Check-out: the lack
of leadership at
I met Jim Mather on one of his trips to North America when he was the minister in charge of Scotland's tourism industry. During our talk I pointed out that British Columbia's tourism GDP was substantially more impressive than Scotland's – despite the fact that the 'one-day-away' catchment population for Scotland's visitors is much greater than British Columbia's. Mather, a refreshingly intelligent and down-to-earth politician, said he didn't believe me. But he gave me his card and over the next couple of weeks I put the figures together for him. They proved my point.
Since I work internationally as a consultant in the tourism industry, and because I had a few years before been on a short list of three for the job of heading up VisitScotland, I also gave Jim Mather some reasons for this state of affairs. Given the known depth of history, mythology and culture – the magic, for there is no better word – that Scotland should enjoy over what was then a comparatively one-dimensional tourism product in BC, there was no inherent reason for the discrepancy. Except, in my view, for a lack of competence in the organisation charged with developing and promoting tourism in, and to, Scotland.
I won't go a lot of detail here, but things don't appear to have changed much in the four or five years since I last spoke with Jim Mather. VisitScotland's leadership still seems unable to grasp the fundamental nature of the industry it purports to lead. That's probably not surprising when you parachute executives in there from other types of business and industry. The tourism industry is a unique animal, very different in nature from standard manufacturing, marketing or service operations.
At its product, operational and marketing levels, tourism is a genuine partnership between business owners and practitioners, cultural entities and personnel, people who run activities and events—and a country’s people. This mix of big and small, business, recreation, the arts and social fabric, makes it a fragile industry; one that is easily damaged or destroyed by careless development and careless marketing. (Witness Spain's Mediterranean coast, or Mexico's Yucatan.)
In Scotland, the important things that helped to cement these multi-level partnerships I'm talking about were the area tourist boards. If you do away with them, as one of VisitScotland's business-bottom-line-oriented leader groups did a few years ago, then you have a top-down, hierarchical operation. Direction from Edinburgh doesn't always go over well in the Hebrides or Glasgow, and the loss of the ATBs weakened the foundations of an industry whose diversity gives it its strength. It destroyed the partnerships that are essential to success, and once again showed that the people who were running the industry didn't understand its essential nature.
There is much more to VisitScotland's problems than I have written here, but I'll just give a couple of other examples. A few years ago the organisation spent tens of millions of pounds on an internet marketing/reservations system when they were told that they could have had one off the shelf and easily adaptable to their needs for less than 10% of what they ended up paying. It was wasteful and unnecessary, and it was hardly smart business practice. There should have been a public inquiry, but as far as I know there wasn't.
Some years ago the Aussies figured out that the educational tourist – at 6%
of the total visitor load – left a very small footprint. But it's a well-heeled foot. It generates about 25% of Australia's tourism revenues.
Secondly – and although I haven't looked at the most recent figures I doubt they have changed much – Scotland's domestic tourism has long been low compared to say, British Columbia, which posts figures year in, year out, to show that around 45% of its tourism revenues are generated by BC residents exploring their own province. Smart marketing starts at home by motivating its own people, because it understands that everyone in the country has a role to play in making this industry successful.
And one extra example I'll give is that Australia's tourism industry is heavily focused towards education. Some years ago the Aussies figured out that the educational tourist – at 6% of the total visitor load – left a very small footprint. But it's a well-heeled foot. It generates about 25% of Australia's tourism revenues. I'd say Scotland is much better placed to offer that kind of hands-on product, and to market it around the world; short courses in everything from the oceans to the arts, history, heritage and the outdoors. But I don't remember seeing anything like this from VisitScotland.
Mike MacKenzie, now MSP for Highlands and Islands, said this about Scotland's visitors a couple of years ago: 'We benefit from the enlarged world view they bring, from their differing perspectives and from their wish to understand our shared history. Our history, which is the product of all those stories, of all those people, that shed light on our past and where we came from. By better understanding this we better understand where we are today, our place in the world and where we might go from here'.
I believe MacKenzie was also referring to the priceless knowledge that people who live in Scotland can get from a deeper exploration of their own country. I think he's saying that tourism is worth doing, but only if you're doing it right. The words he uses – 'stories', 'people', 'history', 'light', 'understanding' – are about things that give depth and personality to an industry like tourism. They're essential, and they're not always visible to the eye. But they show how important it is for the powers that run Scotland's tourism industry to make sure they're offering a quality product with substance to it; one that's handled and presented by well-trained personnel.
I still have a copy of the letter I sent to Jim Mather. It is full of factual information, figures, and what I think was sound reasoning and some useful suggestions. I had a lovely, gracious reply from him. At the end of it he said that he had passed my information along to senior management at VisitScotland. I can only guess which circular file it went into.
Michael Elcock was born in Forres and grew up in Edinburgh and West Africa. He emigrated to Canada when he was 21. He was athletic director
at the University of Victoria for 10 years, and then CEO of Tourism
Victoria for five