How Devon is Rethinking Attracting Tourists
May the 9th was the day that, as a child growing up in suburban south London, I’d look to the skies with expectation, eyes searching and ears pricked for the first sight and sound of the swifts of spring. With unerring predictability these winged messengers were the sign that spring had finally arrived, and that summer wasn’t too far around the corner.
Those swifts, scimitar-winged avian fighter pilots, with their bat-like squeals and precision moves far above us, had travelled over 3,000 miles from their winter homes in Sub-Equatorial Africa, destined to stay with us for the summer, only to head south again in August as the nights drew in and Africa beckoned1. Driven by instinct, their journey takes them across much of Africa and most of Europe, to their favored summer destination above the skies of a little isle in the North Sea.
Like those swifts, the English have their summer holiday rituals, except for most Britons the journey starts earlier, lasts a mere couple of weeks and is usually in a southerly direction.
In my home, like most Brits, it all started in January, with the collection – by mail, or from a local travel agent – of an astonishing assortment of brochures depicting the delights of a West Country farm holiday, or a sojourn on the Channel Islands or perhaps the exotic allure of Europe.
And, over the decades, although the internet has largely replaced the brochure, and emails coupons, the ritual has changed little.
And it’s not just the ritual that hasn’t changed significantly, nor has the approach to marketing the various regions, counties, locales, towns, villages, hotels, guest houses, attractions and activities England has to offer tourists – be they from the UK, or further afield.
For the past 60 years or more the British Isles have been divided into various overlapping tourist boards, each vying for a limited pot of business, each purporting to serve the interests of the tourist industry in the area they serve. Whereas English Tourism’s remit was to encourage overseas visitors to put England on their shopping list as a whole, the various regional and local boards aimed to convert general ‘English interest’ into actual bookings. In some cases you might have six or seven of the numerous2 national, regional and local Tourist entities competing for the potential holidaymakers’ attention and booking, as well as attempting to guide them to specific hotels or attractions. Not to mention, of course the holiday aggregators, tour operators, global travel websites and specialists.
And, for fifty five of those sixty years, this model worked reasonably well, despite a clear lack of measurability and accountability, with tax payers paying – in one way and another – for the operation of the Boards. Few people seriously questioned the efficacy of the fragmented model, and, because it had always been done like this, it was assumed it always would be done like that. A classic case of what we call ‘Path Dependency3’; the expectation of ‘business
The problem with path dependency though is that it is, always, ripe for disruption. Sometimes that disruption comes from within the industry, sometimes from a completely unexpected quarter, sometimes through external factors. In this case the disruption was quick, brutal, and absolute. Government funding dried up. For Devon, in southwest England, this created an immediate and spectacular problem. Or, using Challenger terminology, a very significant constraint: no money.
However, when there’s a significant constraint that is matched with an equally bold ambition, then you have the makings of a ‘propelling question’. And propelling questions, in the right hands, generate disruptive new solutions.
The bold ambition in this case was simple: to drive qualified4 holidaymakers directly to Devon tourist businesses websites5. Not to middlemen, not to aggregators and not to yet another Tourist Board site.
Hence, the propelling question for Devon’s tourist industry became:
- How do we double the amount of traffic to Devon tourist businesses websites
- When we have no government funding, at all
Or, to put it another way:
How do we create a local tourism business model fit for the 21st century. When we, as an industry, have been addicted to a government-funded, 1950’s model
This was the challenge taken up by Caroline Webster, now Executive Director (and the only full time professional) of The Devon Marketing Bureau. Established only in July 2015, the LLC consists of Caroline, and two non-Executive Directors. A key operating principle is that in order to make a decision about the future of the entity, you have to be a shareholder. Skin in the game tends to focus thinking, decision making and accountability. And simplify a lot of things.
Previously, Devon alone had: the Southwest Tourist Board and Devon Tourism at the regional and county levels, as well as local Boards for Torquay, Dartmoor, South Devon, North Devon, Plymouth, Central Devon, Torbay and many individual towns like Exeter and Ilfracombe.
However, after the government cutbacks, by 2015 most were either bankrupt and/or non-operational.
All of that has been replaced by a single results-driven and results-funded entity the Devon Marketing Bureau Ltd, whose public-facing site is –
The site, for user and business, is a model of simplicity – with all extraneous steps eliminated. Web 3.0, fit for the constant partial attention age in which the world now operates.
For the businesses, it’s largely self-serve. Which was very much by design, as Caroline explains:
‘I realized that something had to be done, and that approaching this issue
from the usual angle wasn’t going to work. We had to rethink, from bottom
to top, how Devon attracted visitors, and how the tourism businesses paid
for, and benefitted from, our efforts. This meant breaking all the old
models and developing an accountable, measurable tourism promotion
model, fit for the 21st century. It’s still a work in progress, but we really
think that this is the future for our industry’
Replacing local civil servants are a small commission-driven sales team, a remote social media maven and Caroline, operating from the distinctly unglamorous front room of her quaint cottage in the marketing epicenter of England, North Bovey, population about 260. A village so small it boasts one pub – the Ring of Bells - a village hall, a church dating back to the 14th century and a cluster of picture postcard cottages arrayed around the village green. Charlotte Street or Madison Avenue it is not.
However, this new model where there is no membership fee for the tourist businesses, because members only pay for results on a pay-per-click basis, could be the model of the future, according to English Tourism. Rituals, routes and traditions from time immemorial have their value. Without them, United Kingdom would be a less attractive place for the more than 32
million tourists that visit those shores every year. Without the instinct to start their northward journey every April, English skies would no longer ring to the sound of hunting swifts every May through August, and budding young ornithologists like my younger self couldn’t thrill to the first spot of the first swift in early May each year. Without expectations of family summer holidays, a respite from work and a sunny break on the English Riviera, or brisk walks across Dartmoor, or surfing lessons on Devon’s north coast, there would be no start to the holiday booking season after the January sales.
Tradition, instinct and expectation are gorgeous, valuable things. But innovation, proven performance and results are the measures of our new marketing era. For Caroline Webster and the thirty plus businesses already part of the Devon Marketing Bureau, this new era has already arrived. Their model may indeed be the next model for tourist boards the world over. And, just like the swifts of spring, the sky may be their only limit.
1 Swifts return south when there is less than 17 hours of daylight, meaning those who summer
further north leave later than those in Southern England, for example.
2 In the UK in 2011 there were over 320 organizations serving the tourism industry
3 Definition from A Beautiful Constraint, the eatbigfish book by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden
4 Defined as those interested in a holiday in Devon
5 A point of clarification is important here. In the old model, most Tourism Boards allowed, in
some form or another, visitors to book directly through their website – with the direct, and
unintended consequence, of negating the considerable effort and expense invested into the
hotel’s or attraction’s site, because visitors usually didn’t ever even see the actual destination’s