Key team members at the Osborne conference, from left, destination data officer Jill Harlow, web editor Oli Whitehurst, chief executive David Thornton, and tourism development officer Liz Walker.
WIGHT LIVING THERE'S a new man at the helm of Island tourism with ambitious plans to attract an extra 300,000 visitors to the IW each year.
Speaking at the launch of the Island’s new tourist board, Visit Isle of Wight, its chief executive, David Thornton, set out how the organisation hoped to attract more holidaymakers to what he believed had the right to be known as the English Riviera, ahead of Torbay.
Visit IW’s plans have already had support from the man in charge of promoting tourism in England, James Berresford — chief executive of Visit England — who said they were destined to succeed.
The new so-called destination management organisation (DMO) is led by the private sector and supported by £3 million of IW Council funding over nine years.
David said it isn’t a sudden return to 1981 and a huge war chest of cash and resources but the money would be sufficient to do more than has been done in recent years and could make a difference if spent wisely and strategically.
In front of council leaders, local celebrities and key members of the Island’s tourism industry at Osborne House, where Visit IW will be based in the grounds, he spoke extensively about his vision for Island tourism.
He said: "Visit IW’s number one priority is to encourage more people to come here, over a longer year, bolstering and widening peak periods while building troughs up to create a smoother curve of visitors across the year."
David, a regular Island visitor for more than 40 years, brings 25 years of marketing expertise to the role and joins the team after four years as head of marketing for Visit Peak District and Derbyshire, another 'diamond shaped’ region that attracts around 22 million day trippers each year and where tourism is worth more than £1.5 billion.
David has also worked for two of Britain’s biggest commercial tourist attractions, Alton Towers and Blackpool Pleasure Beach, where he increased visitor numbers by around a million a year and generated £4.5m in private sector sponsorship.
Despite a six per cent drop in Island visitors this year, falling from 2.5 million people in 2011 to an estimated 2.3m this year, tourism accounts for more than a quarter of the IW’s total £1.7 billion economy.
David believes the secret to the Island’s return to iconic holiday destination status lies somewhere in the motivation Prince Albert felt when he built Osborne House as a seaside escape from London for Queen Victoria.
"I’d like us to recapture that simple, powerful unique selling point — this Island holiday is a genuine tonic offering a relaxed welcome to all those who wish to escape the mainland, leave their troubles behind them, and enjoy quality time with their family and friends," he said.
Like Disney World or the Eden Project, David views the Island as a paid admission attraction, accepting The Solent is a barrier.
But he argues that stretch of water is also what sets us apart from almost every other tourist destination in Britain, with the Island able to offer the best of both worlds.
"It’s like going aboard but being close to home," he says.
"I am frustrated that, as a regular visitor up until six weeks ago, the English Riviera referred to somewhere in Torquay when, to me, the IW is absolutely the English Riviera.
"I think we have an opportunity to show people something which is a little bit foreign, a bit different from the norm.
"I don’t really want to be a great British island, I want to be something different to England but connected and close by."
The high cost of crossing The Solent is often blamed for deterring holidaymakers but David believes there are opportunities for promotional offers by targeting the quieter periods when the ferries run with empty seats.
David, who says he wants to reconnect to the value-driven, traditional market, may have only been in the job for four weeks but he and his team have already started laying some solid foundations.
In a bid to generate valuable column inches for the Island in newspapers and magazines, Visit IW’s new PR agent attended the World Travel Market, the leading global event for the travel industry, armed with a clutch of top prizes and press trip opportunities — all donated by local businesses — to schmooze journalists down to the Island.
Meanwhile, Ventnor’s Michelin-starred chef Robert Thompson, Radio 1 DJ and Bestival curator Rob da Bank and eco-fashion label co-founder Rob Drake-Knight, have been named the organisation’s first media ambassadors, to help talk up the Island to a national audience.
Robert Thompson will be promoting Island food and drink to around 100,000 people at the BBC Good Food Show in Birmingham next year, while Rob da Bank will champion the Island’s music and creative credentials.
He told the County Press he felt the Island was sometimes left behind.
He said: "I still think it has the slight image of a blue rinse, old peoples’ holiday destination but that's absolute nonsense.
"I know the 20 and 30-somethings who hang around the Island before and after Bestival discover what an amazing place it is.
"If you removed the ferry journey and planted the Island on the south coast mainland I think it would be one of the most popular destinations in the country.
"We need to keep telling people how fantastic the Island is and that it is worth coming over because once they get here we know they have a great time."
By utilising the power of the press and other media, that’s exactly what David hopes to achieve.
He explained: "This early concentration on press and communication channels is quite simply because it provides us with a much higher return on investment than we can otherwise achieve through advertising.
"People are less likely to be moved by a billboard they pass, and are more likely to book a short break after seeing Robert Thompson on Saturday Morning Kitchen or at the BBC Good Food Show.
"We would hope that within a couple of years we are generating at least £2.5m worth of additional PR and marketing coverage through this type of approach."
David believes the Island’s biggest selling point is its stunning landscape and the opportunities for cycling and walking holidays.
Visit IW intends to raise the Island’s profile in this area and develop new themes, such as food and drink, heritage and royalty, sport and adventure rural retreats and coastal hideaways, to attract more people.
"These themes help keep the media interest going throughout the year, they are like little fireworks that go off," he says.
"Newspapers and bloggers are always looking for new stuff to write about; we need to package it up and throw it at them. It is by far the most effective form of advertising and marketing that we have.
"We will be moving away from the idea of a poster with a strap line to a more interwoven orchestration of campaigns, reasons to visit and partnership promotions."
Other ideas to boost tourism include the creation of an Isle of Music event to celebrate the Island’s music scene, and local ambassadors could be introduced on Island ferries to welcome visitors, mimicking the Olympic Park’s gamemakers, who were a real success.
Visit IW is also exploring opportunities for educational breaks and plans to promote the Island as a film location.
The new organisation plans to launch a new tourism portal — Visit Wight — by merging the existing Go Wight and Island Breaks websites.
The new 'marriage’ will be launched on Valentine’s Day next year and promises to include the best of both sites plus many new features including instant booking facilities.
David said every penny raised in advertising on the site would be reinvested promoting the Island.
The new tourist board is also looking to identify events which could be extended to encourage visitors to stay for longer, and others which could help extend the Island’s holiday season.
Speaking after last week’s launch, Steve Oates, chairman of the IW Steam Railway, which welcomes around 115,000 visitors each year, said he was impressed by what he heard.
He said, "Over the years I’ve attended numerous events hailing the launch of new initiatives or introducing yet another 'saviour’ of the Island’s tourism business, only to find much of it all falling way short of expectation within a year or two.
"It’s very easy to be cynical but on this occasion I came away feeling really positive.
"With Visit IW, we have a strong partnership of leading tourism businesses, the cross-Solent operators, major event organisers and the IW Council all pulling in the same direction, starting to speak with one voice, and at last positioning the Island more cleverly and more attractively to the UK visitor market."