Written evidence submitted by the Society of London Theatre/UK Theatre

 

DCMS Committee Inquiry: Promoting Britain Abroad

Submission from Society of London Theatre / UK Theatre

Overview

 

  1. The UK theatre industry has a global reputation for creative excellence and attracts visitors from across the world. Inbound tourism is therefore extremely important to theatres and performing arts venues across each of the four nations and the regions. The latest data from VisitBritain shows that one in ten (9%) of all visitors to Great Britain visited the theatre at least once during their stay, including 5% of visitors to Wales and 15% of visitors to London.[1] This was a higher percentage than for any other type of cultural or music event. The same research showed that attending the theatre was a key driver for why 15% of holidaymakers chose to visit the UK.

About SOLT / UK Theatre

 

  1. UK Theatre represents approximately 240 theatres, concert halls, dance companies, producers and arts centres throughout the UK. UK Theatre also operates as a professional association, supporting over 1,400 individuals working professionally in theatre and the performing arts in the UK

 

  1. Society of London Theatre (SOLT) represents approximately 230 London-based producers, theatre owners and managers, including all the major not-for-profit theatrical organisations in London and the theatres of London’s “West End.” SOLT is the producer of the Olivier Awards, Britain’s most prestigious theatre honours, celebrating the world-class status of London Theatre, 

 

  1. In 2018, the last year for which full figures from both organisations are available: 

 

 

What needs to be done to re-establish the UK as a holiday destination for international travellers? 

 

  1. The UK has historically had a very strong international tourist reputation and its cultural heritage and influence remains world-leading. It is vital that the Government does not rely on this pre-Covid (and pre-EU exit) reputation, however, and assume that inbound tourism will bounce back. Other cultural competitors, particularly the US, France, and other European countries, are investing heavily in promoting their tourism industry and boasting their cultural credentials. It is vital that the UK commits enough financially to be able to do the same.

 

  1. The Government’s decision to stop EU nationals from being able to use ID cards rather than passports to travel to the UK should be revisited given the advances in security that these cards have had since the Referendum and the fact that an estimated 75% of Europeans do not have a passport.

 

  1. Failure to properly promote the UK could inflict a further blow on the cultural and hospitality industries after an extremely difficult winter period. 2022 risks being a ‘perfect storm’ for hard-hit industries if Britons seek sunny overseas holidays while inbound tourism is slow to return. The Government must not view domestic restrictions as happening in isolation – they have a huge impact on both the sustainability of the tourist attractions which make the UK an appealing place to visit as well as the confidence with which inbound tourists will book.

 

What should Government and the tourism boards be doing to support the inbound tourism industry in its recovery? 

 

  1. It is vital that the Government provides full and proper funding for VisitBritain and other arms length tourism bodies to ensure that they can develop, fund, and implement long-term advertising campaigns to attract inbound tourism throughout 2022. The campaign launched by VisitBritain in January is reportedly currently only able to be funded until March 2022 – this is unacceptable. Businesses are developing their own advertising activity, but private activity can only do so much and there is limited financial resource available to fund large-scale projects following the impact of the last two years on the culture and hospitality industries.

 

  1. The Government should revisit its decision to prevent EU tourists from visiting the UK using their ID cards. The insistence that visitors from the European Union use their passport – the full impact of which we have yet to realise given that it only came into effect on 1st October 2021 – could be incredibly damaging to the UK’s inbound tourism market and to cultural institutions like theatres in particular given their popularity with large school groups and cultural exchanges. It is estimated that 75% of Europeans do not own a passport given that they can travel within the EU on an ID card alone. The impact of this cannot be understated given that Europe represents the second largest inbound tourism market for the UK, and eight of the top ten nations for inbound tourism are from the EU.[2]

 

 

What will the impact on the UK’s hospitality, cultural and heritage sectors be if inbound tourism is slow to recover to pre-pandemic levels?

 

  1. While inbound tourism does not make up the majority of audiences in UK theatres it does contribute a substantial amount to the industry – particularly in major cultural centres. In London, for example, 84% of overnight tourism spend came from international visitors in 2019.[3] Restrictions on overseas visitors, or a slow return to pre-pandemic levels of tourism, therefore directly impact the revenue of theatres in the West End and elsewhere and can have an indirect impact on related industries such as hospitality and overnight accommodation (and vice versa).

 

  1. There is serious concern amongst the industry that 2022 could present a ‘perfect storm’ as UK nationals seek to travel overseas for their holidays as international travel restrictions are relaxed while inbound tourism remains relatively muted. It is therefore vital that the UK steps up its advertising campaign to ensure that we remain competitive against major cultural destinations such as New York, Paris, and other major cities on both sides of the Atlantic. We would strongly urge the Government to recognise the importance of properly funding bodies such as VisitBritain, which has had its core budget cut by 35% in the last decade, to ensure that large-scale coordinated campaigns can be launched to attract visitors throughout 2022.

 

  1. The impact of a difficult year for theatre would go beyond the theatres themselves as productions inevitably involve a large number of companies and freelancers. For example, the London production of Everyone’s Talking About Jamie made payments to 73 different companies while the touring version interacted with 58 companies around the UK. According to DCMS figures, just over 70% of the workforce in 2020 were self-employed / freelancers. As such, when a show is forced to close, cut a run short, or cancel altogether the economic impact is felt by numerous businesses and individuals.

