VisitScotland chair Mike Cantlay looks back over his six years overseeing the board of the national tourism agency and reflects on the ‘winning years’, avoiding the ‘tourism draught’ and a red-haired animated princess called Merida.
As he passed by his television set on Christmas day, Mike Cantlay had a wry smile on his face. Disney Pixar’s Brave was the primetime film being shown on BBC1 and, for the outgoing chair of VisitScotland, the movie brought back memories of his six years at the helm of the national tourism agency.
Released in 2012, Brave tells the story of Princess Merida, a headstrong young woman who rejects her mother’s plans for her betrothal to a champion from one of the rival clans. The film – which starred the vocal talents of Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson – was used by VisitScotland as a marketing tool to promote our nation throughout the world, with adverts for Scotland appearing as trailers before the film and Merida’s image displayed on countless posters.
Cantlay, another feisty redhead, took over as chair of the agency in 2010, having served as
its deputy chair from 2001 to 2005. At that point, Brave was still lurking somewhere in the middle distance and it was another famous film with links to Scotland that was occupying Cantlay’s thoughts.
“It was Burns’ Night in 2010 when I was interviewed,” he remembers. “I said ‘I have another Scottish hero in mind in the form of Mel Gibson standing out in front of the troops in Braveheart saying let’s get together and go this way’.
“Let’s look for a handful of big hits and that will get growth going. The person chairing the panel came back to me and said ‘Just go and do that – that would be grand’. And that’s basically how we went about it.”
Eight key themes were identified for the ‘Winning Years’ between 2012 and 2014 to act as a focus for marketing Scotland to potential visitors. “They included the Queen’s diamond jubilee, the London Olympics, the Year of Creative Scotland, the Year of Natural Scotland, the Year of Homecoming, the Commonwealth Games, and the Ryder Cup,” says Cantlay, checking each one off on his fingers as he goes. “The one that’s missing from that list is Brave.
Famously – and embarrassingly for one or two members of staff – it was my brother-in-law, who is a Disney fan, who emailed me one day and asked if I knew that Pixar was making this movie. So I had a wee look and thought this is ‘the thing’. I went up to VisitScotland staff at events and just said ‘Brave’. Most of them would look at me somewhat askance but one or two replied ‘Oh yeah, that’s the Disney movie – we’re on that’ and I replied ‘Oh no, no, no – we’re not on that, let’s have a real go’.
“We weren’t just going for everything that came our way; we were focusing on a few really big opportunities and nailing them. Eventually we cut a deal with Disney, which took a long time. They don’t do business with governments – certainly they’d never done one before. But the deal eventually rattled out to us sponsoring the world premiere, sponsoring the European premiere and allowing us to market alongside them around the world.
When it all broke open just before Brave’s launch it was amazing. It linked so neatly for us with the Year of Natural Scotland in 2013 because people were watching Brave at the end of 2012.”
Cantlay had form in this area. His plan to identify eight “big things” for Scotland’s tourism industry was inspired by his time as chair of Scottish Enterprise Forth Valley. The performance of the area’s economy was lagging behind that of Scotland and the wider UK and so a handful of targets were identified for everyone involved in economic development to focus on: attracting £1bn of additional petro-chemical investment for Grangemouth and the surrounding area; building the Clackmannanshire Bridge to replace the Kincardine Bridge, with the work being carried out on the Forth Valley side instead of the Fife side; reopening the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine rail link; sorting out the top of the town in Stirling, which Cantlay felt was an under-utilised asset; winning national park status for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs; and finally building the Millennium Link to connect the Forth & Clyde and Union canals.
“The hope there was that there would be a need for a massive piece of infrastructure to get canal boats from one height to the other and we hoped that could become an attraction,” says Cantlay, hinting at the construction of the Falkirk Wheel. “It took many years beyond my time there for all of that to come together, but low-and-behold all of those features came to be and the Forth Valley economy no longer under-performs.”
Spotting such opportunities is in Cantlay’s blood. He was drafted in to run the family firm – William Glen & Son – after his dad had a heart attack while he was in his first year of studying business at the University of Strathclyde. Helping out while his father recovered clearly solidified his interest in commerce.
His father had bought William Glen & Son from its founding family in 1967 and moved his young family to Callander. After returning to Strathclyde to complete his undergraduate studies and add a master of business administration (MBA) degree to his haul, Cantlay set about building his own portfolio. He bought Robin Hood Gift House in Glasgow and then a former petrol station as a development site at Loch Lomond.
Cantlay’s big break came in 1992 when he bought The Whisky Shop chain out of receivership, subsequently building up the business before selling it to Ian Bankier, now chairman of Celtic football club and the former managing director of whisky distiller Burn Stewart. A year after taking over The Whisky Shop, Cantlay bought a controlling stake in Hector Russell, a kilt-making business based in Inverness that had 17 stores throughout Scotland but no one single cohesive brand.
Cantlay rebadged them all as Hector Russell and built the chain up to 30 shops before selling it to Philip Day’s Edinburgh Woollen Mill in 2005 so he could spend time with his young twins. The William Glen brand lives on in the name of Cantlay’s current company, which has Highland dress businesses in Canada and the United States.
The firm was founded as a tailor’s business in Kirkcaldy in the 1860s, with William Glen moving to Callander in 1869 following the construction of the railway line that opened up the Trossachs to tourists. Cantlay’s father – who had been working for Lochcarron woollen mills in Galashiels – bought the company from William Glen’s grandson in 1967.
