Scotland’s Cheerleader-in-Chief is in remarkably fine spirits. Mike Cantlay, the chairman of VisitScotland, dressed in dark blue business suit with a Ryder Cup 2014 badge on his lapel, and not a hint of tartan, is in the dining room of his comfortable family villa in Callander, reflecting on the previous day’s tourism symposium in the Concert Hall in Perth.
Just under 400 people from Scotland’s biggest industry had spent the day at the rally where an evangelical Cantlay urged our tourism disciples to grab what has been branded “The Winning Years” of 2012 until 2014 with both arms.
The line-up of eight major events – from this year’s Year of Creative Scotland, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics in London through to the Ryder Cup, the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and Homecoming in 2014 – is an opportunity for Scotland to capitalise on a unique sequence that will put our nation on the map.
For Cantlay and his VisitScotland team, the most immediate excitement is the forthcoming animated film Brave, a Disney-Pixar film, which will be given a red carpet premiere at the revamped Edinburgh International Film Festival.
The conference delegates were shown a “sizzle’ reel” by Disney representatives, which has whet the appetite ,and tourism businesses up and down the country are being encouraged to use Brave to dream up tourism packages.
Brave is set in a mythical Scotland (they don’t say if it is independent or not!). It is the most high-profile film ever set in Scotland and comes from the Disney-Pixar stable that made family blockbusters such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Up.
“When I came into the post a couple of years ago I was concerned about the ‘what’, the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of taking tourism forward and capitalising on the potential of the next couple of years,” says Cantlay.
“The ‘what’ is the enormity in terms of the sustainability scale and resilience of Scottish tourism.” He cites the fact that 200 years ago Sir Walter Scott created the romantic backdrop of Scotland as a land of stirring legend, Highland glens and misty mountains, and this – along with golf and whisky – remains a large part of the attraction for visitors.
What is the “why” for Cantlay? It is all about an industry which, according to Deloitte, involves more than 20,000 businesses in Scotland, employs 270,000 people and contributes £11bn a year to Scotland’s economy.
“Scotland prospers in tourism because we have our USPs he says,” flipping open his iPad. “We have so many unique selling points, that’s why we have been in business for so long. It has been the mainstay of our economy and, I believe, it will be the mainstay in 200 years. We have so many things we don’t fully exploit.
“This time around – going into Homecoming in 2014 with The Winning Years – we have an opportunity the likes of which I don’t think we’ll see again.” VisitScotland, with a £60m budget and employing 900 people, is not simply a “marketing” organisation promoting our tourism – for Cantlay, it is a dynamo of economic development.
“I spent years chairing Scottish Enterprise Forth Valley and was chairman of a local enterprise board, and then sat on Scottish Enteprise’s board from 2001,” he says.
“One of the problems that VisitScotland was enduring was the fact that it had lost touch in a sense with its industry. Critics would say, ‘It’s a marketing agency’ where the private sector can’t do it for itself in promoting Scotland on the wide scale. People will look at my businesses and say, ‘You’re a traditional tourism guy doing the kilts and whisky’. That’s fine, but I view myself as an economic development guy.”
This is an important distinction for Cantlay, otherwise VisitScotland ends up competing with the private sector and replicating things that private enterprise should be doing.
“The irony of where we are today is that we’ve gone back – in a full circle almost. I don’t remember seeing a lot of my dad because he was chairman of the Trossachs Tourist Association, which was a wonderful organisation that promoted the local area.
"In 1982, these all became subsumed into ‘area tourist boards’, run by the Scottish Tourist Board, to make things more ‘professional’. Then in the mid-1990s, through being too many of them, they were whittled down to half, and, in 2005, it was said this isn’t working. They were all put it all into VisitScotland. Then people fell out, breaking off and doing their own thing, with people asking are you a DMO (destination marketing organisation) or a DMO (destination management organisation)? Now peace is breaking out.
"I’m saying to the industry, it is fine for you to take control of the local industry with local destination organisations – we need to respond to that by giving you national and international support.”
Cantlay has been a high-impact chairman, perhaps the most publicly active and recognisable since the old days of moustachioed Alan Devereux, head of the Scottish Tourist Board, who wasn’t averse to the odd (often very odd) publicity stunt.
So what is the “How”? In his dining room, he finger-flicks his iPad to show a picture postcard of his father’s business, William Glen & Son, established as a tailor in Kirkcaldy in the 1860s, before moving to the Trossachs village, which was opened up for visitors by the arrival of the railways.
Cantlay’s father, Alan, an accountant from Aberdeen, had been working for Lochcarron woollen mills in Galashiels, where Mike was born, but was keen to run his own business.
The opportunity of buying the shops of William Glen & Son came up and he moved his family to Callander in 1967.
When his father took ill, a young Mike Cantlay was pitchforked into helping Dad when was still at school.
This was the fifth generation between two families. This was the “How” of Scottish tourism that represented the step-change of the industry.
