Travelers still flocking to London: What’s it doing right?

Fri, 2015-06-05 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi


London and Bangkok are at the top of MasterCard’s latest Global Destinations Cities Index. Just like last year, the year before that and the year before that. In fact, they’ve always topped the list. But instead of stopping there, the annual ranking provides a good opportunity to see why the two are perennial leaders.

According to Council Lead Partner MasterCard, London is expected to welcome 18.8 million international visitors this year. Bangkok is just slightly behind at 18.2 million. Paris is a more distant third at 16 million visitors. Dubai and Istanbul round out the top five.

London also ranks first for international spending -- and by a wide margin. According to MasterCard’s 2015 report, London is expected to receive more than $20 billion in international spending this year. New York City ranks second at $17 billion. Due to its lower cost of living, Bangkok places seventh in this category, though the amount of foreign dollars it receives is growing at the fastest rate.

Making it easy for travelers
The top tier cities all have impressive tourist attractions -- London has Buckingham Palace, Paris has the Eiffel Tower and Louvre, Dubai has the world’s tallest skyscraper -- but they still work to attract tourists. Most have invested in significant efforts to make it easier for international travelers to visit.

MasterCard says London is the poster child on this. It invested in a seamless, contactless payment system that works across its transportation systems, including the Tube, tram, DLR, London Overground and National Rail. In addition to making it easier for travelers, this common system also improves efficiency from an operations standpoint. As a result, fares cover about 70% of the cost of running London’s various transit systems -- more than most other cities.

Initiatives that led up to its hosting the Summer Olympics in 2012 continue to pay off. It evaluated what international travelers need and want and made adjustments to better serve them.

Those efforts included a hackathon where more than 60 developers built a wide range of apps to help tourists navigate the city and find places to eat that were off the beaten path. They even worked to serve locals, helping them discover businesses where they could avoid the crowds.

Know your audience
For most cities, there’s no need to guess what international travelers want; it’s relatively easy to find out. With rare exception, even most of the leading cities tend to draw most of their international travelers from a handful of places.

The MasterCard report found that Istanbul was the most diversified destination. Its travelers literally come from all over the map. Half of its international travelers came from nearly three dozen different feeder cities.

Every other city, however, has more of its international travelers coming from a smaller number of cities, making it a bit easier to understand them, figure out what they want and work to deliver it.

It doesn’t come easy -- for anyone
One might have expected London to rest on its laurels after its Summer Olympics push, but it has continued to improve tourism. Success requires an ongoing, concerted effort -- something some cities have learned the hard way.

Of the top 10 North American destinations, Chicago is the only one that lost international travelers last year. And that drop happened despite some big, flashy tourism campaigns that it had launched in the past.

Chicago launched a $700,000 campaign in London in 2013, timed for the Rolling Stones last show there -- itself a major tourism draw. It projected ads on buildings near the concert site. It even came up with a catchy tag line: Big Ben Meet Big Bean, a reference to Chicago’s giant reflective bean-shaped art installation.

But, perhaps because the campaign was a one-time, three-month effort, it resulted in more simmer than sizzle. The number of visitors from Britain plunged nearly 20% that year, continuing a trend.

Chicago is now taking a longer-term approach. It’s working to shed its violent, gangster image by hosting high-level conferences with influential foreign buyers and launching cooperative marketing efforts with other international cities.

It’s looking five years into the future. It wants to be in the top 5 of MasterCard’s North American list by 2020; it’s ranked seventh now.

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Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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