Cantlay is proud of the role Callander has played in the evolution of Scotland’s tourism industry and he still calls the village home. “Scotland has been a tourist destination for 200 years and we really started tourism in the Trossachs with Sir Walter Scott and his Lady of the Lake poem,” he explains, pointing to the poet’s 1810 work, which was one of the factors that inspired Queen Victoria to visit the area before settling instead on Balmoral as her family’s Scottish residence. “There’s every reason why we’ll be leading global tourism for many years to come, maybe even for the next 200 years.”
The firm foundations for that growth were laid during the ‘Winning Years’, culminating in 2014, when Scotland hosted the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, golf’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles and its second Year of Homecoming. Visitor spending rose by 10% year-on-year during 2014, with around 12,600 jobs being created in tourism since 2010 and the industry adding 35% more gross value to the economy between 2008 and the end of 2014.
“In a sense though, that’s not the best part of the story,” beams Cantlay. “I’m not saying that delivering the likes of the Ryder Cup was easy, but the hard part was always going to be going into 2015, which was a real concern. Often what you see after a period of big events is what we call ‘the draught’ – it took Sydney ten years to get back to where they were before the 2000 Olympics because visitor numbers immediately tailed off. It’s a common phenomenon.
“Our concern was to keep things going during 2015 and in the early part of that year exchange rates started to move viciously against us. The euro moved 15% virtually overnight. And I started to think ‘This is going to be hard work to keep this momentum going’. Then we had the awful summer weather.
Basically, 2015 had all the hallmarks of being one of these tourism dips that you get when bad things coincide. “If you were to ask my fabulous chief executive, Malcolm Roughead, for one word to describe what the ‘Winning Years’ were about then he would say ‘momentum’.
The whole purpose wasn’t just to have a great time in 2014 but to create the momentum to take us on. Imagine the example of a bike – if you’ve got momentum on the easy downhill stretches then it makes going up the hills so much easier. If you lose that momentum then you have to go back down through the gears and you lose speed and you can’t get going again.
“So the figures that we’re now seeing, which are for the first nine months of 2015, show overall growth of 8%, which is fabulous, especially when you think you’ve got the implications of the low oil price in Aberdeen starting to kick-in there. Overall you’re looking at 10% growth in spend in 2014 and 8% growth at the start of 2015. We’ll bank that. I’m not saying that every business will have done well because the wet weather will have affected several sectors, but overall we’re in good shape.”
Managing to grow the industry in the face of “the draught” and foreign exchange rate fluctuations was all down to a change in mind-set, Cantlay believes. “I think we’re in good shape because we’ve learned to win,” he maintains. “And once you’ve learned to win, you like to win. We like to win events, we like to win new conferences, we like to win investment, we like to win new air routes. So despite the fact that you look ahead and the immediate period looks quite challenging from an economic perspective, I’m very confident that we’ll continue to win.”
New air routes – and, more broadly, transport in general – are important topics for Cantlay. He points to the recent announcement that charter flights would begin between Glasgow and Seoul in South Korea. “It’s lovely to be involved in things – but that one is mine,” he grins.
“I turned up in Seoul on a Sunday afternoon – I literally wasn’t there 24 hours – and took some key people to dinner and out of that dinner came this opportunity. They’d be thinking about this route. That was my contribution. The rest was down to the airports and government colleagues to pull it together. But I look forward to that plane whipping in. That’s an impressive win for Scotland. Whenever you’re involved in anything like that then it’s very satisfying.”
Closer to home, Cantlay recognises the importance of dualling the A9 and laying on longer trains to Inverness for improving tourism in Scotland. Looking further ahead, he thinks having a high-speed rail link between Glasgow and Edinburgh will allow tourists to treat the two cities as a single destination, no matter which one they’re staying in.
“Edinburgh is already the second-most visited city in the UK after London and Glasgow is the sixth most-visited city and faster travel times will allow them to work together as one single destination,” he explains.
“That would be a profound change. It won’t diminish the individual features of each city, but it means that it won’t matter in which city you stay because you’ll be able to move backward and forward between Edinburgh and Glasgow so easily and in comfort and at speed.”
Gazing into his crystal ball, Cantlay also thinks Scotland is ready to embrace driverless vehicles. “In effect, we already have driverless planes and trains, and driverless cars and buses are almost with us,” he says.
“Think about tourism for a minute: you hire a car and it goes where you point it. Imagine the opportunity with the whole European and American markets, which get a bit edgy about having to drive on the ‘other’ side of the road. They wouldn’t have to drive at all. Just get in the bubble and it will take you where you want to go. It’s a global change that will affect everyone employed in driving, but in Scotland drivers also act as tourist guides, so it will allow a move from driving responsibilities to a focus on maximising the experience for the visitor. The potential change is massive and I think Scotland will be really up for that.”
One of the catchphrases that Cantlay inherited from his predecessor, Peter Lederer, was “Tourism is everybody’s business”, words that have seldom been far from the outgoing chair of VisitScotland’s lips as he’s acted as cheerleader-in-chief for his country.
“The Commonwealth Games was the point in time when tourism genuinely became everyone’s business,” says Cantlay. “We’ve always said it, but 2014 was the point when it became entrenched and Scots realised that they were part of this whole machine and that they wanted to be part of that welcoming party. If the whole of the nation is into this thing and wants to do more then I think we’re in good shape.”
And what about the man himself? Does retirement beckon once he hangs up his VisitScotland hat on 31 March? “I’m only 52, so I’m not ready for retirement just yet,” laughs Cantlay. “I don’t have any plans yet, but I’m on the lookout for opportunities, both in the public and private sectors. I’m still an entrepreneur at heart.”