Cantlay says: “Mr Glen came to Callander from Kirkcaldy in 1869 because of the railway’s arrival to set up a business that served the developing tourism industry – in this case a retail business. The railway was a step-change for Scottish tourism.”
The Perthshire tourism gathering heard this personal analogy to refer to the step-changes that Scotland needs to make to really make the most of The Winning Years.
Cantlay’s immediate predecessor Peter Lederer was a more reserved person, while Philip Riddle, the chief executive, was much maligned, trying to sort out an organisation that had lost confidence and support with many tourist businesses.
Their slogan was that: “Tourism is everyone’s business.” The corollary was that everyone had an opinion – and there was a lot of disagreement about what VisitScotland should actually be doing.
Cantlay is still running with the theme that it’s everyone’s business, but he and new chief executive Malcolm Roughead have been more muscular about using their professional branding and marketing backgrounds to quell the critics.
The collaboration with Disney is fortuitous, potentially delivering £150m of additional revenue to Scotland.
The magic of Disney is set to make Merida, King Fergus and Queen Elinor popular figures with hundreds of millions of children around the world.
After its general release in August (and the DVDs in the Christmas stockings) it is likely to reflect well on Scotland – enticing people to come and visit.
Callander is the heart of Scotland’s tourist trail, and probably a wonderful place to live in and grow up in.
Cantlay and his parents lived above the shop before moving to the outskirts of the village and he left McLaren High School in 1982.
He was starting a business degree at Strathclyde University when his father had a heart attack and he was needed in the shops.
He managed to juggle his university course with running the shops, and even went on to take an MBA – one of the youngest-ever graduates.
He used his father’s business as collateral and bought a Glasgow business called Robin Hood Gift House, in St Vincent Crescent.
“I thought it would be a nice adjunct for one of the stores in Callander, which was a china shop. Then I bought a development site, a petrol station on Loch Lomond.
And then the big opportunity came when I bought The Whisky Shop Ltd, in Waverley Market in Edinburgh, out of receivership in 1992.” He paid £15,000 for the shop and the stock, but was furious to find that the value of the whisky was only £10,000.
“I got the whisky shop going and started to build that. The lease in Princes Square in Glasgow had been sequestrated, so I got that back. I boldly took a unit at the Buchanan Galleries as the mainstay unit of The Whisky Shop. While this was going on, I bought into Hector Russell, the tartan specialist and manufacturer of Highland dress, becoming the major shareholder and managing director.”
In 1993, Hector Russell Ltd was based in Inverness and had a disparate range of “Kiltmaker” shops around Scotland. With his background in branding, Cantlay saw the importance of building a cohesive Hector Russell name, which reached more than 30 stores across Scotland.
“I needed to get more scale and this was building under the brand,” he says. “I pulled the whole thing together – buying out the other shareholders.”
With an eye on the Caledonian diaspora, he then took the business to Canada and the US. When his children arrived in 2004, he decided to take time out and “shuffled it around and packaged it off”, selling the kiltmaking operations in Inverness.
He sold The Whisky Shop chain to Ian Bankier, managing director of Burn Stewart Whisky Distillers – and now the chairman of Celtic – and sold the major part of Hector Russell to Philip Day’s Edinburgh Woollen Mill in 2005.
“What I have done in my business life is build brands,” he says. “The Whisky Shop being an example – with Ian taking that on and making it substantially bigger. I bought it for £15,000 and when I sold it, it was turning over £3m. So we made some progress.
“Hector Russell is now a well-known brand across Scotland. Even although there were 17 stores in 1993, there were no Hector Russellbranded stores, they were simply ‘Kiltmaker’, which you couldn’t copyright or do anything with. We pulled it together to become very well established. Today my business is substantially smaller, which is why you could say I’m having something of a career break, working with VisitScotland and able to spend time with my wife Linda and children.”
Cantlay’s primary business interests are as a retailer and manufacture of Highland dress in Toronto (the largest kilt hire business in Canada) and William Glen & Son, off Union Square in San Francisco (the only branded William Glen outlet in the world) with the businesses which EWM did not buy.
He has had a brief foray into Seattle, but Washington State licensing laws made it too difficult to sell Scotch.
So his remaining Stateside stores give him some specialist insights into the Northern American tourist market and what they love about Scotland.
“One of the features of The Winning Years is to tackle opportunities that we have not previously captured,” he says.
“In the United States, a million people will attend a Highland Games or be out at the combined Burns Night and St Andrew’s Day suppers. Scotland has never really captured that enthusiasm and turned it into trips to Scotland.”
Mike Cantlay witnessed some warning signals as the market for Scottish produce has been hit by the recession.
He says: “In San Francisco, there were six businesses that sold Scottish stuff to some extent when we arrived. They’ve all gone. The number of businesses selling Scottish goods has been decimated over the last few years through the recession. It’s been a tough trading environment and because of the age profile of those who see their connection with Scotland.”
The older generation of Canadians and American Scots are dying out, so their grandchildren need to be fired up with that same kind of passion. This is where the Disney- Pixar cartoon is the exact tonic for Scotland.
