Malcolm Roughead has been sketching out an integrated plan for Scotland’s tourism future.
It hasn’t been fully formulated yet, but it is like a pebble being pitched into a still pool with the ripples reaching out to the edge.
“Tourism touches every facet of our society,” says Roughead, sitting in his eight floor office suite with its seagull’s eye views of Ocean Terminal, the Leith harbour, and a panoramic vista across the Firth of Forth to Fife.
While ‘The Winning Years’ has become a neat shorthand for a string of major events, beginning with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and the 2012 Olympics, the Disney-Pixar blockbuster Brave, and runs through to 2014 with the Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup, and Year of Homecoming, the man who sells Scotland to the wider world needs to build a strategy beyond these years.
The Winning Years is a unique opportunity to raise the awareness of Scotland as a premier global destination but the industry needs to capitalise on this beyond the next handful of years.
As chief executive of VisitScotland, Roughead sees it as his job to pull together disparate elements that are not often associated with tourism.
He explains that he went to meet some of Scotland's leading medical and bioscience brains, and received quizzical looks when he asked them: “How can we help you?” The scientists wondered why the VisitScotland boss, ostensibly the leader of the national tourism body, wanted to get involved with the microbiological sphere of life sciences.
Wasn’t he busy enough? Was he looking for something else to take on? “What I am working on is how tourism works within the Scottish environment.
If you think about the narrow definition of tourism, it is about accommodation, attractions and travel, but the broader definition takes you into food and drink, then it is about culture, the arts, heritage, and you can take it even wider in terms of business and academic tourism.”
The ripples from his pool are reaching out towards the edges of Scottish endeavour, industry and creativity.
“If you think about the conferences around all the life sciences, renewables or creative industries, all of this enhances Scotland’s reputation on a global scale.
Roughead’s evolving thinking is to use these spheres of global excellence, encouraging them to bring business tourism to Scotland.
This chimes well with what the destination marketing companies in both Glasgow and Edinburgh are doing, working more closely with universities and academics to identify opportunities for symposiums.
“It's about building up this network.
The life scientists will attend conference around the world, starting with symposia, then this becomes a global conference.
In the past, we were constrained by capacity, but the real game-changer in this is the SECC and the Hydro Arena in Glasgow.
This takes global conferences and that ilk into a different stratosphere.
We want the Scottish-based scientist to encourage their global colleagues to come to Scotland. This has massive spin-offs. It's about building on the celebrity status.” Malcolm Roughead was appointed Chief Executive in September 2010, having been the Director of Marketing since 2001.
He knew it was time to re-connect with those who had become disgruntled with the national organisation’s more lofty aims.
He and his chairman Mike Cantlay have become an effective double-act, with Cantlay, the charismatic front-man and Roughead, the more reserved and reflective brand market specialist.
“The organisation has come a long way since I joined in 2001. However, it’s like all businesses, they all evolve and go through different stages of growth. We became disconnected from the industry, and you should never stray too far away from the guys on the ground. So my job has been to re-orientate ourselves back towards them and work with them, much more in partnership. This is where our whole working ethos comes in, setting up the Partnership Directorate.”
One of the key drivers for tourism going forward is digital connectivity across the country.
“If we are not competitive, then we are not at the races. All the conditions need to be right, whether it is accessibility, how can people get here, can they get around the country, and can they connect with whatever they want to connect with?” But each and every visitor has a unique profile and set of wishes and desires.
“The whole strategy is about touch points. You have your ‘pre-arrival’ strategy, which will either drive people onto the website for further information, or generate an inquiry for brochures – although this is declining in the digital world - and then the ‘on-arrival’ strategy, which is about face-to-face engagement, through our visitor information centres, and increasingly through more mobile technology, such as apps, and through those electronic touchpoints.
"It is about delivering information to visitors at the point of requirement in the format that they are most comfortable with.”
The physical presence of 129 visitor centres across Scotland, of which 28 are partnerships, handles a hefty 4.2 million enquiries per year.
“The Staycation phenomenon has made us rethink what and how we deliver because a lot of people are finding out about their own country when hitherto they were going abroad.”
In a fiercely competitive market for global tourism, with more developing countries opening up their own national industries, VisitScotland has to keep ahead of global trends.
“I tend to have that Balzacian theory [Roughead is a modern language scholar, who studied French at university].
What does the world look like? What’s going on out there, and then bring it nearer and ask ‘What’s happening in Europe’?, because that is the nearest opportunity, then funnel that down into the UK, looking at trends within, looking at our competitors in terms of what they are doing in terms of innovation and pricing.” So what is he seeing in his crystal ball?
“Some of the most important trends are value for money and the whole quality of the experience,” he says. But the theme of ‘partnership’ underscores a lot of his thinking. This revolves around working to help improve a myriad of establishments across Scotland.
VisitScotland has gone through a re-positioning of its Quality Assurance scheme, which grades hotels, guest houses, and tourist attractions, because of the advent of ‘user-generated content’.
More specifically, this is a response to the popularity of TripAdvisor, which can be both a joy and a bane for many of Scotland’s tourism businesses.
