Lord Thurso looks to the future of tourism in Scotland, in the third of a three-part interview with the new VisitScotland chairman by journalist Kenny Kemp.
As the new Chair of VisitScotland steps into the spotlight we catch up with him to look at how he sees his role, leading the marketing organisation for an industry worth £12bn to the Scottish economy.
“VisitScotland is the number one priority in my diary and I have three main roles. I am by statute responsible to the Scottish Parliament for VisitScotland. It will be my head on the block, if things are not run well. The buck stops with me. It is about giving parliamentarians comfort that we are spending public money wisely and we are delivering on the strategy as a whole. I’ve been impressed with the exceptional staff at VisitScotland and their passion for Scotland.
“I can’t do this alone. So the second thing is I lead the board which is responsible for the strategic development, control and governance of the organisation. Most importantly is the executive, led by Malcolm Roughead, and we need to ensure the executive have the plans, processes and vision. It’s their job to deliver it and it’s our job to ensure that it is done in a proper manner with public money.”
Lord Thurso’s third leg is his ‘ambassadorial’ role and banging the drum for Scotland and tourism abroad – and at every relevant opportunity, from Tartan Day, Tourism Week and to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
Scottish tourism punches above its weight on the world stage and he feels that the country has to leverage this reputation to bring new investment, new events, new airlines and new visitors to the country.
He takes his own and Scotland’s heritage very seriously and recently ordered another Sinclair tartan kilt from Highland kilt-maker Duncan Chisholm of Inverness. “Scotland for me is a land of innovation based on our glorious traditions. Both sides of that are important. We should celebrate our heritage of kilts, shortbread and heather along with our educational strengths and our inventiveness.”
Although he sees Scotland’s tourism industry as being vast and resilient, he thinks that it needs to innovate and embrace the digital age if it wants to compete in a competitive global market. He says that VisitScotland is showing a cutting edge side to this through its ScotSpirit campaign and new iKnow community activity and is working with the industry to help equip them for the fast changing sharing economy.
He speaks with great authority about whisky, our national drink, and he’s equally passionate about the role of golf. “We have some of the most fabulous God-made courses in the world. People who enjoy golf want to come here to play. You are selling to visitor who wants to come here and experience the home of golf.”
So does he have any concerns about taking over after the Winning Years when Scotland basked in the world’s spotlight?
An example of the imagery used on the new Spirit of Scotland campaign.
Not at all. He feels VisitScotland’s current global campaign, Spirit of Scotland, and the integration and application with digital and social media have all helped VisitScotland reach out to a new demographic and into different segments of the market.
“The new campaign is absolutely crucial. We’ve got a very experienced team here that are among the leading tourism marketeers in the world. We’re very fortunate to have this accumulated knowledge.”
The strategy is to look at the emerging markets, such as China. It is then a question of looking at Scotland’s ‘supply side’ to see if it is properly equipped to encourage more Asian visitors offering them things that they want to see and do.
“This is about opening up air routes and connectivity. Then it is about the increasing use of hand-held digital, such as using locally-based apps to inform visitors on the A9 that they might be passing Brora on the way to John O’Groats, and it will direct the visitor to a restaurant or a place to stay. The more you stop, the more nights you will need,” he says.
Again, he stresses the impact that tourism has on smaller places and more fragile rural economies.
“What am I doing this weekend? I’m hanging the pictures in a lovely holiday bothy that I have in Caithness. This is my personal business and it is at the very small end of the scale. This is why I relate so closely to people on the north coast and west of Scotland for whom the ability to make money in the tourism economy makes the difference between a slightly difficult financial life and a comfortable life.”
Lord Thurso is keen not to omit the other critical sectors that are bringing in the bigger bucks. “We’ve been talking entirely here about the leisure visitor. Yet 50% of visitors coming to Scotland are on business, attending a conference or working in the country. Pulling people in for conferences and symposiums is a critical part of the strategy, and then encouraging them to stay some extra days to have some time off in Scotland.”
The chairman is under no illusions: international competition around the world is increasing. “Under a number of measures, tourism is the fourth or fifth largest industry in the world. It’s the third largest growth industry. Australia, America and China are spending vast sums of money on marketing their destinations. That’s the competition we have to face up to. However, the real product for Scotland cannot be taken away. It is our country, our people and the welcome that we give to our visitors.”
His teams inside VisitScotland are currently mapping out events and potential activities for 2020 and beyond.
“You are not going to have a Commonwealth Games every year or a Ryder Cup every succeeding year, but there are still a lot of events out there that we can win. Every time we win one and deliver it successfully, we have another event on our national CV that will give others the comfort to come and try in Scotland. But we have to keep working at that. One of the things I was delighted to discover when I took over was the team were out working on 2018, 2019 and 2020. And way beyond. That is really important to Scotland. The fact that we are working on things five or six years down the line says a lot about VisitScotland’s strategic thinking.”
So what is the ideal kind of visitor for Scotland?
“The ideal visitor coming to Scotland is someone who pays a large bill here,” he says with a smile.