 

  1. In summary, the theatre industry in the UK, and particularly in London and other major cities, is reliant on a thriving and consistent inbound tourism industry. While theatre was able to benefit from Britons being restricted from travelling internationally in 2021, there is serious concern that the pent up demand for overseas holidays could impact on theatres in 2022 without adequate inbound tourism numbers to make up the difference. It is therefore vital that the Government and the tourist boards ensure they fund proactive, coordinated, and long-term campaigns to attract overseas visitors in 2022 and beyond.

Does the Tourism Recovery Plan go far enough to support the industry’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic?

 

  1. We welcome the Government outlining its Tourism Recovery Plan last year and the ambitious commitments it has set out. In particular we welcome their targets of recovering international (and domestic) visitor numbers and spend by the end of 2023 (and 2022); their ambition to increase tourism across the four nations of the UK; and their commitment to conserving the country’s cultural heritage while ensuring the tourism sector is inclusive and accessible to all visitors.

 

  1. The Plan must be made to work against the new Covid reality of re-introduced restrictions across the UK and the financial impact that this has had on theatres and other major cultural tourist attractions. The Government will need to ensure that they support these sectors to remain viable and competitive in the coming years. A coherent, comprehensive, and well-funding advertising campaign will also be vital to make sure that the UK is not left behind by major competitors.

 

What are the biggest challenges to delivering the plan?

  1. The plan was written and published at a time – June 2021 – when the broad assumption was that the UK was on its way out of the pandemic and moving towards “managing” the virus. As such, the sectors it is planning to help, including theatres and performing arts venues, are in different circumstances than in the summer of 2021 when restrictions were being lifted and organisations’ financial futures looked more secure.

 

  1. One of the main challenges to delivering the plan is ensuring that the culture and hospitality sectors remain viable and able to compete with overseas counterparts. For the 32 weeks of 2021 that theatres were allowed to reopen, attendance in London West End theatres was below 2019 figures for every week apart from seven and revenue for eight. For the last three weeks of December – i.e. corresponding with more caveated government guidance – revenue was down 31% and 52% on 2019 figures with attendance following a very similar trend. We welcome the funding that the Government has made available to support theatres and freelancers in response to Omicron. It is vital, however, that the sector is supported in being able to recover and remain competitive in the long-term and the Government should therefore commit to freezing cultural VAT at 12.5% rather than allowing it to revert to 20% in March 2022.

 

  1. The other major challenge to delivering the Tourism Recovery Plan will be the Government’s ability to support getting inbound tourist numbers back to 2019 levels by end of 2023. This is in the face of massive spending by key competitors, not least the USA. The Plan mentions that the Government “has allocated at least £19 million to domestic and international marketing activity”. In contrast, New York City’s ‘VisitBritain’ equivalent alone launched a reported $30m (c.£22m) advertising campaign in the summer of 2021[4] and has recently announced another $6m (c.£4.5m) campaign in conjunction with British Airways.[5] It is vital that the Government provides the financial fire power to support Britain’s image overseas if we are to compete properly with other major cultural centres.

What should the UK be doing to maintain its status as a ‘soft power superpower’ and further promote its culture and heritage on the global stage? 

 

How can the UK capitalise on its exit from the European Union? 

  1. As mentioned above, EU countries remain vital for inbound tourism for the UK. The UK’s exit from the EU could be an opportunity to engage with other medium and long-distance countries in addition to the already-engaged US and Australian markets. Looking at the latest DCMS figures on key export markets for ‘music, performing and visual arts’ China and Japan currently sit just behind Italy in terms of how much is exported from the UK to their shores. They could therefore be ripe markets, along with the Gulf states, for further tourism advertising investment given they are already consuming the UK’s theatrical content.

 

What are the biggest threats to the status of ‘soft power superpower’?

 

  1. The major threat to the UK’s status as a ‘soft power superpower’ is allowing ourselves to be overtaken by major competitor countries close to our own shores. The ‘Soft Power 30’ rankings, created by Portland, currently has the UK as a very close second to the USA for cultural impact. France is a distant third, with Germany and Spain making up the top five. While it seems unlikely that the UK will slip out of second place immediately, it is vital that there is continued heavy investment from the Government and its agencies to ensure that our cultural capital remains high and that we are able to continue to compete with – and outclass – our key European competitors.

 


[1] VisitBritain, 2019. Activities in Britain’s nations and regions – Foresight, Issue 165. https://www.visitbritain.org/sites/default/files/vb-corporate/foresight_165_regional_activities_sep_21.pdf

[2] VisitBritain, 2019. Inbound tourism performance: 2019 snapshot. Last available full year of data. The other two countries are USA and Australia. https://www.visitbritain.org/2019-snapshot

[3] London and Partners, 2021.

[4] AdWeek.com, 24th June 2021. New York Launches $30 Million Global Tourism Campaign as Travel Restrictions Ease. https://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/new-york-launches-30-million-global-tourism-campaign-as-travel-restrictions-ease/

[5] The Hill, 20th October 2021. New York City launching ad blitz to lure back foreign tourists. https://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/577572-new-york-city-launching-tourism-ad-blitz-to-lure-back-foreign-tourists