year strategy.

In the short term we recognise that our ‘quick wins’ will be our more traditional markets; focusing on repeat visitors, VFR, and those with more time and resources for holidays and short term breaks, such as retired couples, traditional travellers and ‘empty nesters’.

Our recent insights work also highlighted new markets; strong evidence suggested the Isle of Man is desirable to a younger demographic who are looking for new experiences and adventures closer to home in light of COVID-19. We recognise that there are increased barriers to reaching this market and it may take some time, so we intend to investigate this further and identify ways to tackle this. 

The main travel hubs across the UK and Ireland were a focus for our marketing and promotional campaigns, and once things start to return to normal and air and sea routes reinstate, we will pick this up again. We have also seen an increase in the diversity of travel origins over the recent years and our research proves this is still the case, so we will ensure our marketing campaigns focus on these areas of opportunities also. 

Our insights work also highlighted that the Irish market presents a great opportunity for us, however moving forward we need to understand how this can be effectively maximised, which will require work on air and sea routes, and a renewed focus on targeted marketing to this market. 

The Guernsey Airbridge also highlighted a new market for us – something that was very unexpected. The feedback we received from Guernsey visitors was extremely positive, with many rebooking trips throughout the period the bridge was open. This has certainly opened many doors for us in the future (including an extension to the French market), and is something the Agency is very interested in exploring.

The Agency and I are truly optimistic for the Island’s future; although we will be in a more competitive market, I believe because of the extensive research, preparation and planning we have put into our relaunch and revised strategy ‘behind the scenes’, we will be in a very strong position to have our voice heard and to welcome our wonderful visitors back. 

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the businesses and individuals for working through these incredibly challenging times; it has been amazing to see so many adapt their offerings and business models as a result of the pandemic. There are many cases of businesses that have seen increased sales, and I don’t think I’ve seen the autumn and winter events calendars look so full – testament to our businesses’ resilience and ability to innovate, as well as residents who have embraced the ‘buy local’ message to support their local business community.