How To Win Tourism Awards – Robin Barker


David Kilkelly: Okay, so I’m here with Robin Barker who is the director of services for tourism and you’ll correct me if I get any this slightly in accurate. And what they do is run a number of awards schemes in the UK which includes West Country Tourism Conference. You’re the vice president of Tourism Management Institute.

Robin Barker: I am indeed.

David: And a major contributor to Visit England’s 2012 marketing plans. What does that involve?

Robin: In the run up to the Olympics which of course at that time was a term you couldn’t use in the marketing. This was a plan on how England could make the most out of the opportunity there and also make sure that some of the potential negatives would be addressed as well because the Olympics brought great opportunities, good things, but it was also a major distraction from the normal run of business for many tourism businesses. So it was identifying those and working out things to do. To make sure that this country got the return from it.

David: Okay, so that must have kept you busy for a while.

Robin: Oh yes, and also consultation, lots of talking to people, lots of looking at past research and so on.

David: Okay, great. And then one thing that you say on your LinkedIn profile is that you prefer making things happen to writing strategies which I could relate to I think.

Robin: Yes and I think anyone who has worked in tourism for a while has become aware that every year there’s another strategy coming out and looking at strategy is absolutely essential. But so many of those strategies have just gone straight onto a shelf, gather dust and never been implemented. And I don’t want to do anything with that. I don’t want to be involved in strategies that don’t go anywhere. I like seeing a strategy go through to action because it is seen in practice it really hasn’t been worth doing and that’s what I love doing.

David: Okay and what are the tricks for doing that then? Is that keeping it simple maybe or not sort of spending too long on specific ideas and actually getting the ball rolling?

Robin: To be honest a lot of strategies in the last 10-15 years in tourism have been things we would like to do and then have had a dependence on public funding to make them happen. And we all know now that public funding has been on a downward curve and the reality is you’re not going to make things happen unless you get industry behind you and you get private sector related to tourism. So sponsors and partners involved too. And because I’ve worked in both public and private sectors, that’s what makes me a little but different to many in that I understand both sides and I want to find a way by which we all make it happen.

It also means that sometimes you have to take risks and we have launched somethings over the last few years where we knew we weren’t going to make money, or certainly in the first year or two. But momentum was built up and generally now we got momentum and instead of being one of those consultants who is constantly on the trawl for the latest invitation to tender and then you put in days of work to put in tender competing against a hundred others and get nowhere. We have some things that are now ours that we can build on, where we have clients, where we have a great relationship with them, including in the awards where we have sponsors and so on. And that’s a much better, more sustainable business then always being dependent on the next tender that happens to be coming along.

David: Okay so that’s kind of interesting. What you’re saying then is that actually the funding may have been sort of removed or reduced over the last 10-20 years but actually that’s a benefit in some way.

Robin: I wouldn’t say its benefit. There are things that certainly in the tourism circle that need and fully justify public funding. Tourism is not just dependent on an accommodation provider and attraction and so on. It is dependent upon having great WiFi, great transport, good weather systems, good weather forecasting and so on. And no one is saying that tourism businesses should be funding those. The public sector need to be making sure that we have a road infrastructure, a rail infrastructure, and an air infrastructure that supports those who live here as well as those who want to visit here. It is both but there are certain things that the businesses themselves need to be doing for themselves and there are some that the public sector need to be investing in.

David: Okay because of course those businesses are benefiting ultimately from the influx generally of people into an area anyway aren’t they?

Robin: They benefit from that and so does everyone who lives in an area and works in an area. Years ago I remember someone handing me what was then the source of business information, the Yellow Pages and said, “Find me a business in there that does not benefit from tourism”, and we couldn’t because the reality is that if you’re a builder, a solicitor, whatever, you will benefit from people coming in and spending in your area.

David: Okay great. So what I want to talk about just quickly today and obviously you’ve got a lot of experience in awards schemes and the benefits of awards schemes. So I just kind of wanted to go through some of those things and then at the end perhaps you can give us some top tips on how you can actually win an award as well because I think it’s an exciting thing to talk about in regards to that.