“We have an opportunity – and some might see it as the last opportunity with this generation – to capture their imagination and help take it onto the next generation. There remains a huge interest in piping, Highland dancing, whisky and golf.”
The company also owns the Callandrade Estate, a 68-acre farm with an enchanting woodland which might well have been an inspiration for the Disney artists, where the Cantlays have their family home and enjoy remarkable views across the River Teith, towards Ben Ledi and Ben Vorlich.
Cantlay keeps himself trim by jogging up the nearby Callander Crags and cutting up the fallen trees that were blown over in last year’s major gales. Running alongside his business affairs has been what Cantlay calls “occupation-related” activities, which has included his involvement with the Trossachs Tourist Association since the 1990s.
This took in Loch Lomond and Stirling, evolving into the National Park. He was chairman of Forth Valley Enterprise from 1995 until 2001, responsible for the property and economic development, which led to another “Step-Change” initiative.
Forth Valley’s deputy chief executive was Lena Wilson, now Scottish Enterprise’s chief executive.
He says: “In the mid-1990s, Clackmannanshire had a lot of dying industries. Falkirk was difficult, Stirling needed the top of the town renovated. Forth Valley’s economy was underperforming in terms of the Scottish and UK average GDP, so we hatched a plan to look for the big things that would drive the Forth Valley economy. We chose six millennium infrastructure projects, which included national park status for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.”
This also helped secure the Millennium Canal, and the tourist magnet of the Falkirk Wheel; a £1bn petrochemical development at Grangemouth; the new Kincardine Bridge; the Stirling to Alloa rail link; sorting out Stirling’s history centre up to the castle, and the creation of the National Park Authority, where Cantlay became convener.
“This was traditional economic development. It was us that led everyone together but it involved lots of support from the local authorities, and all these projects were completed well after my time. The Forth Valley is well back on track.”
In 2002, he was an inaugural board member of Scotland’s first National Park, becoming convener in 2006 until 2011, and directing the publication of the park’s first plans including its bio-diversity strategy, creating new by-laws for the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond.
Meantime, he was deputy “The difference between the Forth Valley work and The Winning Years is that the Falkirk Wheel has a life cycle of 120-years, and the infrastructure of bridges and railway is in place,” he says.
“Getting them done was the trick. The contrast with The Winning Years – the eight events – is that they are amazing one-off events.” Surprisingly, Cantlay reveals that if he had his time again, and circumstances were different, he wouldn’t have gone into retail but would have been involved with transport.
He has a passion for aviation and would like to have been a commercial airline pilot – one of his five non-executives positions is on the board of Highland & Islands Airports, which included the Inverness, Dundee, Shetland, Kirkwall and the western islands.
“I’m fascinated by transport in all its forms – anything with wings or wheels. I love my involvement with Highland & Islands Airports.”
He has concerns about the international access to Scotland with the further redevelopment of Heathrow, and worries about two of Scotland’s major airports – Prestwick and Edinburgh – being up for sale.
But he hopes the arrival of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner will mean better point-to-point services into Scotland, rather than the hub-and-spoke of the massive global alliance operators.
“The point with Forth Valley was, get these things done and you’re there, but it is not the case with The Winning Years,” he says.
“It is the combined effect of The Winning Years that will make a difference for Scotland. This is a ‘purple patch’ for our country and for international investors putting their money where they are comfortable. There is still a lot of money in tourism and leisure flashing round the world.”
He wants investors to come to Scotland instead of Spain or Ireland, pointing out that there is £2bn of capital investment rolling out, with projects such as the Dundee Victoria and Albert Museum.
(“And it’s not just central belt but in Shetland and John o’Groats, and the £40m Portavadie marina on Loch Fyne.”) “It is the combined eight that makes the difference,” he says.
“I was in Hong Kong and going into the city by taxi and was I chatting with the driver as we passed Disneyland.
I asked him about the films he knew. He knew Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, and Cars. We were in Asia and yet he knew his Disney-Pixar movies. This time next year I’ll be able to say to the taxi driver ‘Brave’ and he’ll reply ‘Scotland’.
What an opportunity to reach a younger market where we haven’t been before.” For Cantlay, capturing the mood of Scotland’s top 200 tourism operators – such as airlines, car hire, conference centres and hotel chains – is a special focus, with about 50% of the turnover.
Some share VisitScotland’s ambition for The Winning Years, but there needs to be a deeper involvement.
“The top 200 are all big players but they have limited presence in Scotland, we might get the local manager, but we need the chief executives to understand that Scotland is the place to go. Working as Team Scotland with SE/SDI and HIE we want the next £2bn invested here. We need to seek opportunities with their senior people. Scotland has never done that before. We need to play on the world stage.”
The Winning Years is about “Now” in Scotland; it’s cash in the till, driving the Scottish economy and positioning Scotland on the world stage.
As the red-headed Merida says in Brave: “If you have the chance to change your fate, would you?” Cantlay’s answer is unequivocal, “Yes, we must. This could all pass us by. We have to be bold.”