Seeking a new BLEND
DrMikeCantlay, chairman of VisitScotland, believes it is time to vigorously shake upthe £4bn tourism industry. RonClark listens to amanonamission
SIR Walter Scott, as he put the final painstaking flourishes to his epic Trossachs-based poem The Lady of the Lake 200 years ago this year, would probably have been justifiably deflated to hear it described as Scotland’s first really successful marketing campaign. But as Dr Mike Cantlay, the most recent incumbent in the chair at VisitScotland, pointed out, the poem sold like hot cakes and thousands of tourists – the first real tourists in the modern sense – descended on Aberfoyle and Callander and showered largesse on the bemused but nonetheless eager locals.
As marketing campaigns go, Cantlay would be happy to replicate it many times over and, since he was installed in the chair this spring, he has gone about what he perceives as his fundamental
task – to drive growth into the Scottish tourism industry – with a will.
The prompt departure of long-serving chief executive Philip Riddle was an early indication that radical change was at the top of the agenda and that Cantlay is searching for ways to kickstart growth in an industry which is contributing £4.1bn to the economy – much the same as it was five years ago.
“We had aspirations for 50% growth in 10 years,” he said. “We are halfway through that period and there simply isn’t any. That’s why I’m here.”
He has ploughed an immediate £5m into a “guerrilla” marketing campaign – the brainchild of interim CEO and ex-Diageo executive Malcolm Roughhead – and he is confident that it will return £100m of tourist revenue by the end of the year.
He said: “The great thing about tourism is that the returns on investment come very quickly. If government gives me £10,000, I can guarantee revenues of £200,000 as a result of it. The tax take alone meets the cost of investment. It’s win-win.”
His frustration stems from VisitScotland’s apparent inability to create meaningful growth, although this year’s combination of volcanic ash clouds, airline disputes and public sector funding issues have not been conducive to a bumper year.
To overcome this, Cantlay and his new chief executive, whom he intends to announce later this autumn, will seek to identify “step changes” – primarily capital investment projects which will produce steady revenue streams for decades into the future.
As examples, he cites the high speed rail project, the Trump development in Aberdeenshire and a sustained campaign to persuade Scots to take holidays in their own country.
“Next year we will be focusing on the Scottish Islands. Nearly 40% of Scots have never holidayed at home and I find it pretty horrifying that so many Scots have never even been on a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry,” he said.
He will also attempt to revitalise the VisitScotland website, target of vitriolic criticism from within the industry over a lack of online booking facilities and booking fees.
He said: “I take on board criticism of these difficulties and we have just appointed digital media specialist Robbie Parish to simplify the website for users and the industry. We have a huge competitive advantage with this site and I expect to see it evolve very quickly over the next few months, using digital media and social networking media to our advantage.”
Cantlay wants to tap more efficiently into market of 60 million Europeans, 35 million English and three million Scots who can get to the country easily with their disposable income in their wallets.
He said he would expect VisitScotland’s next chief executive “to have views similar to myself – to listen to the industry, learn the step changes we need and then lead them forward.”
David Maguire, who is stepping down as chief executive of the Glasgow Restaurateurs’ Association after nearly four years and 16 major marketing campaigns, agreed that investment for growth was vital in recessionary times and said that his members were holding the line on diner numbers and visitor spend with figures broadly similar to the past two years.
He pointed out that Glasgow, with its large indigenous customer base, was in a different position from the rest of the country, which is much more visitor dependent. But he said that the issues facing the restaurant sector were the same across the country – service, quality and availability.
“The days of tourists turning up at 2.35pm and being told the chef has gone home are a thing of the past in Glasgow,” he said, “but it’s still a problem in many parts of Scotland. Restaurants must be there whenever they’re needed, not when it suits them.
“There are still major problems with shoddy, shoddy service – and organisations like VisitScotland and guide book publishers need to get into the faces of operators who are letting the side down. These operators need to be told that they should be ashamed and that they are driving people away.
“There is a case for amendments to the licensing regime, whereby licensees would need to demonstrate not only that they could sell alcohol in a safe environment but also in a friendly, helpful, welcoming one. Too many operators still think they’re doing the visitor a favour.”
Scottish hotels have also been remarkably resilient, said Garry Sand-
erson, general manager of Hotel du Vin at One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow. He said that his international visitor numbers were up by nearly 10% despite a horrendous start to the year.
Sanderson, whose West End venue is the first choice of visiting celebrities such as Simon Cowell and Tom Jones, said: “The first four months of 2010 were hit badly, both in One Devonshire and across the sector, by the appalling winter and the knock-on effects of airline disputes and volcanic ash closures.
“But the last four months have been much better, with good occupancy rates and food and beverage numbers increasing. In recessionary times, people are reluctant to splash out on top end wines, for instance, but the food spend is holding well.”
Sanderson said that as visitors become rate-resistant, the trick is to add value to the offering rather than continually discounting, and said that across his group, which includes Malmaison hotels, room rates have been gratifyingly healthy.
He said: “There is no doubt that the tough conditions of the last couple of years have made a lot of people take stock. Competition has intensified and owners and managers have been taking a long, hard look at their businesses.”
Sanderson also said that VisitScotland had been “doing a good job” in promoting Scotland on the international stage, but he believed that more could be done in terms of facilitating familiarisation trips for groups of international buyers.