Opportunity knocks

Opportunity knocks

Focusing on internationalisation, investment, innovation and inclusive growth will help Scotland’s tourism industry to fulfil its 2020 strategy, as VisitScotland chief executive Malcolm Roughead explains.

If you were asked to imagine a typical visitor to Scotland then who would spring to mind? An American who’s come to trace their family history? A bearded rambler in a hairy jumper who’s preparing to climb a Munro? Or an elderly Dutch couple who are towing their caravan very, very slowly around the Highlands?

Today, those images of the average tourist couldn’t be further from the truth. As well as visitors from traditional markets such as Europe and the United States, the modern tourist could just as easily have come from China to enjoy the shopping on Glasgow’s Buchanan Street or from India to take in the majestic castles and scenery of the Highlands. And Malcolm Roughead is out to make sure that each and every one of them enjoys a high-quality welcome.

“The growth of the middles classes in emerging economies is transforming the global tourism market,” explains Roughead, chief executive of VisitScotland, the national tourism agency. “The good news is that there are more people travelling than ever before, with the middle-classes in China and India expanding at a phenomenal rate. The bad news is that the global market is incredibly competitive and so these potential visitors can travel anywhere.

“But Scotland is ready for that challenge. The Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup in 2014 promoted Scotland on the international stage like never before, introducing our nation to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. The secret for us is to make sure that businesses operating in the tourism sector in Scotland are competitive.”

For Roughead, one of the key strands of making sure that entrepreneurs are competitive is to make sure that they are making the most of the digital stage. He points to the need for specialised training to help businesses make the most of online opportunities. “Some tourism entrepreneurs are real technology geeks and so for them it will be about sharing best practice,” he says. “For others, they will be complete beginners and so they will need more in-depth help. If you’re a geek then there’s nothing worse than being sat next to a complete beginner, and vice-versa because it can be intimidating if you can’t switch the computer on but the person next to you is an expert.”

Roughead highlights the work being done with Skills Development Scotland and with the digital tourism project being run by Highlands & Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise. While bespoke training is needed, the outcome needs to be the same. “It’s not enough for businesses to have a website anymore – customers also need to be able to check availability, compare prices and book on those websites too,” Roughead emphasises. “Potential visitors now expect to be able to carry out the whole process online.

“It’s also about going for a mobile-first approach. Just two or three years ago, 90% of the 20 million users of the VisitScotland website were accessing it through PCs or other desktop computers. Now, 60% of traffic is coming from mobile phones and tablet computers.”

Making digital connections is at the heart of Tourism Scotland 2020, the national strategy drawn up by companies operating with the sector through the Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA) industry body. Roughead’s comments on the requirements for training and the need to offer a high-quality experience also echo the aims of the 2020 strategy.

The STA has outlined key areas – including ‘destinations, towns and cities’, ‘events and festivals’, ‘food and drink’, ‘heritage and cultural tourism’ and ‘nature and activities’ – that businesses operating in the industry believe offer opportunities for growth. The topics mirror many of the marketing campaigns run by VisitScotland, including the ‘Year of Natural Scotland’ in 2013 and last year’s ‘Year of Food & Drink’.

Another key focus for the STA’s strategy is business tourism, an area that also strikes a chord with Roughead. “The conference bid fund has so far brought more than 120,000 delegates to Scotland,” he says, highlighting the pot of money to which events’ organisers can bid for cash. “And that’s not just in the cities, it also brings conferences or other
events to rural areas too.

“The conference bid fund has helped to generate an extra £200m for Scotland’s economy. People who come here for business travel could be potential leisure visitors in the future or they could become investors in Scotland once they see what our nation has to offer to their company in terms of the skilled workforce, the international transport links and the quality of life in our pristine natural environment.”

Tourism already means big business to Scotland. The visitor economy is worth around £13bn a year, with Scotland’s 15.5 million visitors adding £3.5bn of gross value and supporting around 211,000 jobs in 14,000 businesses. Adding flights to hub airports in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Istanbul and Qatar allows Scotland to access markets in Asia and the Middle East, while the addition of Madrid will open up South America. Routes to Chicago, New York and Toronto meanwhile give connections to the important North American market.

With so many international visitors coming to Scotland and the need to stay competitive at the forefront of everyone’s minds, the ability to speak foreign languages is going to become more-and-more important for staff working in the tourism sector. While English may remain the language of business and science, the ability to converse with a visitor in their own tongue – even if it’s simply to greet them – is a key part of offering a high-quality experience.

It’s a topic that’s close to Roughead’s heart. After studying French and German at the University of Glasgow, he put his language skills to good use selling Guinness in markets including Africa and Europe, before becoming global sales and marketing director at Guinness World Records. “Even to be able to say a few cursory sentences makes a huge difference and brings a smile to people’s faces and surely that’s what we want?” says Roughead. “If you can converse fluently that’s wonderful but by and large I think a few phrases go a long way.

