5A: Visitor Information Services

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It looks at:

  • the importance of access to information on holiday to visitors
  • the main drivers for change in T/VIC provision
  • new categorisations and best practice developed by VisitBritain’s Tourist Information Action Plan
  • strategic support and information provided by the Enjoy England Official Information Partner Programme.

It finishes with a list of the key legislation affecting T/VICs.

In some research by South West Tourism, visitors rank “access to information whilst on holiday” as their third top priority. In many cases good quality information makes a positive impact on overall visitor satisfaction and is an intrinsic part of the visitor experience.

VisitBritain research indicates that while in Britain, between 10 and 20% of visitors wish to use Tourist (Visitor) Information Centres (T/VIC) or in-person information sources such as local ambassadors or guides.

Leaflets, websites, 3G mobile phones and information boards help customers to access the information they need, yet face-to-face personal service remains important. The best T/VICs understand this special relationship with their customers and use it to provide a first class service, no matter the size, location or customer base.

Tourism businesses also benefit from the marketing opportunities, new customers and direct bookings provided through well-run T/VICS.

Traditionally, T/VICs were something of a status symbol – if the destination had one it was “on the map” and therefore important enough for people to visit. The service provided visitors with impartial, accurate advice – generally free of charge – about the local area, its businesses and services.

A networked T/VIC adhered to national guidelines and service standards. The network received core central funding to supply uniforms, branded materials such as window signs, note pads and booking forms. It supported the Certificate of Tourist Information Centre Competency (COTICC), which members of staff were expected to attain, delivered regional training courses and undertook data collection and dissemination to inform the national picture.

A holiday information service meant brochures about other parts of the UK could be collected by local residents, performing a role as a travel agent for the UK.

As the English Tourist Board successively became the English Tourism Council and Enjoy England, central support funding for the national network dried up. Funding organisations were asked to adhere to the same guidelines as before. However with no financial incentives, matters such as uniforms became the prerogative of the funder and many chose to adopt their own colour schemes in preference to the standard red, white and navy blue.

Data collection moved to the ENTICE intranet system. This wasn’t perceived as especially user-friendly and meant data collection was sporadic and patchy. Finally COTICC was replaced by an NVQ; there were problems finding assessors and it was unpopular, particularly with part-time staff.

Gradually the concept of the network became less realistic as local concerns and priorities gained importance. UK destination guides had to compete for visible display space that was otherwise available for hire/rent, and for storage space with retail items.

Regional visitor information strategies recognise that budget reductions and increasing use of technology are driving fundamental change. Visitor information services need to adapt positively and meet these challenges if they are to continue delivering benefit to both the user and the local economy.

Essentially their focus is well-placed, cost-effective, high-quality provisions that utilise ICT and Internet opportunities and operate as part of an integrated network.

Changes to shopping areas, parking restrictions, new attractions and altered visitor flows have all played a part in the new ways T/VICs have to function. However the main drivers of change are considered to be as follows.

The Internet plays an ever-increasing role at key stages of the visitor's journey from research, to decision making and securing bookings. VisitBritain predicts that by 2010 65% of trips in England will involve some Internet use, and 15-20% of trips will involve online real-time booking.

Visitors seek access to information in different ways, at different times and in different places. Initial information gathering may be carried out online, however the sheer volume of available information can be overwhelming. People like the human touch – a friendly face to provide speedy access to an impartial service and trustworthy data. These attributes should be the cornerstone of a TIC service, no matter its level of operation.

As a non-statutory service, tourism remains vulnerable to budget cuts. People-resource-intensive T/VIC services are favoured targets. Increasingly T/VICs are expected to respond to service efficiencies by moving into areas like commerce or providing mainline council services. This can sit uncomfortably with some members of staff who are unable or unwilling to learn the new skills required.

Often T/VICs don’t operate on a level playing field: largely existing in a commercial world but with the restraints placed on a publicly funded service. Income generating services have grown, yet few centres have a trading account. The fears and objections of local retailers sometimes restrict the range and type of goods available. Some T/VIC managers have seen the profitable ranges they initiated taken on by other retail outlets able to undercut their prices.

There are ways to mitigate constraints and implement normal commercial practices. Some T/VICs are active members of the local chamber of commerce, federation of small businesses or trading association. They have regular communication and well developed relationships with local traders and these can be beneficial in negotiating agreements or resolving conflicts.

Tourism South East’s 2006 report into Visitor Information Provision categorised the region’s T/VICs into:

  • strategic
  • destination
  • community.

This stemmed from research showing that most economic benefit from traditional TIC services was accruing from a small number of strategic TICs.

However the report recognised that to measure the impact of TICs in this limited fashion is to underestimate the contribution made by destination and community TICs, which, whilst unlikely to be handling large numbers of visitors, enquiries or bookings, maintain a valuable role for SMEs, local residents, and civic pride.

The report showed that no single common approach works for all TICs; each must be assessed on its own merits. A copy of the report can be downloaded from TSE’s website.

VisitBritain undertook a complete review of the TIC network in 2006, building on the regional strategies. This led to the Tourist Information Action Plan which categorised T/VICs from a national perspective as:

  • Gateway Information Centres (situated at strategic gateways)
  • Visitor Information Centres (mainly in key destinations)
  • Local Information Centres (mainly small towns and rural areas)

Categorising TICs does not imply a hierarchy; it recognises that there is no “one size fits all” solution. T/VICs will continue to evolve in ways which suit available funding, local circumstances, customer needs and political aspirations.

To apply a measure of consistency for customers, VisitBritain established core requirements to underpin a nationwide partnership committed to excellence and first class customer service – the Enjoy England Official Information Partner Programme.

In 2007, VisitBritain launched the Enjoy England Official Information Partner Programme to revitalise the national network and provide strategic support to T/VICs capable of the proactive promotion of England. The programme’s aims are:

  • consistent quality standards
  • commitment to skills development
  • sustainability
  • accessibility
  • effective brand management.

VisitBritain intends the programme to strengthen the Tourist Information network and deliver an improved customer experience. “Official Partners” are identified by the Enjoy England Quality Rose marque alongside the generic "i" symbol.

Currently 230 of England’s 500 networked T/VICs have signed up to be Official Partners, far more than originally envisaged. This indicates the strength of support for the service across the country.

The VB Guidelines for Tourist Information providers in England can be downloaded from TSE’s industry website.

VisitBritain has revamped ENTICE, the T/VIC specific support website, into a more user-friendly version. This can be found at www.englandtic.org. The site requires a user log-in and is a source of advice and information, as well as a mechanism for recording data and statistics to inform the national picture.

T/VICs operated by public sector organisations have access to legal specialists for advice and guidance on the legislation that affects them. The following list includes links to information about the most common pieces of legislation and good practice to be aware of. www.englandtic.org may also be a source of support and information.

For a copy of the free guide for traders about “the law relating to the Supply of Goods and Services” which features most of the above information go to www.berr.gov.uk/files/file25486.pdf

Oct 2008