The best of British

Catharine Althaus

Head of Overseas Press Facilities, British Tourist Authority

Worm charming championships, flocks of geese guarding whisky distilleries and reindeers in Trafalgar Square: such is the stuff of a day in the life of the Press Facilities Department of the British Tourist Authority. Journalists - and our department, now manned by five dedicated people, which organises press visits for around 1,700 overseas media visitors each year - love things that are quirky, eccentric and unusual. We have constantly to seek 'different' aspects of life in Britain, with which to tempt sometimes jaded journalists into writing more stories about this country as a holiday destination.

For example, mention the word Scotland and the next thing that comes to mind is probably 'whisky'. Yet many travel writers have already featured stories on whisky in Scotland, so we need to offer them something different to wet their whistle - such as the flock of geese to be round waddling outside one distillery, acting as very efficient guards.

How very different this is to the early days when I joined the then British Travel & Holiday Asociation. Back in the '60s we only hosted about 50 journalists' visits each year, mostly from English-speaking countries. Letters to and from Australia took at least a week, and we generally had several months' notice of an impending visit from an overseas journalist. At that time, and because overseas travel was still something of a novelty, the chief press activity was doing 'Home Town Interviews'. This involved photographing and interviewing overseas visitors at major tourist attractions, recording a brief interview with them, and sending an interview back to their local newspaper, where it was always published. Now with modern communication systems, we are lucky to have a few days' warning even of a television crew.

The increased pace of life in BTA has been coupled with a more businesslike attitude to tourism. The organisation has been keen to find out exactly what will attract new visitors to Britain, and old visitors to return. In recent years the Research Department has been carrying out much more in-depth surveys into what people want from a visit to this country. Rather than just trumpeting our many attractions overseas, BTA has gone out into the 'marketplace' and asked people overseas what they like to do on their holidays and what their impressions are of Britain, and if they have never been here, why not. In the same way BTA has researched the needs of the business traveller.

All this research has crystallised into a much more focused, targeted organisation than the one I joined all those years ago. Each overseas office has identified particular 'segments' such as the Japanese office lady, or motorbikers in Holland, whom we target with publicity material in an effort to influence them to choose Britain above all other destinations.

This has naturally been reflected in the work of the Press Facilities Department. It is no longer enough that the work of the department generated £30 million worth of publicity last year in the overseas printed media. Nowadays, it is very much quality, not just quantity that is important. When journalists are selected by our overseas offices for a promotional trip to Britain, we endeavour to ensure that the resulting articles will reflect our marketing plans. Once the objectives have been set by the overseas offices the Press Facilities Department makes all the ground arrangements and provides story leads and introductions.

Everyone who travels anywhere in the world is interested in accommodation and food. The news of the food revolution that has taken place in Britain over the past decade has been widely publicised overseas, and it is estimated that the BTA has been responsible for obtaining over £2 million worth of coverage on this topic in the overseas print media in the past two years. A similar amount has been received through BTA-inspired television programmes shown around the world.

Such now is the interest in food in Britain that the Press Facilities Department has devised for the overseas media, walking tours of London, taking in specialist food shops, restaurants, cookery schools and ethnic markets. In other parts of the country gastronomic tours visiting suppliers of good local produce and traditional British fare are also on offer.

BTA continues to invite many food writers to Britain to show them how things have changed in the last decade, but food is also an important element of any press trip to this country, whether it be to take journalists for a meal in a pub in Yorkshire, a trendy new restaurant, or in a country house hotel. British chefs are also working with BTA's overseas offices by taking part in our promotional work on territory.

In the same way that there has been a revolution in food in Britain, hotels have also undergone a radical transformation since I joined BTA. Surprisingly, 30 years ago, we thought it quite unusual that American visitors would demand to have their ovn private bathroom. Now, it would be astonishing to find anyone who did not expect to have all the modern amenities provided by our hotels and guesthouses, which can compete with the best in the world.

The country house hotel in particular has been a world leader, and the BTA has been able to capitalise on the promotion of this uniquely British institution. The recent development of the 'town house' hotel has been another significant development over the past decade. Neither type of property has by its individual nature had the resource to advertise widely overseas, and the publicity, sponsored journalists' visits, working closely with the hospitality industry, has put them firmly on the map.

Television plays an increasingly important role in where people choose to take their holidays, and the Press Facilities Department has been handling many more film crews in the last couple of years, than ever before. Most of them have very rushed schedules and work long hours, covering large tracts of the country in a day, filming from dawn to dusk. Planning of their itineraries is very time-consuming and detailed - but well worthwhile when the finished film is seen.

TV producers also come up with strange requests, one of the odder ones coming from a Dutch crew who asked us to obtain permission for them to park their reindeer and sledge in Trafalgar Square while making a film entitled All You Need is Love.

One of the major changes that has come out of BTA's recent research is the development of our worldwide Style and Design campaign. Over the years, heritage and tradition has been a major draw for overseas visitors coming to Britain. Castles, the Crown Jewels, London's theatre and pubs have all been among the attractions which have brought millions to Britain.

BTA is unlikely to throw away such a strong card, but while recognising the importance of such heritage, in the last year BTA has been keen to reposition the image of Britain by emphasising the country as a stylish, design-conscious destination. And one that is popular with young people and does not close at night: London, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and many other cities offer nightlife to rival cities around the world. The Press Facilities Department has worked out a number of itineraries in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and other cities showing a sample of what is available: designer restaurants, modern architecture, state of the art, hi-tech museums and galleries.

Press Facilities organised a number of visits last year on this theme, including bringing over a multinational group of Far Eastern journalists to show them London as a stylish destination - research in many of these countries had shown that Britain was seen as a very conservative, traditional and rather boring destination. However, after three days of visiting stylish and fun stores in Kings Road and Bond Street; new restaurants where designers had been at work on both the walls and the waiter's uniforms, and getting a glimpse of London's lively, nightlife, they went away with a new view of London. "Before we knew about the shops in Oxford Street now we know how much else there is besides" was the view of one of the journalists.

The BTA has been fortunate in receiving many accolades for its work in promoting Britain overseas, and we are frequently asked to brief emerging tourist destinations on the setting up of their national tourist boards. We believe that in tandem with the tourist industry in this country, we do a very effective job in promoting the many attractions of Britain throughout the world, making tourism one of Britain's most valuable foreign exchange earners, worth £12 billion in 1995.