A NEW travel conference staged in Salisbury saw the city and Wiltshire become the most talked place in the country on Twitter.

Social Travel Britain brought together 65 experts from tourism boards and the travel industry, including five tourism students from Wiltshire College, to debate how best to future promote destinations through digital and social media.

The two-day conference at Sarum College was created against a backdrop of public sector cuts, which have left many tourist boards struggling for income and resulted in the closure of hundreds of tourist information offices.

And it attracted delegates from as far afield as Italy, Denmark, Staffordshire, Liverpool and Newcastle – which saw its main TIC close last week - alongside Visit England and eight of the most successful travel bloggers in Britain.

The resulting loud conversations relayed on social media saw the hashtag #STBSalisbury become a Top 10 trending tag on Twitter on Friday and Saturday (April 24th and 25th).

And on Sunday, #timeforWiltshire topped the UK Twitter charts for several hours when delegates took a dawn walk inside Stonehenge and toured Cathedral Close with an Instagram expert.

In all, some 830 tweets were sent during the conference, putting the name of Salisbury and Wiltshire in front of 3.9m people. And a further 60 photos with the #STBSalisbury hashtag were posted on Instagram from 14 different accounts, reaching 15,000 followers.

David Andrews, chief executive of Visit Wiltshire, tweeted: “Every destination aiming to grow tourism via social media really should’ve been at #STBSalisbury. Fantastic event.”

He was one of 20 speakers at the conference devised by Travel Perspective (www.travelperspective.co.uk), a travel editorial consultancy run by experienced travel journalists Steve Keenan and Mark Frary.

Addressing the audience, Andrews pointed out that Wiltshire had come out top of a recent survey of social media effectiveness across 126 tourist boards across the UK.

“We will move more and more to online,” he said. But he acknowledged that printed material still plays an important role in creating tourist stays, and said people shouldn’t rely on new technology.

“Lots of Wiltshire doesn’t have wifi or mobile phone coverage. In domestic British tourism, the biggest growth market is in the 50+ age market – so while we need to target youngsters on social, we also need to need to spend money on print for older people.”

Not one domestic tourist board has abandoned print, he added – “Brighton did but reinstated it.”

The conference included a reception in The Cloisters at Salisbury Cathedral, dinner in The Refectory, plus a private tour of the Magna Carta and a dawn tour inside the stones at Stonehenge.

It also included the inaugural Social Travel Britain awards, with winners in several categories, including Visit Cornwall, Visit London, Sally’s Cottages in Cumbria, East Coast Trains, Wightlink, London Zoo and Chester Zoo.

Nobody at the conference was arguing that print was ineffective – but several speakers stressed the economic benefits of social and digital media, including David Coulthard, until very recently the marketing manager of Salisbury Cathedral.

He told the conference that, two years ago, cathedral trustees had wanted just a new website – but that he argued for a strategy including email marketing, social media and revenue generation through advertising on the site.

He pushed to encourage the 600 volunteers to get involved, as well as the 60 staff, in helping promote the Cathedral online. And he managed to enlist 27 to help write a blog, including the dean, organist and verger.

“Stuff happens in the Cathedral,”he said, with recent guests including singer Jay Z, two Archbishops of Canterbury and actor Tony Robinson (Baldrick). “If you can just unlock it and tell those stories, then we’ve got someway, but not the whole way.”

The most exciting element, he said, is in changing staff and volunteer thinking of ‘I’m a stonemason, I only do sculptures.’ Or, that people thought ‘We don’t want to be criticized – don’t put it out there’ and ‘I’m not very good with computers.’

The breakthrough, he said, came at the end of 2014 when the Cathedral’s Clerk of Works Gary Price had to go to the top of spire to change a weather meter – and offered to take a head camera up with a colleague.

The resulting film was shown on the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-30547079) and on other traditional media. “We were swamped by blog idea offers from staff and volunteers that weekend,” said Coulthard. “But it had taken a little while for people to get that confident about the value of digital and social media.”

But Coulthard, now CEO of Chichester Cathedral, said he’d made mistakes. “We didn’t have enough resource for digital early on, we failed to ensure our partners fully understood resource availability, there was a fear of informal, realism about training - and understanding how scary social media is for many people.”