So if we talk about why awards are run, what’s the purpose of them, and then why tourism businesses would want to enter them and then at the end we can move on to some of those tips. So it seems like maybe an obvious question but why are awards run? What’s the benefit of them?

Robin: A number of reasons. From a destination perspective it is fantastic if you can have an opportunity for the best businesses in your area to aspire to greater things and if some of them then go on and win nationally and if you get a lot to on and win nationally it gives you an opportunity as we’ve done in the southwest for several years now, to be able to turn around and say, “We’ve got more top winning award businesses in this region than any other. This is the top quality region for tourism.”

So a great opportunity there. But underneath that this is also about quality development. Tourism is one of the fasted moving, most dynamic businesses in the world. Any business that had a fantastic offering five years ago, if it hasn’t refreshed and renewed that now it will be way, way out of date because customer demand moves on. Demand for things like WiFi, large screen televisions, fantastic service, spas, they have developed far faster than most would foresee.

So having a way by which you can keep your destinations businesses absolutely at the forefront is important for every destination. It’s also a great opportunity for a lot those small, independent businesses to get together and meet each other every year and share ideas. And I think we all like that opportunity for networking and celebration and benchmarking which in a huge but sometimes rather fragmented industry is hard to achieve.

David: Okay and so it’s kind of getting the industry together. It’s drawing a focus on a certain area as well. And then what are the sort of tangible results you’ve seen in this area for example in the southwest from doing that?

Robin: In the southwest we have seen entries into the awards go up year on year. We now get more entries and this part of the world than the national awards do nationally by about 50%. Up to about 490 this year which is a huge step up from what it was just a few years ago. We also now win more awards and have done for I think three out of the last four years.

David: You mean nationally?

Robin: More awards within the national awards than any other region which is a great claim to make. But also we give feedback and this isn’t true of every scheme. We give feedback to every single entrant and that is I think absolutely the heart of this. This is not just about a group of people behind closed doors deciding who is going to win a trophy. It is about helping that business get better and better still and go on to yet bigger things. And the feedback we get from some of the businesses, it’s great to see particularly.

When for example you give feedback to someone one year and they enter again the following year and you can see they acted on that recommendation and got better still and that makes them a better business with a better chance of winning.

David: Yeah, so I was going to say actually it’s that kind of development over maybe two or three seasons where you can see growth and you can see people moving towards something to understand what they need to do and learn from the process.

Robin: Absolutely. I know of one business that I think has entered every year for five years. And year one they didn’t stand a chance. They were not doing many things that a quality business needed to do and last year they were one of the top winners and this year I wouldn’t be surprised if they go onto an even greater success. They have listened. Everyone needs to listen to their customers and peers rather than be on an island too isolated and it’s really rewarding to see that.

David: Okay. Well talk about some of things that they’ve done or what you can do. Before we do that let’s talk about why you might want to enter. What are the benefits from winning an award or being part of the award ceremony?

Robin: I tend to put the benefits into three groups. One is about the potential to be a winner and profile that comes from that. The second is the focus on your business and the opportunity and feedback to get better. And the third is much more internal in terms of moral and actually the opportunity to recruit more staff and retain your staff better. So three broad groups. Profile, internal, and quality development.

The most obvious one is that profile one in that if you are a winner it helps differentiate your business from others. You get a logo saying you’re a winner. It’s something you can put on your website, there’s some press PR you can issue, you can Tweet about it. There are photos of you winning awards. You will get included in the PR that we do. So there’s a great deal of coverage there and if a visitor is looking at two websites of somewhere where they might want to go and visit and one is an award winner and the other isn’t.

If everything else is equal they’re more likely to choose the award winner which also means that potentially that business might be able to put its prices up a little bit and do better as a business. So there’s a huge profile.

David: I think there’s definitely something about fitting that award winning into your title. Award winning bed and breakfast or something like that. It’s got an instant appeal to it doesn’t it?