“We have 23 nationalities working at VisitScotland and together they speak 26 languages. Our new website will be available in five languages initially and seven eventually.

“Cultural empathy is just as important as communicating with someone in their own language. There are only so many times that you can feed a visitor from the Far East a full cooked breakfast and so little things like having noodles and a kettle available in their room can go a long way. It’s very basic, but it’s all about understanding their customs and needs.”

Roughead joined VisitScotland in 2001 as marketing director and was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2005 for his services to tourism. He became chief executive of the agency in 2010 and maintained his position as marketing director until 2014, when Charlie Smith joined the organisation.

One of the first speeches that Nicola Sturgeon gave after being appointed as First Minister in the autumn of 2014 was to business leaders in Glasgow. During her address, Sturgeon outlined how she wanted her government to help make economic growth more inclusive so as to even out inequalities in society.

Making tourism more inclusive is one of the key strands of VisitScotland’s ‘Spirit of Scotland’ marketing campaign, the first in the world to combine the promotion of a nation with a social movement. The agency has teamed up with the tourism industry and the Family Holiday Association, a UK charity that helps struggling families who may never have had the chance to go on holiday. The #ScotSpirit hashtag will help to get the nation behind the campaign and will also help to raise the global profile of social tourism.

Sturgeon put flesh on the bones of her plan during the spring of last year with the launch of government’s economic strategy, focusing on the four ‘I’s of ‘investing’, ‘innovation’, ‘inclusive growth’ and ‘international’. While tourism has a very clear role to play on the international stage – not just in attracting leisure tourists to Scotland, but also in bringing in business travellers for conferences or as potential investors – Roughead is adamant that the industry can also contribute to the other three ‘I’s.

When it comes to innovation, he points to the integration of the #ScotSpirit social movement into the new Spirit of Scotland marketing campaign. He also highlights the innovative partnerships that have been struck with TripAdvisor – through which VisitScotland’s content will be viewed on the travel website – and with media organisations like NBC and the New York Times.

Investment is also high on the agenda, with Dundee exemplifying the economic benefits that can be drawn from investment in tourism infrastructure, Roughead says. Building a branch of the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in Dundee is the centrepiece of a £1bn regeneration of the waterfront, with roads being realigned and disused infrastructure being torn down to reconnect the city centre with the Firth of Tay.

He also highlights the impact that the SSE Hydro arena has had in Glasgow, with musicians from Fleetwood Mac to Taylor Swift queueing up to perform concerts at the venue. Major attractions such as the SSE Hydro or the V&A have knock-on effects for their surrounding areas, with visitors also booking accommodation, going out for meals or hitting the shops.

“Investment can be on a much-more local scale too,” adds Roughead. “It can be about upgrading interpretation panels or providing toilets or picnic benches or car parks. All of these wee things add together to give a high-quality experience.

“There’s around £13bn being invested in infrastructure by the public and private sectors at the moment. But it’s not just about the big projects. Investment in smaller communities can have a massive impact too.”

As well as the partnership with the Family Holiday Association for the #ScotSpirit movement, inclusive growth also manifests itself through the way that VisitScotland’s employees interact with the wider public. Members of staff have given time to charities such as the Cranfield Trust and Pilotlight, which inject business expertise into charities.

One of the major criticisms levelled at Scotland is that working in the tourist industry is seen as a stop-gap measure until someone finds a ‘real’ job. Working in a hotel or a restaurant or a tourist attraction is seen as something to do in the school holidays or while on leave from university. In other countries – such as France and the Scandinavian nations – tourism is seen as a profession, with those working in the sector using the skills they learn to travel the world and forge a long-term career for themselves. “We also have an outreach programme for schools where we have a career mentoring scheme,” explains Roughead.

“We go into schools and talk to fourth-year pupils about VisitScotland and the industry as a whole and try to address some of the negative images about it being a lowly-paid sector, when in actual fact what you get are transferable skills. You can travel the world with these skills and it could be a very exciting place to be and at a relatively young age you can get to pretty senior positions within the industry.

“Inclusion is also about visitors. It’s a big opportunity – the market is worth some £9bn. It’s not just about people with disabilities either. It’s also about catering for families so they feel included and for older travellers too.”

Looking ahead, Roughead wants to make sure that the benefits of the Scottish Government’s four ‘I’s and the industry’s 2020 strategy are spread throughout the country. So where would he like to see the tourism sector in four or five years’ time? “At the moment, we have around 9,600 businesses listed on the VisitScotland website, but 30% of them don’t transact online,” he says. “The missed opportunity there is somewhere in the region of £450m. That’s not a missed opportunity in five or ten years’ time – that’s a missed opportunity now.”