Arriving at VisitScotland at the tail-end of 2014, Charlie Smith was a man on a mission. As the national tourism agency’s new director of marketing, Smith was tasked with capitalising on the energy and enthusiasm that had been created by Scotland hosting the Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup and the second Year of Homecoming.
“There was a feeling of confidence about the place when I arrived,” remembers Smith, whose previous role had been as marketing director at Ovo Energy, one of the new breed of gas and electricity suppliers that had sprung up to challenge the ‘big six’ and disrupt the utilities industry. “Scotland had just pulled off these two major world events and had done them better than anyone else ever had. The spotlight was on Scotland and Scotland did itself proud.
“The challenge for me has been to help capitalise on the momentum created by 2014. The challenge is not to sit back and reflect on what’s gone before but to ask ‘What’s next?’
“We’ve shown what tourism is like when we perform at our best. We don’t have to rely on the big set-piece events to get everyone engaged – although I’m sure we’ll win lots of others as the years go by – how can we be at our best at all times? And how can we give the industry the tools and the inspiration to do just that?”
One of the tools that Smith and his team has used to promote our nation to potential visitors is forming partnerships with a wide range of organisations, from media companies like NBC and the New York Times through to transport operators like Calmac and Scotrail.
“Partnerships come in all shapes and sizes,” explains Smith, whose career has also included senior roles at Royal Bank of Scotland, Orange and Vodafone. “There’s a huge potential for tourism in Scotland, but to realise that potential we can’t just keep going to government and asking for more public funds. We have to think smartly about how we pull together the right organisations and brands that can help us to market and sell Scotland. We can work with people who are really good at their jobs to help us spread our messages.”
Many of the partnerships that VisitScotland has formed with other organisations revolve around the sharing of content. The agency’s website is a treasure trove of information about our country to excite and inspire potential tourists. But it’s no use hiding your light under a bushel. Instead of relying on customers coming to the VisitScotland website, the agency has taken its show out on the road.
Content created at VisitScotland is being shared with a host of organisations, from domestic outlets such as The Guardian and Media Scotland newspaper groups through to international players, like NBC and the New York Times. “These groups can help us to understand how we can use their assets, how we can best share our content and importantly how we can understand who the people are who are viewing their websites or reading their papers.
“We don’t want to pretend that we can become the sole reliable source for information about Scotland. There are already brands out there that are reliable and trusted in their own markets so why shouldn’t we supply them with the very best content that we can about Scotland so that people are engaging with us in the very best way possible, irrespective of where they come across us? It’s not just about getting people to go to the VisitScotland website – it’s about making sure that people have a positive experience when they’re interacting with Scottish content and information, wherever that might be.”
Video is an important tool for Smith and his team, with short films about Scotland being made available for use on the internet, alongside more traditional formats such as photography and text. Blog entries are another popular route. “We’re here to market Scotland ‘with’ Scotland, not ‘for’ Scotland or ‘on behalf of’ Scotland,” Smith says. “So part of our job is to help people throughout the country – whether they’re in the Outer Hebrides or in Inverurie or in the Borders – to make sure they’re marketing their content as best they’re can. We’re not the experts, they’re the experts – they know their area better than we do.”
That notion of meeting potential visitors on their own terms is also an important part of the agency’s distribution partnerships, which include working with organisations such as Historic Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland, as well as transport providers like Abellio ScotRail and Calmac ferries. “These are people who are interacting with tourists on a daily basis,” Smith points out. “They’re having many conservations with people so we offered to provide them with the right information and tools and training so that they can have conversations that encourage visitors to see more and do more while they’re here, and in turn improve their own customer satisfaction.
“That effectively increases our ability to give tourists the information and advice that they want and in the place that they want it and at the time that they want it. Ultimately, we want them to stay here longer and spend more, and they’re only going to do that if they know what options are available to them.”
In among all of the partnerships formed with websites, television stations and newspaper groups, Smith maintains that there’s still a place for the more traditional tourist information centres. “It’s like any service organisation – whether you’re a bank or a telephone company or an energy provider – some people still want to talk face-to-face,” nods Smith. “They will appreciate the physical engagement of going into a bricks-and-mortar centre and speaking to a tourist information officer.
“Other people will prefer to do things in a virtual environment – they’re happy to interact, engage and even transact on the internet and increasingly through mobile phones. But in some parts of Scotland, where there are huge amounts of traffic, people will want to find out information when they’re there on the ground, whether it’s to buy tickets or get advice. So tourist information centres will still have a role – it’s about getting that mix of channels right and not lurching from having all bricks-and-mortar to suddenly having everything in a virtual environment.”
Other partners are working with the tourism body to provide more specialist services. Travel website Booking.com is making its Scottish accommodation available to view on VisitScotland’s online pages, while TrustYou is aggregating reviews of hotels and tourist attractions from social media and other platforms and is using them to deliver a single rating. TrustYou is used by partners including Google, Thomas Cook and Trivago and has aggregated reviews for more than 50,000 hotels globally, such as those in the Best Western, Hard Rock and Motel One chains.
“There are so many different points of view that other consumers and organisations have about a destination, hotel or a visitor attraction, so TrustYou aggregates all of those reviews into one single rating that tells you ‘This is what other people think of the experience that you’re thinking of having’,” explains Smith. “It’s to try and make things simpler and fairer for people who are coming to our site and who are thinking about engaging with these activities in Scotland.”
Smith, who is originally from Edinburgh, is passionate about his homeland and his enthusiasm is infectious. After studying business at Edinburgh Napier University, he spent time with BT before progressing on to Orange and Vodafone. “Funnily enough, I always wanted to do this job,” laughs Smith. “When you’re in a marketing or commercial role then it’s a real privilege to get to market and sell your own country. It’s not difficult to get passionate about it. I’m working with a genuine world-class product and that’s a pleasure.”
Having worked with Ovo Energy in Bristol and with telecoms firms in London, the attraction of working back home in Scotland was also a big draw, especially after all of the excitement of 2014. “I’m a great believer in public-private partnerships and partnerships with the third sector,” Smith adds. “We’re a wee country but we’ve got enormous potential and if we’re going to fulfil that potential then we all have to work together. That means collaborating with partners in the private sector. I don’t see that as a choice – it’s a necessity.
“Culturally, it means that you have to be very good at working in partnership with people and collaborating and having an open mind and understanding what mutual benefit truly means. Along with digital enablement, I think partnership is the key catalyst for growth.
“What’s really important for me is that we all unite around tourism because it’s so important for the Scottish economy. No matter what your political persuasion or where you’re from or what you do, I think that we can all agree that tourism is a good thing. Not only does it provide direct economic benefit but the halo effect on industry and academia for example is significant.
“We need to be unashamedly optimistic. As a nation, we need to be really proud of this amazing land that we’ve got and the fact that so many people want to come and see it. We need to feel good at selling ourselves – it’s not always been part of the Scottish psyche, but now’s the time for us to galvanise, come together and unify so we can be positive about what Scotland has to offer.”