Robin: Absolutely. It makes a difference. I’m not saying it’s the be all and end all but it certainly makes a difference to the visitor choice and the fees you can charge. On the quality development side it starts with the bit that the businesses don’t like which is completing an entry form and out entry forms are a bit like many business plans. And doing a business plan is a bit like going to the dentist, it’s not much fun. But when you’ve done it you know you’ve done the right thing and very often the business after completing the entry form says, “You know I’m glad I’ve done that and it’s actually given us a focus on our business and helps us come up with some new ideas.”

So that in itself is a benefit, although a bit of a pain. Once you’ve done that you go through a selection process and you get feedback. You get feedback on your entry form and if you make it to the finalist, in most categories you get a visit from a mystery shopper and the mystery will complete a support and that will be full of constructive suggestions on things that you might be able to do better assuming you’re not perfect and let’s face it not many of us are.

David: Can you explain just quickly what you mean by mystery shopper because I’ve heard you refer to that before?

Robin: We have a team of people who are not clipboard assessors, they are slightly more demanding than usual visitors and if you are an attraction or a restaurant or a hotel or a B&B, you will get them as part of this process booking or coming to stay.

David: Do they let you know or do they just do it as a secret arrival?

Robin: In some categories they have to let you know otherwise they can’t get to visit. But where we can this is done, mystery, secret. They will come, they will have a stay, they’ll experience your customer service, your facilities, your website, and your communications, and they will complete a report at the end. That will go to a panel and the panel makes an independent decision on who is worthiest of willing the top awards. But at the end of the process it will also come back to you as the entrant. And those are invariably very useful in terms of revolutionizing or maybe just tweaking a bit your business. I know of one example where we had a very critical report which led to some very major staff changes and the sale of a subsidiary business within the course of two weeks having received the report. That’s an extreme on the whole. We get feedback from businesses who say, “Thank you for this. I hadn’t thought of that. We’re going to make these changes.” And what I really love is when a year on they enter again and you see those changes have been effected.

David: Do you have a runner-up system with the awards? Is it nominations like the Oscars where you get four or five nominations and then you get a winner? So you can have a kind of a runner-up category to show progress like that?

Robin: It’s mainly self-nomination. A business has to complete a very detailed entry form. So it requires their input in order to achieve that. Though there were some categories where you can nominate others. And we take account of feedback and reviews in the whole judging process. We also give not just top awards, we will try and give awards to anyone who is really worthy of a top award. It used to be that you’d give a gold or a gold, silver, and bronze in that order. We’re now shy of giving some joint silvers and joint bronzes and so on if the quality is there. In parallel we’re not shy of not giving an award if we think there’s not anyone who is worthy of it. Now that hasn’t happened for a very long time but if it needs to happen then that’s what the panel will decide.

David: Okay, so I think we said it’s good for PR and we talked about moral a little bit. Obviously that’s going to help with staff retention and employing new quality staff. And then we talked about having a badge and a logo on the site as well. So just briefly, how does it work? So you said it’s self-nomination. Part of the process, I think you said at one point when you fill out the forms for these kind of things that’s the business plan type approach where you need to drill down into actual figures and numbers. You can’t just say we’re a great business. Everyone thinks we’re lovely. So it’s about getting that detail isn’t it, into the application form.

Robin: It is. There are some people who think that completing the form is an art or a science and that you need to imply your experts on agency to do it for you. I have to say it isn’t. It’s much more like the advice I give to my children when they’re going into an exam. I say, read the question, answer the question, and make sure you get all of the answer, all of the questions answered. And that’s a business needs to do. It needs to what the question is asking and then answer it with a bit of passion because a top tourism business usually is run by someone who is passionate about that business. You want t get some passion across but ultimately you need to get evidence and hard facts in. Giving examples saying we got a 21% growth this year over last year. This follows an investment of 100,000 pounds in our new eco boiler and sending our staff on some top customer service training for example. That is much more convincing than anyone coming out with long adjectives and saying, we’re absolutely wonderful venue and everyone loves us and so on. Although it sounds great on the surface it’s not convincing to people who are looking for facts and evidence. A B&B owner can do that entry form just as well as someone who has been doing these entry forms for years.

David: Okay, we’re kind of segueing then into some of the things we can do to actually give us a chance of winning those awards then. So filling up that form properly is one of them. What else would you suggest?

