Denise Hill

Denise Hill, VisitScotland’s head of market strategy and development.

Ready for take off

Bringing new air links to Scotland and securing existing routes not only produces benefits for visitors but also for the wider economy explains Denise Hill, VisitScotland’s head of market strategy and development.

Each time that Denise Hill looks up to the sky and sees an airliner flying over the top of VisitScotland’s head office in Leith, the organisation’s head of market strategy and development could be forgiven for feeling a sense of satisfaction. Hill and her team, along with their partners in both the public and private sectors, work hard to make sure Scotland has the international air links that it needs to grow its visitor numbers.

“Air links are about much more than simply bringing more leisure passengers to Scotland,” Hill points out. “By having links to international destinations, we can help businesses from all sectors of the economy – whether it’s tourism or life sciences or energy – to export their products and services.

“The airlines are all interested in selling those important business-class seats at the front of the aircraft, as well as filling the leisure seats in the rest of the plane. If we can help to fill those seats then it makes routes more sustainable.”

Bringing airlines to Scotland is a process that can sometimes take years of planning. It begins with VisitScotland sitting down with other partners from the public sector – including Highlands & Islands Enterprise, Scottish Development International and Scottish Enterprise – and from the private sector to look at the demand for routes to new locations. Scotland’s airports play a crucial role in this process as well – ensuring joined-up thinking across the public and private sector.

“We take a strategic approach to work out which countries and even which cities Scotland needs to be connected to,” Hill explains. “We consult research on forward travel trends and, of course, we also consult data indicating visitor numbers currently coming via connecting flights.

“Sometimes we’ll identify the need for a point-to-point route that will link Scotland directly to another country. But sometimes we’ll look at the need for Scotland to be connected to the world’s big hub airports, like Heathrow in London, Schiphol in Amsterdam or Charles de Gaulle in Paris.

“Having air links to these hubs allows Scottish travellers to make connections to destinations further afield. It also allows flyers to connect to other airlines through their alliances and codeshare agreements.”

Hill’s horizons don’t end in Europe though. VisitScotland has been working with airlines to help forge connections that will link the nation to hubs in far-flung corners of the globe.

“Scotland has benefited for a number of years now from the Emirates flight from Glasgow, but in recent years we’ve been able to extend our links to the Middle East with a further two airlines – Etihad and Qatar,” Hill explains. “The links to the Middle East are important because they give travellers more options for connecting to fast-growing emerging economies like China and India, and also provide more-direct access to places like Australia.

“The new Finnair link between Scotland and Helsinki is also important for the same reasons. Travellers can save two or three hours when flying to the Far East by going ‘up-and-over’ if they connect in Finland.

“Having the direct flight to Charles de Gaulle not only opens up further links in Europe and the Middle East but also across to Latin America as well. These are all great examples of how being connected to hubs can open more doors for businesses that want to export.”

VisitScotland works with Scotland’s airlines and airports to help them flesh-out the business cases for new routes, providing facts and figures from the organisation’s extensive research to show where demand already exists for air links. The tourism organisation adopts a “Team Scotland” approach by linking up with other government agencies to attend international air route conferences, so it can promote Scotland as a destination for airlines to consider. Once an airline is interested in a route then VisitScotland can start to develop ideas for a marketing strategy that will help to promote the link.

AirlinerThis can include advertising, joint public relations activity and also developing the airline’s “product”. “The ‘product’ in this case is the holiday that the airline’s vacation arm can offer to customers,” Hill explains. “We want to make sure that those packages are as attractive as possible.

“We can also help the airlines to make connections to the business community. The airlines want to fill up their business-class seats and so we can help them to reach those audiences, with the help of the enterprise agencies.”

She adds that businesses in Scotland can really support such routes by booking their travel through these new and established connections. Over the past year, the organisation has worked with 22 airlines, which has resulted in a further 12 routes being launched. Together, those air links mean that an additional 170,000 seats have been created on flights into Scotland.

The prize for bringing in new airlines is significant for Scottish tourism. Research on just three of the new flights from Chicago, Doha and Hailfax showed a net economic impact of £17m. “That’s when all the work starts to get exciting – when you see the capacity you’re building so you can both grow the number of inbound tourists coming to Scotland but also the opportunities for wider economic development through exports,” Hill says. “That connectivity is in place, so there’s capacity for growth.

“It can be a long and complicated business. Sometimes it can take literally years to identify a route that doesn’t exist and then work with partners to push the case for Scotland and show how demand is growing and that there’s a genuine business opportunity for an airline to serve Scotland.

“During 2016, we saw the start of the new Delta Air Lines service between JFK in New York and Edinburgh. It was also exciting to see Air Canada Rouge add a route from Toronto to Glasgow.

“Air Canada Rouge already had a route from Edinburgh to Toronto, which demonstrates that part of our job involves extending relationships with existing airlines, rather than simply chasing after new airlines.”

Dutch airline KLM’s decision to open a service between Dalcross airport at Inverness and Schiphol in Amsterdam was another highlight of the year. “It’s not all about the Central Belt,” Hill points out.

“A lot of visitors want to see the dramatic scenery in the Highlands and so we work hard to get flights to our smaller airports too. Much of our work centres on the big population centres in the Central Belt and the North-East, so it’s good when we can bring airlines to places like Inverness.

“The KLM connection is very important because it gives Highlanders the opportunity to access a major hub airport in the Netherlands. KLM has recently announced that it will be flying twice a day now to Inverness, which is a great step forward.”

Hill is also excited about the first direct flight between Scotland and South Korea, which links Glasgow with Seoul. “It’s a small service, but it’s growing,” she says.

Someone who is especially pleased with the service to Seoul is Mike Cantlay, the former chair of VisitScotland, who was involved in the very early stages of negotiations to bring the route to Scotland. He has underlined the air link as one of the highlights of his time in office.

Hill is keen to build on the links with the Far East that come through the South Korea route and the hub connections through the three Middle Eastern airlines. She eventually wants to see a direct flight from Scotland to China.

“We’re looking at the growth in the number of visitors who are coming to Scotland from China,” she says. “At this point in time, they’re all travelling in-directly to get to Scotland.

“But the number of people travelling between Scotland and China is growing all the time and the business case for a direct route is growing. It’ll come as no surprise and there’s a great deal of work going on through us and our partners to develop that business case and to secure the first direct flight.”

Flying in the opposite direction, Hill would also like to see further routes across the Pond. “WestJet introduced a service between Halifax in Nova Scotia in Canada to Glasgow in 2015,” she says. “It’s very interesting to see those low-cost airlines starting to fly across the Atlantic and for WestJet to pick Glasgow as one of its first stopping points in Europe. We hope that Scotland will be able to continue to capture a greater share of the low-cost travel market between North America and Europe and we’re working hard to do that.

“It’s always exciting to talk about new routes, but it’s just as important to promote the routes that we already have,” Hill adds. “We’ve worked very hard to build-up this connectivity and so we need to continue supporting it to make it sustainable.”