There can be precious few people in Scotland who doubt the importance and value of our visitor economy. 2014 was a momentous year when Scotland welcomed guests from a record number of nations. The trick is to sustain this level of interest – to ensure that this £11bn tourism economy continues to improve and punch above its weight.
Malcolm Roughead, the softly-spoken and rather cerebral head of VisitScotland, has been at pains to keep the ‘tourist economy’ at the front of everyone’s mind. Scotland’s policymakers, politicians and media must continue to understand the primary importance of our tourism industry. It is no longer ‘a nice add-on’: it’s central to national future prosperity.
However, Roughead, at the helm as chief executive since September 2010, notes a heartening change of tenor. “I’ve been up in Dundee speaking to business people at the chamber of commerce and one of the questions was: ‘How do you rebuild your economy on the back of the V&A coming?’ I can’t think of any time since I joined VisitScotland where someone has said to me, “How do we build our economy on the back of something? It has always been “How does tourism fit into an existing situation.”
This direct approach and fresh thinking is even exciting Roughead, who is a normally a very measured individual. Even after all the great events of 2014, he is not someone to go over the top, which is why he remains the perfect foil to VisitScotland’s gregarious chairman Mike Cantlay, who has been an inspirational dynamo prepared to champion Scotland’s tourism assets at any opportunity.
For Roughead, Dundee’s preparation and regeneration for the arrival of V&A Dundee is deeply satisfying with an expectation that the rejuvenation will bring tens of millions of new visitors over the coming decades. Roughead cites the investment by Apex and Malmaison hotels and other operators to show that this can indeed drive significant economic benefit into a new area.
“Dundee is becoming a tourism-driven city which is turning the city and the hinterland on its head. There are great economic opportunities on the way for the city. Large numbers of visitors from around the world coming to Dundee will certainly build a buzz.”
Malcolm Roughead, a seasoned marketer and linguist who joined VisitScotland in 2001 as marketing director, is convinced that wider Scotland now ‘gets’ the importance of sustainable tourism.
“You start from the premise that the visitor economy is an £11bn sector for the wider Scottish economy. Then you work your way back and tourism is at the heart of this. It is making sure that people make the connection, so that if you are in the car hire business it is fairly obvious you are getting customers from abroad, but that might not be so obvious if you are in the double-glazing industry or a florist selling flowers, this isn’t so clear.”
Yet, he points out, the people in the double glazing business will be getting work from new hotels, while the florist will be doing well out of conferences, events and hotel rooms. “These hotels are being built on the back of a thriving industry. Indirectly, they are still linked and part of the tourism industry. A breakdown of tourism money spent on flowers alone is £7milion, which is quite substantial.”
There are other sectors, such as arts and craft-making across Scotland that are all benefiting from being part of the authentic fabric of an area where visitors want to find out what is happening.
“It is the sum of the parts in local areas that create the unique visitor experience. A lot of the work the VisitScotland guys do is about making the linkages and bringing people together to see how that works. We are keen to get people to list their companies on VisitScotland.com. It has a phenomenal reach and it is a free listing. Where people are looking at things in a particular area it can be on the radar.”
He admits there is still work to do around the peripheral fringes of the tourism economy to get more businesses in Scotland improving their levels of customer service. “This year there is an ongoing programme speaking to business, which is a continuation of our programme last year with the Scottish chambers of commerce.”
How does he view 2014, which many say was a momentous year. “Yes, 2014 was an amazing year but we saw it as a catalyst for growth. The final figures will come out in the next month or so and they are all looking pretty good. Even the anecdotal stuff is that 73-75% of businesses are confident about 2015, while 17% say they are going to hire more staff.”
The impact on job creation in Scotland shows the power of a sustainable tourism sector, with an estimated 28,000 new jobs across Scotland.
“There is an underlying strength for the tourism industry, and positivity which is great to see. But what is also important is that people who don’t necessarily see themselves as part of the industry are now understanding the benefits. Perhaps many people didn’t fully appreciate how the likes of the events, such as the Glasgow 2014 Games and the Ryder Cup, can make a positive impact to the nation. That has definitely changed, not just economically but socially as well.”
This has all been good for Scotland’s reputation internationally too. This is exemplified by the three Cs of confidence, capability and capacity.
“I see a fourth ‘C’ in there, which is credibility, because we’ve done it and put on two wonderful sporting events and also over 1,000 events with the Homecoming programme.”
Scotland is in vogue as the global visitor economy begins to recovery.
“It is the belief that Scotland can deliver and will deliver that goes a long way in terms of conferences and events, and we are beginning to reap the benefits of the infrastructure in place over the last few years.”
The glowing success of the 13,000 seater SSE Hydro, bolstered by the unexpected 21-day sell-out sensation of the comedy Still Game, is great news from Glasgow and the rest of the country. It has now become the second busiest venue in the world, after the O2 arena in London, and even beating Madison Square Garden in New York.
“We talk glibly about ‘game-changers’ but there is no doubt the SSE Hydro is one for Scotland. It’s been a game-changer for the business sector and a game-changer for Glasgow, and for Scotland.”
Infrastructure remains a topical issue for Scotland, although the improving aviation links with the likes of Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, which starts daily flights from Abu Dhabi to Edinburgh in June, and Ryanair’s expansion from Glasgow and Turkish Airlines out of Edinburgh into Europe, are giving Scotland a tremendous boost. Roughead also adds WestJet, the Canadian low-cost airline flying in from Toronto.
“This allows Scotland to have access to markets into the Far East and Asia. The demand is there and we need to be smart about how we tap into that.”
Roughead explains like any business VisitScotland has to look at the portfolio and prioritise where it sees the best return for its bucks. He says it is a balance of developing new markets while also maintaining the presence in more mature markets. Europe makes up 64% of the value of Scotland’s visitor numbers, while there is still a lot of work to do in North America, where the demographics are changing.
“Tying into the Scottish diaspora is still important but there is also the new demographic of the US-Hispanic market, which is growing and more prosperous. The question is: how do we make Scotland interesting to them? Without the old ties, it is a different proposition for them?” How can we forget our English, Welsh and Irish neighbours?
“The rest of the UK market remains very important to us. It’s very competitive and UK citizens are great travellers and we are competing with sunshine holidays in exotic destinations. But we’ve got plenty to attract them north of the border with festivals and sporting events and the likes of the SSE Hydro. And great food and drink.”
Where does he see emerging trends? Roughead cites ‘agritourism’ as making a return in Scotland, with visitors staying in farmhouses and experiencing the animals
and nature at close range.
“The leading experts are the Italians – they do this exceptionally well – and I know it is of interest to many in the Scottish industry. If farmers are diversifying into other things, then this is something to consider. He says there are already some great success stories in Scotland, and this will be a sub-sector to watch.
In all, Roughead remains quietly confident about Scotland’s tourism future. With 11 billion reasons already to be cheerful, there’s still plenty of scope to make it even more.