Robin: Having a good website is also important and there are plenty of websites that three years ago were fine but things have changed massively in just the last two years. Over 50% of people now look at websites on mobile devices. So we are looking at websites and making sure that they’re mobile compatible because actually looking at the website is part of the visitor experience. The anticipation of your holiday, your break is an important part in the totality of it.

So it’s got to be mobile friendly. You’ve got to be using the social media and that’s not just about having a Twitter account. It’s using it and making sure that it’s up to date and so on. The main phase of our judging though does come when we send out mystery visitors to go and visit and they look at a number of things. They look at the welcome, the arrival, the facilities, and how they are looked after, the departure. All of those various, different factors have a different amount of weight in the judging. The factor with the greatest weight is the customer service. This is not about tickbox, about width of beds and so on.

The most important thing is the staff and do the staff genuinely make you welcome when you’re there? The vast majority of our entrants offer fantastic service. Every now and then though there are still absolute horror stories and I’m not going to quote examples. I always say that a two star hotel with fantastic staff will be a winner over a five star establishment where the staff maybe disappoint. This is so much more about people and people can overcome all sorts of obstacles in terms of maybe a few facilities and that’s where our focus wants to be.

David: We’re talking about hotels and B&B sales but that feeds into restaurants and tourist attractions.

Robin: It feeds into everything. Pubs, restaurants, cafes, and so on. Having a great engagement with the staff. Staff who go that extra mile and to a certain extent going the extra mile should now be the norm in this sector. A couple of years ago we had an entry from a business that said, “We’ve been in this business for decades. We therefore don’t need to do anymore training.” Our whole panel just threw their hands up in despair because to be honest if you’ve been doing it for years you’ve probably developed some good habits as well as bad habits. And so going and having that refresher training, having someone externally giving you tips and sharing ideas on how to offer outstanding service is even more important.

David: Okay, so obviously customer service is important then and then you talked briefly about websites. Would you say now that because of the internet and because of the way people research what they’re doing before they go on holiday and where they’re going that obviously the website’s important, would you say things like branding are becoming more important whereas before a B&B might just be a listing in a magazine or something like that. Now it’s got to have a front facing brand to the public. So it’s that look, that immediate look when you first arrive there important?

Robin: Branding is certainly important though it’s a term that is often misunderstood particularly amongst people who haven’t really studied marketing. Branding in my view is the totality of a business in the eyes of a visitor. Some people think it’s all about logos and so on. Yet logo is only a tiny proportion of it. Yes, it is about branding–

David: Well it’s about that website feeling cohesive, feeling kind of like it’s been thought about.

Robin: Yeah, you got the word though. I mean it is cohesion. It’s a business that is joined up. So if the website is targeting luxury, people who want a pampering break, that pampering theme needs to be there all the way through. If is it an establishment that is targeting families with dogs, the dog theme needs to be there throughout. If it is a hostel on the coast looking after walking visitors, you’re not expecting luxury but you want somewhere to dry your boots and so on and that needs to follow all the way through. So yes, branding in the non-marketing sense is important.

David: Or it goes back to your business plan of understanding your audience doesn’t it and knowing who your market is.

Robin: It does and we still see businesses who say, “No, I don’t have any particular audience. We’re here. We’re all things to all people.” Well to a certain extent that is okay if you are maybe a budget hotel that is looking after weekenders at weekends and business visitors in midweek on so on. In which case you can still be excellent but you still need to be identifying those markets and making sure that you are looking after them. So the business visitor will want for example an early breakfast maybe at 6 o’ clock. If you’re not offering that you’re probably failing but at weekends it may be a different requirement.

David: Okay, great. Customer experience is obviously very important, websites are important, you need to show that you’re passionate, you need to stand out in some way. Any other top tips? I think you mentioned before in a conversation that you need to cater for minorities, you need to show sustainability, some of those things maybe.

