East Anglia: Tourism firms in positive mood, reveals annual Larking Gowen survey

Chris Scargill of Larking Gowen

Chris Scargill of Larking Gowen - Credit: Colin Finch

DESPITE last year’s dismal weather, a seemingly never-ending economic downturn and the attention-grabbing Olympics, the region’s tourism industry remains positive and strong.

That is the reassuring message from the results of this year’s Tourism Business Survey, produced by accountancy firm Larking Gowen and the Eastern Daily Press and the East Anglian Daily Times.

Now in its seventh year, the survey has been extended for the first time to cover Suffolk as well as Norfolk, with the results being revealed today during presentations held at the John Innes Centre in Norwich at Ickworth House, near Bury St Edmunds.

Although the industry suffered compared with previous years, the survey found turnover still increased for nearly two out of five of businesses (39%) in 2012, with slightly fewer (37%) reporting a fall.

Significantly, there remains optimism in the sector for the coming year with nearly half (42%) expecting to see a better financial result this season. However, that optimism is more widespread in Norfolk (51%) compared with Suffolk (32%).

Nearly three-quarters of tourism businesses (74%) are feeling positive about the future, a figure almost matching the previous year despite the washout summer.

Visit East Anglia chief executive Keith Brown said the confidence could be explained by the industry’s underlying strength.

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“One of the great attractions of Norfolk and Suffolk remains its geographic location and the range of options you have when you get here,” he said.

“As well as the traditional, there are quirky and edgy businesses here involved in activities which are attractive to a range of ages and types of people. And the local food, pub and restaurant scene is exciting and has a fabulous reputation talked about all over the country.”

Larking Gowen tourism partner Chris Scargill said the confidence was also reflected in continuing investment, despite the difficulties in accessing bank loans.

“Businesses recognise that despite customers wanting more competitive pricing, they are not willing to allow standards to slip in any way,” he said.

The survey shows that 36% of Norfolk and Suffolk businesses will increase the sum they spend on improving their offering, with 48% maintaining the same level of investment and only 16% cutting back.

The growing importance of websites is reflected in an increase in the percentage of web bookings, with 40% of respondents seeing an increase between 6% and 10% last year.

Alex Paul, general manager of holiday lets firm Suffolk Secrets, said that 75% of cottages had wi-fi, a reflection of customer needs, and he expected that to rise, perhaps to 90%, in the year ahead.

Other future changes look set to include better ways of digitally viewing properties on websites with 360 degree “walk-throughs”, said Mr Paul. Continued investment in properties was also vital to keep up with customer expectations of quality.

Mr Scargill said the survey also reflected the rising importance of social media, with 74% of businesses having increased their use of it in the past 12 months. Nearly 60% of businesses reported the benefit of social media to be between “average” and “significant”.

“It is a learning process,” he said. “Some businesses have still not found the trick to get it to work for them; despite actively participating they have not found a direct correlation to their business.”

In a generally gloomy economic time, the survey underlines the potential of the tourism sector to create employment for the future, reflecting the fact that one third of new UK jobs in 2012 were created by the hospitality industry.

Despite the disappointments of last summer, tourism businesses in Suffolk and Norfolk are predicting stable employment numbers for the coming year with 77% saying staffing levels are likely to remain unchanged, with 10% foreseeing an increase and 13% a cut.

Rob Whitwood, whose company Inspired Youth aims to to engage businesses and employers with schools and students in the East of England, said he was trying to inspire young people into the sector and encourage local employers to engage with those young people directly.

He said: “One of the very simple advantages of the tourism sector is that it covers the whole of the region and it is one of the few sectors that can do that. Almost every town or village has a pub, a bed and breakfast or some sort of tourism offer.”

Steve Thorpe, head of school at City College Norwich’s hotel school, added: “Individuals who are capable may well find themselves moving into positions of responsibility in their 20s where in other sectors they would not. There are opportunities to gain promotion, responsibility, skills and knowledge - lots of good transferable skills.”

Key concerns for the future highlighted by the survey were topped by the lower VAT rate in key European countries (89%) and cheaper European holidays in 2013 (85%). The greatest opportunities lay in the end of the recession (94%) and maintaining the “staycation” culture (93%).