Take your partners please

Riddell Graham, director of partnerships at VisitScotland, explains why working together with companies and organisations holds the key to helping the nation’s tourism industry to grow

Partnerships are at the very heart of VisitScotland’s activities. Whether it’s working with individual businesses or liaising with other public bodies, the national tourism organisation has a vast network of links that are designed to help the industry to grow. The person at the heart of this swirling dance is Riddell Graham, the organisation’s director of partnerships. He and his team are charged with the task of working with companies and organisations not just within the tourism industry but also in the wider economy and civic life.

“VisitScotland knows that it cannot deliver its agenda on its own – it needs that partnership working,” Graham explains. “Tourism growth will not be delivered by VisitScotland alone – it has to rely on everyone working together.

“We don’t own any of the products or experiences that the visitor interacts with, so we rely on influencing partners and working with them to ensure that the visitor gets the best experience at the end of the day. We’re encouraging people to work together collaboratively and to use the research and key consumer trends that we identify.”

Partnerships have always played a crucial role in Graham’s career. After graduating from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in ecological sciences, he returned to his native Borders and joined the local council as an assistant tourist officer before rising through the ranks to become chief executive of the Scottish Borders Tourist Board, a post he held from 1996 to 2005.

While his work with both the local council and the tourist board involved plenty of partnerships, his specialism in the field really took off when he moved to VisitScotland in 2005 as director of strategy, partnership and communication, before taking up his current role in 2010.

“It’s all about relationships with people,” Graham says. “People ask me what my relationship is like with Highlands & Islands Enterprise, for example, but I explain that I don’t have a relationship with Highlands & Islands Enterprise, I have a relationship with the people at Highlands & Islands Enterprise.

“Having that personal relationship with an individual in an organisation is very important because you’re not starting from scratch each time you call or visit. You know the right person to speak to.

“It’s the same for our quality assessors, who go out to give accommodation and visitor attractions their star ratings. Our team sometimes has to give quite difficult feedback to the owners or managers of properties about what they need to do to improve their product or service or performance. They can do that because they are skilled and experienced and have those personal relationships with our customers.

“My team of regional directors has that same kind of personal relationship with Members of Parliament and Members of the Scottish Parliament. They can talk to MPs and MSPs about the importance of tourism in their areas, while politicians can also ask questions about any issues that have been raised with them.”

VisitScotland’s partnerships span a whole range of organisations. In the public sector, it works with the Scottish Government and many of its agencies, including Forestry Commission Scotland, Skills Development Scotland, Transport Scotland and the economic development bodies, Highlands & Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise.

In the private sector, the agency has partnerships with big players such as airlines, hotel chains and transport providers, and also with the Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA), the trade body that represents businesses working in the industry. “It really helps to have STA because it offers a strong voice for the industry,” Graham says.

Other relationships are on a one-to-one basis, such as with the 6,000 businesses that use VisitScotland’s quality assurance scheme or the 13,000 visitor attractions, accommodation providers and other businesses that provide information for the organisation’s website.

In the wider business community, VisitScotland also has relationships with the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and the Scottish Council for Development & Industry. Graham points out that it’s crucial to highlight the importance of tourism to those working in other industries. Visitors spend £12bn a year in Scotland and the tourism industry contributes £6bn to our nation’s economy, accounting for around 5% of our gross domestic product.

At a local level, the organisation also forms partnerships with local councils, local tourism groups and destination organisations.  “I’ve recently visited more than 20 out of Scotland’s 32 local authorities to talk to them about VisitScotland’s latest work,” Graham says. “Each local council puts a different emphasis on tourism, depending on where they are located in the country and what resources they have in their area, be they natural or historic.

“I laid down the challenge to each local council, asking what it would do to celebrate the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology during 2017. It doesn’t necessarily mean holding an event – I want them to think about the stories that they want to tell from their area and how they can supply content for the VisitScotland website to help get those stories out there.”

The Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology may have only just begun, but Graham is already getting excited about 2018’s theme – the Year of Young People. Next year’s theme offers all sorts of opportunities for further partnerships. “The themed years are a great example of how partnerships can work by getting people to rally round a cause,” he says. “That’s galvanised a lot of relationships that may not have happened if the themed years hadn’t come into play.

VisitScotland 03“Thinking back to the Year of Natural Scotland, we had a good relationship with Scottish Natural Heritage because it recognised the importance of tourism. That was one of our most-successful years in getting the industry – individual bed and breakfasts, self-catering providers and attractions – to see an opportunity, to work together with each other and to work together with us and SNH.

“We also worked with Calmac and Scotrail to give people free tickets to explore the countryside and the islands. It spun out partnerships that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. Our job with the themed years is to get our partners to recognise the opportunities that those themed years will bring.”

Graham also highlights the way in which partnerships have grown around the “Spirit of Scotland” marketing campaign, which VisitScotland launched last year to create a social movement to help promote Scotland on a global stage. The campaign included a partnership with the Family Holiday Association, which led to hundreds of poorer families being given free holidays.

Looking ahead, Graham thinks partnerships will play an important role in two of the major trends that will shape the future of the tourism industry in Scotland – the use of data alongside the quality assurance scheme and the role for the traditional tourist information centres.

“Our quality assurance schemes have been running since 1985 and there’s still a valuable place for them,” explains Graham. “There are now also huge amounts of data available online about what visitors think about tourist attractions, accommodation providers and other businesses.

“We’re working with companies like Google and Skyscanner to understand how we can use both our quality assurance schemes and the broader spread of data surrounding visitor reviews. We need to use those partnerships so we can handle those vast amounts of information.

“We’ve had tourist information centres in Scotland for as long as anyone can remember. But visitors are now getting information in different ways, especially online through their mobile phones and tablets. Many visitors don’t want to be dependent anymore on going to a specific tourist information centre that may or may not be open at the time that they want to access it. Those visitors are moving away from a bricks-and-mortar approach to getting information when and where they want it, and so our online services are becoming more important than ever.

“Other visitors still want to speak to a human being face-to-face and ask questions and get recommendations. So, we’re forming partnerships with many bed and breakfasts, guest houses, hotels and visitor attractions, which in effect are becoming like mini tourist information centres in their areas.

“But I think there will always be a place for traditional visitor information centres in certain key locations, especially for overseas visitors.”