Robin: The two things, the two terms that are often misunderstood, one of them is sustainability and the other is accessibility. And sustainability, a lot of people associate that word with being ultra-green and eco. It is about that but it’s more than that. It’s about having a totally sustainable business. A lot of that has to with integrating with your local community. So you’re not a hotel from Mars plunked into the middle of the southwest. You need to be employing local people, using local produce, and telling your customers about that. As well as of course as not damaging the environment and if you’re offering biscuits in a Devon hotel, if they can be Devon biscuits and branded as Devon biscuits it actually rewards the guests and makes them more likely to extend the stay and want to come back to Devon and so on. Little things like that make a difference.

The accessibility side is probably even more important. A lot of people as soon as you say that word access think wheelchair and yet wheelchair is a tiny proportion of the market out there of those who have some special requirement. If you look at those people who have some mobility requirement, maybe a walking stick, maybe something auditory sensory or this huge and growing proportion of people who have dietary requirements. It is a massive proportion of the market and the business that ignores that, particularly when you take a lot of people who may some with a career or partner or family or maybe a three generation group, a business that ignores that is maybe ignoring 20%-25% of the potential market out there and commercially that is just dumb. So strong encouragement form the awards for businesses to make sure that they are being totally inclusive and have a way of offering an experience for everyone because everyone wants a holiday.

David: Perfect. And I think probably one of the other things which we maybe haven’t touched upon which I think is really important and something which I think businesses forget about and sometimes don’t even think is like not seeing the wood for the trees. It’s that you forget to tell people about these things that you offer. So you spend a lot of time developing these services and things for minorities like we were just talking about but then you don’t tell anyone about them, you don’t put them on your website and you don’t advertise the fact that you’re doing these things. So that’s kind of important isn’t it?

Robin: Very much so and particularly on the sustainability front the fact that you are employing local people, that you’re buying your biscuits from so and so local provider down the road. You buy your meat from the butcher. The vegetables are grown on the hill that you can see out of the window of the living room and so on. Those are all things that make people warmer about the experience that they have. Particularly if this is not being imported in from somewhere else. Those are all things you can do through your website, through leaflets and so on in the rooms through your staff. When the food is served and on the menus, if it says where it comes from that is all good news. And also through social media. I know of a hotel where one of the owners is also a part time fisherman. Well the fact that he can go out in the morning and take a photograph of the fish he just caught or the crabs or whatever and put that on Twitter and share it. That’s a marketing ploy but it is also really rewarding for the guests there to know that what we’re eating at dinner was there in the net only a couple of hours ago and here’s a photo of it.

David: There’s a big movement towards that isn’t there lately? Just the idea when you go somewhere that you want to be immersed into that place. So some clients of mine that we made a video for last year and did some marketing for them this year took on a camp site in Snowdonia called Graig Wen and they moved from the southeast to Wales but when they got there they found loads of Welsh bands that no one knew about and they got their LPs and they put them up on the walls and things and they got loads of little artisan chocolates from the local town and put them in the rooms and I think even learnt Welsh as well. They really immersed themselves in the culture and didn’t battle against them because it’s Wales and when you want to be in Wales you be in Wales and you want to have a bit of Welsh culture.

Robin: Absolutely. That word authenticity comes into it. When you go somewhere you want a genuine experience that is authentic to that destination and a lot of businesses get that absolutely right and it’s interesting I know that some of the top winners over the past few years, one of the first things they do after an awards night is to go and book, go and stay, or go and visit the other winners because they are sure that they’re going to pick up ideas as a result and that open mindedness to go and be receptive to different and new ideas is something this industry needs and is a great strength of many of the leading practitioners.

David: Great, well I think we’ve covered loads of things there and I think that’s going to give plenty for people to think about. So all that remains for me to say is thank you very much for your time.

Robin: A pleasure.

David: And we’ll look forward to publishing this soon and hopefully helping some people make decisions with the awards ceremony which are coming up this autumn.

Robin: Yes, we have five awards ceremonies which are going to keep our team very busy over the next few months. That of course is part of the celebration. A wonderful anecdote form a couple of years ago when Gidleigh Park in Devon actually went on to win a national award. They then came back from Manchester the following day. All the hotel guests has stayed in the hotel after checkout in order to welcome them home. That celebration with ear to ear smiles is part of it all and the moral boost that comes from it is fantastic.

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