Saturday, 28 March 2009

Best of Britain - best of banal more like

I come to praise British tourism, not bury it. No, really, I do. It's an honourable vocation and one I'm happy to support. That's why I paid my own way down to Excel in London's Docklands a few days ago to attend Best of Britain & Ireland, a trade show devoted to domestic tourism that has replaced the British Travel Trade Fair. 
Thursday was press day and I was keen to find some strong new ideas and angles on stories as I had in previous years. Stories that I would go on to sell to my editors and, in turn, help to promote the superb array of Great British tourism activities on offer in this country.
On Thursday afternoon at the near-deserted press room I collected the press pack, including a news release that quotes Sandie Dawe, Deputy Chief Executive of Visit Britain thus: "Best of Britain & Ireland ... could be a real tipping point for British tourism."
A real tipping point? Walking round the exhibition, the sound of tumbleweed blowing by my feet, it felt like British tourism had already tipped off and given up.
The problems for a freelance writer like me? Attendance was very low; hardly any press officers from regional tourist boards on their respective stands (those who did turn up all seemed to leave early); nobody had any fresh ideas; no creative vision; and no attempt to capitalise on the golden opportunity that this year presents given the currency situation in the Eurozone.
Visit Britain themselves are keen to talk up the idea that 5m extra Brits are considering taking a holiday at home this year. But, after this woeful experience, I'm more inclined to bin a UK break in favour of a cheap package deal in Turkey, Egypt or Croatia - three places where our pounds still has some purchasing power. That would also trump Britain on the weather and cost issue too.
I would have come away totally empty handed were it not for Visit Wales, whose professional press officer met at the stand, discussed story ideas and helped with contacts to arrange forthcoming projects. I came away with two concrete story ideas to progress and several more to ponder. Isn't that the whole point of a press day?
But where the hell was everyone else? Experience Nottinghamshire didn't show up at all, opting instead to exhibit at the Outdoors Show at Birmingham's NEC. Did they know something I didn't? Is it simply all over for this event as a launching pad for the UK media to report on domestic tourism?
The Maison de la France do this kind of thing rather well with their France Meets the Media events. So why can't Visit Britain with all the resources at its disposal? 
If I attend next year - and that's a big if right now - then here's what I expect from it:
* Well-briefed press officers on stands to deal with journalist enquiries and promote their region
* A brief ideas document on each regional stand outlining new events, projects, hooks, angles to help writers formulate must-commission proposals
* Some kind of evening networking event with media and regional tourism PRs, plus people from Visit Britain, Wales, Ireland, Scotland to set the proactive and collaborative tone for the daytime talking shop.
I'm not getting ideas above my station here. I know that I'm just one of hundreds of active freelancers but, if I feel bitterly disappointed about my experience, how many other writers feel the same? 
If anyone would actually like to respond, then please leave your comments below or email me direct (find contacts at my website
We'll be discussing what went wrong as part of my regular travel slot on the Duncan Barkes programme on City Talk this week. On air Friday morning from 10.15am.
Over to you.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Lost in action

Monday morning and I'm bleary eyed at the carousel. My fellow passengers, recently dispatched from the red-eye overnighter from New York, are all collecting their luggage and heading for the taxi rank. I'm still waiting. I bite my lip and decide to let it run around one more time, fingers crossed urgently behind my hand luggage. 
Still nothing. Seems the spoils of my exchange rate-defying shopping spree, tagged onto the end of a brief working trip, have been lost somewhere in transit.
My own brush with lost luggage came a few years back but it still lives with me. Thankfully, I was flying British Airways prior to the great Terminal Five debacle around this time last year and, after a few nervous days and a series of increasingly angry phone calls, my bags were returned safely to me.
Not everyone is so lucky. The European Union is planning measures to force airlines to pay fair compensation after the disclosure that 42 million bags failed to arrive on time in 2007. One million more went completely AWOL.
The consumer watchdog, the Air Transport Users Council (AUC), published the figures in a report this week and claimed that many airlines are trying to dodge fair compensation for lost bags, sometimes paying just ten per cent of the actual value.
The watchdog Passenger Focus also announced plans this week to start naming and shaming poor-performing UK airports as part of government-backed measures to improve the often grim conditions at Britain's busiest air hubs. A similar scheme has helped improve rail services.
So, as the backlash against air travel continues on the grounds of both convenience and environmental concerns, will these announcements lure us back to Heathrow?
Or have we already made the mental leap and, after yet another 20-minute slog between terminals and an overpriced coffee from an anodyne chain cafe with all the welcome of a wet weekend in Birkenhead, vowed to stay short haul this year and travel in the relative comfort of the Eurostar?
This Friday on the Duncan Barkes programme we will be discussing your lost luggage and vision-of-hell airport experiences. 
Tune in from 10.15 am. Send me your comments and I'll put them on air.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

What's the craic?

Early evening at Campbell's pub and the Guinness is flowing freely. The one-room bar feels lost in time with a copy of the Mayo News on the counter, teabags and loaves of bread for sale behind the bar and I'm Going Back to Ireland in the Spring playing on the radio in the background. Owen Campbell, the owner, returns from feeding the ducks at the sweeping expanse of Clew Bay stretching out before his front door as I pull up a well-worn stool and sip my pint.
  "There's been a pub here since the 1800s," he smiles. "I've spent my life behind this bar.
  Located in the village of Murrisk, just outside of Westport on Ireland's west coast, the pub stands at the foot of Croagh Patrick, the holiest peak in Ireland. About 100,00 people hike the trail to the summit each year in honour of St Patrick, Ireland's patron saint. Most stop at Campbell's on the way back down for a pint and a glimpse of life as it used to be.
  But amongst all the craic this year, the truth about the man behind the myth would have many St Patrick's Day revellers spluttering into their pints: Patrick was probably a Welshman.
  This Friday on the Duncan Barkes programme on City Talk FM, we will be talking about ways to celebrate St Patrick's Day, climbing Croagh Patrick and just who was the man now synonymous with Ireland's biggest annual booze up.
  Listen in from 10.15am this Friday. Send me your comments and I'll get them on air.

Friday, 6 March 2009

That'll not do so nicely

I'm no personal finance expert. But I would never normally head to the airport without my Nationwide Flex Account debit card and my Abbey Zero credit card. The reason? Put simply, these two cards save me money on transactions overseas.
Until now that is. This week Nationwide disclosed that transactions in Europe will remain free (for now anyway), but charges will apply from May for credit cards and June for debit cards. More bankers who have lost touch with the real world.
Most banks impose a 'foreign loading charge' every time customers use their card abroad . Nationwide was different as it covered the charges levied by Visa.
That card was the main reason I chose to bank with Nationwide. It was widely held to be a top money-saving travel tip, one of the best ways to avoid rip-off charges when buying goods or using an ATM abroad. It meant, sometimes, I could afford to eat when I'd run out of the local currency.
Now, in the same week that Ryanair considers charging £1 to spend a penny in the air, this is another example of creeping stealth charges eroding my spending power abroad. Thankfully my Abbey Zero card remains untouched so far, although it is no longer being offered to new customers.
So, time to mobilise the troops. Let's tell Nationwide where to stick their stealth charges. A certain Twitter feed today reveals that the Chief Executive of Nationwide is
Email him. I have.