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Why Britain has emerged as the top location for US ‘bleisure’ invasion

Photo by Joris Beugels on Unsplash

It’s the travel trend that never quite took off. Ever since American trader Ben Hockett made millions during the 2008 global financial crisis by trading online from an Exmouth pub, travel marketers have tried to sell the concept of mixing holidays with work.

But now blended travel – or “bleisure”, as it was known in the 00s heyday of portmanteau neologisms – seems to be having a moment.

UK travel firms that arrange business travel say US companies are now allowing and even encouraging staff to extend work trips into the weekend and book excursions between meetings.

It’s one of several factors drawing many more North American tourists to the UK and Europe than before the pandemic. Flight bookings from the US to the UK for April to June are 30% higher than in 2019, according to ForwardKeys data supplied to the World Travel and Tourism Council, (WTTC), and are at similar levels for the rest of the year.

“American tourists have always been important to the UK economy, especially London,” said Julia Simpson, WTTC president and chief executive. “Last year, one in seven visitors came from America. It is great to see they are back in force, boosting the UK economy and jobs.”

From September to November 2022, visitor numbers from north America were 20% up on the same period in 2019, according to Visit Britain. London was the top European destination for north American travellers making bookings at the end of last year, according to Expedia’s traveller insights report, behind only Cancún in Mexico as an international destination. Travel search engine Kayak said searches for European travel were up 77%, while US officials said that passport applications had increased by at least 30% compared with last year.

A strong dollar helped fuel curiosity about Britain’s reaction to the Queen’s death last year, and that has continued with King Charles’s coronation next month, travel industry experts believe.

Covid has also played a part. Restrictions on unvaccinated travellers remain in some parts of Asia, funnelling more visitors to Europe.

US travellers have a deadline. Vouchers issued by airlines and travel agents during the pandemic need to be used. Many expired last year, but two of the biggest US carriers, Delta and United Airlines, have extended validity into 2023, and both have added routes to the UK and Europe.

But blended travel looked like a significant factor in the boom, according to Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association.

“Company travel policies have become much more flexible,” he said. “It used to be almost a sackable offence to stay on for the weekend and do something nice while you were away and paid for by the company.

“Now they’re saying to our members ‘you can allow our employees to stay over the weekend’ – to book the flight back and the company will pick up the cost. Our members have been 100% focused on corporate travel, but now they’re being asked to put together leisure programmes because people want to stay on.”

Some Americans might take inspiration from their president. When Joe Biden visited Ireland earlier this month to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, he took the time to explore his ancestry in Ballina in County Mayo before flying home.

Wratten said “bleisure” has always been an irritating term for “a marketing ploy to get people to spend more money when they are here”.

“Now we can see the trend happening, although we don’t have the data yet. In 2019, US business travellers spent five nights on average in the UK, so we’ll see if that really does change.”

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Alex Jarman, travel consultant in the Chicago office of market research firm Euromonitor International, also believes the trend has finally arrived.

“Before the pandemic, the biggest area of blended travel was add-ons to a business trip.” The working from home shift during Covid led to an increase in “digital nomads” – mostly tech workers living abroad.

Some countries, including Barbados and Spain, have created special visas to attract digital nomads.

There are signs, though, that US travel demand may be softening. Brexit restrictions on travel, such as long delays crossing the English channel, are still affecting the ability to include the UK in a European tour.

“The mass layoffs, especially in the tech sector, may mean we’re seeing a little less freedom and flexibility for remote work,” Jarman said.

Even if the boom is temporary, British travel businesses battered by Covid remain optimistic. Visit Britain expects the tourism industry to recover to 2019 levels by next year and Chinese tourists to start travelling internationally after Covid measures are lifted there.

Joss Croft OBE, chief executive of UKinbound, said there was “very strong demand” from US travellers.

“Before the pandemic, visitors from the US consistently ranked for many years as the UK’s biggest inbound market in terms of spend and either the top or in the top three markets for visitor numbers. The industry knows we cannot be complacent, however, as global tourism is very competitive.”

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