“For me, the QA scheme is all about three key deliverables: it’s about trust, independence and it’s about authority.
“So while you have those subjective views out there, some exceptionally good and some exceptionally bad, with most gravitating to the middle, as a counterpoint to that you want some re-assurance on where you stand, so you can look at the QA scheme and that will give you an unbiased opinion on what you are about to get.
But, ultimately, it is up to the customer to decide.” Roughead’s view is that most people tend to reference a variety of sources before booking a holiday, which is then digested before people come to their own conclusion.
But hasn’t the likes of TripAdvisor helped to raise the game of tourism in Scotland too? “The game is getting tougher all the time – although we’ve been saying that for a number of years now.
Everyone realised that quality is important and that service levels have to be better.
It’s the old adage; the last experience is the one you remember – and the one you are judged by.
People are much more canny about how they spend their hard-earned cash now, because times are tough.” Roughead also wants to hammer home VisitScotland’s green agenda, which is dubbed Sustainable Best Practice.
This is more than simply cutting back on washing bath towels, fitting low-energy bulbs or recycling bottles, it’s moving to a much higher level.
While there is a Green Business scheme, with accolades for excellence in environmental tourism, more is required, through for example more efficient lighting and insulation, and this involves working with the big energy companies, like SSE, and water businesses, such as Business Stream, to monitor levels of consumption of increasingly expensive resources.
“I’d like to see this as a core behaviour, rather than an add-on.
If we are going to be competitive, then we have to make sure the tourism industry is sustainable as well – and that’s to do with protecting our natural assets in Scotland.” He concedes that businesses will want to see the benefits of ‘going green’, after all if you are replacing all your on-suite toilets with split-flush loos in a 20-bedroom hotel, that can soon add up.
Surely, in blunt business terms, going greener does need to make a return on investment? “It is up to us to explain what the business benefits of going green will be.
They are measurable, although in some cases it can take a little bit longer to realise those benefits.
I don’t think the case has ever been made for saying, ‘I will put this investment in, because there is an up-front investment required, and this is what I’m going to get back out’.
“There is a whole range of tangible things that can be done.” which could become an added part of its scoring in the years ahead.
Through its partnership team programme, VisitScotland will be pointing businesses in the right direction for grants and funds that might help develop sustainable business.
“We don’t have the wherewithal financially in terms of handing out grants to affect this, but we can be the catalyst for that change.” Roughead wants people to understand that VisitScotland is a diverse marketing organisation - ‘one size or methodology doesn’t fit all’ - and he does not want his people to be shackled by red tape and bureaucracy, but to be able to perform and even have some fun at work.
“Operationally, we are very blessed because we have a very motivated team across the board. Everybody believes in what they do, and I’d like to think they enjoy their work here. Our strategy is leadership through people, allowing people to take decisions. It’s about being fleet of foot.”
How does he view Scottish tourism as a generator of new jobs for young people and encouraging entrepreneurs? “If you have an entrepreneurial flair, then tourism is a wonderful environment. You are only constrained by your imagination.
"With the right support and help, there are some brilliant opportunities. But the business fundamentals have to be the same as in any other sector: there has to be a market and it has to be marketed properly. And the quality of that product has to be valued at a certain level, and people have to want it.”
But, taking all this as the basics, he feels that young Scots have more chance of succeeding in the tourism industry than in many others.
“And you can have fun doing it. People tend to forget that it is a fun industry.” Roughead says it is more than just start-ups too.
“I like the fact that whether you’re in IT, finance, marketing, those skills are transferable to the tourism industry, where we need all of these skills. If you look at it on a broader scale, tourism is a global industry. What better way to get around the world than through the tourism? I can’t understand why tourism is not seen as a career choice for school-leavers.”
He dismisses the old view of tourism as slightly dull and stereotypical and not something you should encourage your kids to get into.
“I would be encouraging my kids to get in.
That’s partly because in Scotland, up until very recently, tourism had not been recognised for the contribution it made to the overall economy.”
Next year is the Year of Natural Scotland, and there is a lot of planning going on – not least an attempt to tidy up some of the litter and rubbish that is blighting the Scottish townscapes and landscapes.
“We are talking to the likes of Keep Scotland Beautiful and working with them together.
“I like the phrase that Mike Cantlay [the VisitScotland chairman] often uses which is ‘Make Scotland Shine’.” In reality, the worsening problem of fag-ends thrown in the gutter, plastic bags in trees, and carry-out containers tossed out of car windows, is something VisitScotland has little power to change.
“It is societal. We need everyone to help make Scotland litter free, so that people can see the benefits. It’s not going to happen with a one-off campaign, these things take time.”
Yet Scotland still has some of the finest unspoilt scenery and natural assets in the world. Its wilderness with the mountains, lochs and islands are among the national gems, and these are strong selling points to tap into. He gestures again to his early-stage sketch for a future strategy.
“It all ripples out.Tourism has to become a part of everyone’s life in Scotland – it’s when we all take it seriously as a driver for our own economic benefit that we will see another step-change in attitude.”