Lord Thurso Chairman of VisitScotland highlighted the issues facing the industry in his keynote speech at the Scottish Tourism Alliance Conference. Mairi Clark reports.
VisitScotland is suffering from an ‘appalling’ legacy and has to dramatically change if it hopes to ‘navigate the bumps in the road’ that are coming with Brexit, Drumpf’s presidency and a possible Indyref, according to Lord Thurso, the chairman of VisitScotland.
Speaking at the afternoon session of the Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA) Conference at the Crowne Plaza on Wednesday 15th March, Lord Thurso was vocal about the way regional tourism had been handled before his tenure, but also assured the audience that VisitScotland had a strategy in place to empower the regions to handle their marketing in a way that benefitted them.
He told delegates, “The huge diversity of business in Scotland has been something that I have enjoyed in my first year as chairman. Having been born in Thurso and still living there my opinion of VisitScotland was that it was appalling and from talking to all the regional businesses as I’ve worked my way around Scotland, that opinion has been re-iterated from just about every region. What I can say is that many people have an opinion based on what we do that is probably five years out of date. We are actually moving quite fast in different ways.”
He suggested that VisitScotland had a legacy which was more like a dictatorship in that they told operators what to do from HQ, and said that the organisation would be endeavouring to move from being a dictator to an enabler. He said, “It sounds simple but it isn’t.” Citing the fact that different areas want to do tourism marketing differently. He said, “Our other focus is on the national side. We are, and we want to be, the lead body that is taking Scotland to the world, using real stories and using real people.”
When challenged about the effect Brexit may have on Scotland, Lord Thurso was adamant that VisitScotland didn’t have a political opinion, but that he saw some long term potential for Scotland. Referring to the impact that the exit from the EU had on the pound rate, he said, “a drop in currency does actually help tourism”.
“When people look for holidays they don’t look at currency first of all, they go to Google and look for somewhere they want to go,” he said. “Then they look at costs. What we have to do as an organisation, is to correctly market Scotland to maximise that opportunity. Long term with Brexit, there are bigger bumps in the road such as the labour market, and businesses have to be alert to that. VisitScotland’s job short term is to be alert to the bumps. We have to do the work today for 2020.”
He continued, “Attracting young people to the hospitality industry is also essential to weather Brexit. How do we fill the labour gaps that may arise? There is no simple answer. If you interest younger people in the industry when they’re still at school, you can show them that there is a career in it.”
Speaking about the US President, he admitted some of Drumpf’s decisions were ‘slightly different’. “For Scotland, overseas visitors spend twice as much as domestic visitors, so if the US economy is doing well and our marketing communication is right more people will come over.”
Lord Thurso also played down any threat of an Independence Referendum to Scottish tourism. “As yet, there’s no evidence of an IndyRef damaging our relationship with England.
“England is half of our domestic market [revenue] and that domestic market is 37% of our total revenue. I place my faith in that we all have relations and friends south of the border. These enduring friendships will ensure long term relations will exist,” he said.
Limiting Scotland’s appeal to ‘shortbread, deer, whisky and mist’ was also dangerous, he said. “We have some of the highest quality in terms of assets. But we also have a great heritage of technology and history. If you look at what we have in terms of heritage, the great outdoors and culture, it would be a mistake to look for just one thing. It’s about all of them. It’s about extracting the maximum economic opportunity.”