Lord Thurso

Lord Thurso, chair of VisitScotland

‘More people, spending more money, in more places, more often’

Lord Thurso looks back over his first year as chair of VisitScotland, and considers the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for the tourism industry.

It’s been a busy year for Lord Thurso. During his first 12 months as chair of VisitScotland, he’s travelled throughout the country, meeting a whole range of people working in the tourism industry, from the owners of some of the smallest bed and breakfasts all the way through to the staff at some of the country’s biggest resorts.

“One of the highlights has been getting out and meeting people,” explains Thurso. “Tourism is unique because it touches every corner of Scotland and so it’s been fascinating to see how communities throughout the country are promoting what their areas have to offer.”

Thurso’s role as an ambassador for the tourism industry hasn’t just taken him around Scotland, but also further afield. Last December, he was in Phoenix for the United States Tour Operators’ Association’s annual conference and marketplace; VisitScotland sponsored the first session, giving the new chair a ten-minute slot to speak to 650 of the biggest buyers in America.

“It was a great opportunity,” Thurso says. “The global tourism market is so competitive – Scotland is out there competing against 200 other countries to entice visitors to come and spend their dollars, euros and pounds with us.

“And it’s great to see Scots rising to that challenge. The number of visitors coming to our country has gone up year-on-year, along with the amount of money they’re spending.

“Scotland is growing faster than any other part of the UK. When I took over as chair, a lot of people said that we faced an uphill struggle following the success of the ‘winning years’, when we hosted events such as the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup.

“But the figures show that the numbers have kept growing, which is testament to all the hard work that’s going on, not just at VisitScotland but also in tourism businesses throughout the country. VisitScotland can stimulate the ‘demand’ side by encouraging more tourists to come to Scotland, but it’s important to work on the ‘supply’ side too, which is the services tourists receive when they get here.

“My mantra is that I want to see ‘More people, spending more money, in more places, more often, to create more wealth and more jobs’. Everyone’s got to have a slogan these days,” he laughs.

Using tourism as an economic development tool is a topic that’s clearly close to Thurso’s heart. He’s particularly aware of the role that tourism plays in rural communities – he lives in Caithness and, when we speak, he’s watching from his window as scores of dry-suit-clad surfers ride the waves – despite the temperature outside being -3C, with snow lying on the ground.

Lord ThursoHe praises initiatives such as the North Coast 500, billed as the North of Scotland’s answer to California’s Route 66, which encourages visitors to explore the communities that lie along the Highland’s most-northerly roads. He wants to see more work with local communities and organisations such as Venture North, which uses social media to promote the area.

Further afield, he salutes the innovations from communities to harness opportunities such as the reopening of the Borders Railway and the creation of Scotland’s first Dark Skies Park in Dumfries & Galloway. He has been very impressed with how local communities are coming together to develop and promote their attractions, particularly online.

“Since 2008, the gross value that tourism adds to the Scottish economy has grown by 42%” he points out. “When you look at the whole supply chain, the number of people employed far outnumbers the 217,000 directly employed in tourism – that’s everyone from the accountants, lawyers and financial staff who serve tourism firms.

“Investing in the visitor economy is key – research shows that a job is created every time £64,000 is spent in the tourism industry. The numbers speak for themselves – 14.5 million people visited Scotland in 2015 and they contributed £11bn to our economy.

“These figures demonstrate why it’s so important for tourism to be taken seriously as an economic development tool, especially in rural areas. If a croft can offer accommodation to guests for, say, six months each year then that’s a great bit of diversification and can make the difference between having a hard life and having a comfortable and enjoyable life.”

Thurso’s role at VisitScotland is three-fold: as well as fulfilling his ambassadorial function, he also chairs the board, which consists entirely of non-executive directors; and he leads the organisation’s strategic thinking, working with the executive team to help the board set the direction of travel. He lists the appointment of non-executive director Caroline Roxburgh, one of the partners at accountancy firm PwC in Edinburgh, as another highlight of his first year.

“Caroline’s appointment means our board is now equally split 50% men and 50% women,” he says. “That’s an important milestone, but it also goes to show you can achieve gender balance without compromising on the quality of your directors.”

Thurso is best known for having sat in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords but, prior to entering politics, he enjoyed a varied career in the hospitality sector, cutting his teeth at the Savoy and working as reception manager at Claridge’s before becoming Europe’s youngest five-star hotel manager when he was appointed managing director of the Lancaster Hotel in Paris at the age of just 27.

He set up the Cliveden in Berkshire for Blakeney Hotels and became chief executive at first Granfel Holdings, the owner of East Sussex National Golf Course, and then the Champneys Luxury Spa Group. Not bad for someone whose work in hospitality began by washing dishes in a Caithness hotel during his school holidays from Eton.

Looking ahead, Thurso sees major opportunities on the horizon. “There are what I call ‘tactical’ opportunities – such as the lowering of air passenger duty (APD) or value-added tax (VAT) – which could make us a more attractive destination,” he says. “But there are also strategic opportunities.

“Look at the new conference centre being built at Aberdeen, look at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum and the other developments in Dundee, look at the fact that Edinburgh is increasing its hotel capacity by 25% over the next 18 months or so, look at the fact that the Hydro in Glasgow is the second-largest venue of its kind in the world. These are extraordinarily high-class assets. There’s the opportunity for a step-change in visitor numbers.”

Developing innovative products that harness local strengths and packaging them to appeal to visitors is a proven formula, as shown by the Borders Railway, Dark Skies and North Coast 500. He wants to see more communities working together to launch initiatives that will create jobs and generate wealth in their local areas.

Making the most of events is important too. He points to the arrival of the Solheim Cup in 2019 – in which Europe and the United States’ best female golfers will go head-to-head – and says it will be a chance once again to promote Scotland on the world stage. It’s also an opportunity to attract more events to our shores.

Challenges also lie ahead though. Thurso highlights the need to invest in high-quality visitor experiences and accommodation in hotspots, such as along the West Coast.

“I do get worried sometimes about the lack of accommodation in some popular areas,” he confesses. “And I also worry about a lack of digital capabilities, especially among smaller businesses – we need to harness new technology if we want to compete globally.”

Despite these issues, Thurso is optimistic that Scottish tourism is on the right track. As the industry moves towards its 2020 vision to bring in an extra £1bn into the visitor economy, he looks at the surfers outside his window and predicts that tourism will continue riding on the crest of a wave.