On the ROAD

When it comes to at­tract­ing tourists into the heart of Scot­land’s wild places, it’s the small group tour buses that are lead­ing the way, dis­cov­ers Ron Clark

The Herald Business - - Cover Story -

IN A lonely High­land glen, with the wind sough­ing through the heather and the sun glis­ten­ing on the l och, the ad­ven­tur­ous vis­i­tor might be lucky enough to en­counter the odd, typ­i­cally Scot­tish phe­nom­e­non . . .

A Land­seer 12-pointer stag, for in­stance, or a ru­mi­nat­ing High­land cow . . . or per­haps a soar­ing golden ea­gle.

One thing the vis­i­tor will al­most cer­tainly be able to count on see­ing, how­ever, is another lo­cal phe­nom­e­non – a small group tour bus.

Like midges, these lux­u­ri­ous lit­tle ve­hi­cles are now ubiq­ui­tous; un­like midges they are a pos­i­tive ben­e­fit to the Scot­tish econ­omy, cre­at­ing an ef­fi­cient con­duit for tourist money from Asia and be­yond to the lo­cal hospitality in­dus­try.

Sev­eral large op­er­a­tors and dozens of smaller niche com­pa­nies in the Scot­tish Des­ti­na­tion Man­age­ment As­so­ci­a­tion have a com­bined turnover in ex­cess of £36 mil­lion and em­ploy hun­dreds of full-time and sea­sonal peo­ple.

SDMA chair­man Rober t McKin­lay Kidd, who also op­er­ates be­spoke tours com­pany McKin­lay Kidd, said: “Small group tour com­pa­nies have been par­tic­u­larly in­no­va­tive in cre­at­ing more in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ences for vis­i­tors.

“They are for peo­ple who don’t want to be herded. They al­low tourists to in­ter­act with lo­cal peo­ple and sam­ple smaller, l ocally- run ac­com­mo­da­tion such as B&Bs and hos­tels.”

Un­til about 20 years ago coach travel in Scot­land was the pre­serve of large, lux­ury ve­hi­cles, which were con­fined to main roads. The old saw that “civil­i­sa­tion will have reached its zenith when the chara­banc come to Barra Head” still had a res­o­nance.

But now fleets of minibuses, all sump­tu­ously ap­pointed, sally forth from Scot­land’s cities each morn­ing on a quest for wilder­ness and sav­age beauty – or, at the very least, a dis­tillery.

Gary Voy, of Tim­ber­bush Tours, was among the ear­li­est to spot the mar­ket for tai­lored, knowl­edge­ably guided and good­hu­moured small par­ties want­ing to reach into Scot­land’s more re­mote re­cesses – the ones the big tour buses couldn’t reach.

He has just in­vested £1 mil­lion in five new coaches, tak­ing his fleet to 17, and cre­ated 15 new jobs, mak­ing a head­count of 45 who trans­port 1000 pas­sen­gers a week. Turnover has dou­bled in the past three years to £2.5m and he is the of­fi­cial part­ner for the Mil­i­tary Tat­too and the Ry­der

Cup. He bought his first bus 16 years ago, when he and his wife and busi­ness part­ner were both work­ing as civil ser­vants in the Land Regis­ter. He had no li­cence and it took him 10 months be­fore he could pass his test and get the ve­hi­cle on the road.

He said: “The busi­ness was named af­ter the place on Leith shore where we used to stay. As it grew, we would sit in the pub at night with the guide books out, work­ing out new and off-theb-eaten-track routes.

“The tours are for peo­ple who want a more per­sonal ser­vice. We drove Dan Brown’s par­ents when the Da Vinci Code was be­ing filmed at Ross­lyn Chapel and we are mov­ing into the north of Eng­land with Harry Pot­ter tours to Al­nwick Cas­tle.”

Tim­ber-bush also drives heads of state and trans­ported the Pope di­rect from the tar­mac at his last visit. It part­ners with ma­jor cor­po­rates such as Stan­dard Life, Mit­subishi and RBS. The Asian mar­ket has taken off in the past four years, with “an ex­plo­sion” of vis­i­tors from Korea, China and Hong Kong.

“Tourism is boom­ing in Scot­land just now,” said Voy, “with new flights and ho­tel open­ings. It’s a huge mar­ket and many peo­ple are look­ing for some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent, off the beaten track.

“Un­like coach driv­ers, who have to fol­low cer­tain routes, our driv­ers have free rein and can make their own de­ci­sions. For in­stance, they could make a stop in Glen­coe to take pas­sen­gers on a wa­ter­fall walk. It’s their call.”


One of the big­gest op­er­a­tors is Rab­bie’s Small Group Tours, founded 20 years ago by Robin Worsnop, who was in­spired by his ex­pe­ri­ences of trav­el­ling in Tur­key and Egypt, where much of the ex­plor­ing in ru­ral ar­eas is done with small groups on the back roads in a mini-coach.

Rab­bie’s has grown enor­mously from its Scot­tish roots and last year car­ried in ex­cess of 60,000 pas­sen­gers in Scot­land, Eng­land, Wales and Ire­land. It has 37 itin­er­ar­ies in Scot­land and 53 itin­er­ar­ies across the UK and Ire­land, and posted a turnover last year of more than £6m. It em­ploys 90 peo­ple.

Worsnop also started in a mod­est way. He bor­rowed to buy his first coach, a sec­ond hand Ley­land Daf. By year two, he had made enough to in­vest in a brand new top-of-the-range be­spoke Mercedes minibus and two driver tour guides to take some of the strain.

He said: “I vividly re­mem­ber my first bus tour, which left from Ed­in­burgh’s Waver­ley Bridge in March 1993 with three Ital­ian tourists to do a whisky tour cov­er­ing Glen­tur­ret, the Sma’ Glen, the Birks of Aber­feldy and Edradour dis­tillery.

“I was back the next day to take another nine tourists around Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, In­ver­snaid and Stir­ling Cas­tle. All my mates in their late twen­ties were go­ing out on a Satur­day night, while I was do­ing bus tours six days a week and main­te­nance on t he sev­enth.”

Rab­bie’s has since be­come an es­tab­lished part of the Scot­tish tourist land­scape, with a reg­u­lar stream of awards and a port­fo­lio of cor­po­rate part­ners.

Worsnop said: “Our mar­ket prob­a­bly goes in the di­rec­tion of ad­ven­ture travel. By get­ting off the beaten track and on to the back roads, we get to where only the smaller tours can go – closer to the real peo­ple and lo­cal lives.

“Time off the bus is im­por­tant. We pride our­selves on get­ting out there among the lo­cals for a truly au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Worsnop has now handed over day- to- day run­ning of the com­pany to a man­ag­ing di­rec­tor and has opened the first of what he in­tends to be a chain of Rab­bie’s cafés. Per­haps these will be the next Scot­tish phe­nom­ena in the High­land glens.

COUN­TRY PUR­SUITS: Gary Voy, who cre­ated Tim­ber­bush Tours, was one of the pi­o­neers of small group tours

in Scot­land and is cur­rently in­vest­ing in

new coaches.

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