Greenwich means…

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Visit Greenwich has just released its new Destination Management Plan. Jim Roberts considers its importance to realising the great potential of Greenwich as a destination.

Recent data from Visit Britain shows UK tourism heading into strong headwinds. Although 75% of tourism is domestic, overseas tourists tend to stay longer, spend more and visit more traditional tourist attractions. They are thus disproportionately important to the health of the sector, especially in London. That forward bookings have been disappointingly low in the last few months – especially with a favourable exchange rate for inbound tourists – is a cause for concern. Brexit uncertainty may be a factor, with a noticeable dip in bookings from continental Europe, which is traditionally the source of some 70% of inbound visits. It’s a worrying trend.

At a recent launch of the Destination Management Plan for Greenwich, Visit Britain CEO, Sally Balcombe, argued that attracting millennials and focusing more on the value rather than volume of tourism was the best response. Greenwich is clearly alive to the issue and aligned to that strategy. Its new DMP seeks to build on its rich collection of assets to position itself as the best place in the UK for heritage, arts and entertainment.

It’s true that almost no other destination in London – let alone the UK – has such a rich combination of diverse attractions to suit all tastes. Historical accident and decades of investment have created a uniquely balanced environment in Greenwich. The World Heritage Site includes the stunning architecture of the Old Royal Naval College; the extraordinary collections of the National Maritime Museum; and a Royal Observatory that gives tourists the instagrammable thrill of straddling the Meridian Line. All of it is connected by a Royal Park, with a Cutty Sark and an historic market thrown in. What sets Greenwich apart, however, is the way that this world class heritage has been complemented by a landmark entertainment venue like The O2 Arena in North Greenwich and a cool new creative district in Woolwich.

There are few destinations that boast such a rich and diverse collection of attractors. But Greenwich is still largely thought of as a ‘day visit’ excursion for overseas tourists who spend most of their time and money in the Central London honeypot. The different offers in Maritime Greenwich, North Greenwich and Woolwich are still broadly perceived as different destinations rather than a single, multifaceted place.

The new DMP is thus focussed on the strategic partnerships that will make more of this advantage. That relies on discrete destinations subordinating their competitive instinct enough to recognise a common ‘value-over-volume’ agenda: improve satisfaction, extend dwell time, drive higher spend, and turn day visits into staying visits. Fourth Street is currently managing a joint project involving the Greenwich Foundation, University of Greenwich and Royal Museums Greenwich, which is specifically identifying projects on which they can collaborate.

A new ‘Greenwich means…’ campaign also recognises the need to pay more attention to millennials, trading our old fixation on guidebooks and the travel trade, for social media and blogging sites. The evening economy and F&B offer are now described as reasons-to-visit in themselves rather than mere complements to traditional visitor attractions.

There are still places for the offer to improve. The riverside stretching from Rotherhithe to Woolwich is full of opportunities to create a world class waterfront promenade – but it is still mostly disconnected and fragmented between different landowners advancing in their own way and at their own pace. Pedestrianisation of Greenwich town centre is another clear opportunity that will take time to deliver as it is littered with obstacles.

Adopting such approaches should allow Greenwich to sustain the growth in visitor numbers and value it is seeing (which increased by an estimated 30% last year) and let it benefit from the ambitious development plans proposed for the borough, especially on Greenwich Peninsula.

It is a thoughtful, sequenced and collaborative approach to destination development that seems a long way from the more-is-better, build-it-and-they-will-come tourism strategies of the past. Other destinations that, similarly, have all the pieces, but not the place, should keep an eye on Greenwich. It is an approach worth monitoring.