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Visit Scotland | Alba
Article published 23/07/2019

Scottish tourism

This year is a golden year for VisitScotland as we turn 50 this week - on 25 July 2019 - the date when the Scottish Tourist Board was created.

We want to celebrate 50 years of golden moments with the tourism industry in 2019 with this 50th anniversary allowing us to look fondly at the past while fixing our gaze toward the future. This anniversary allows us to look back on how Scottish tourism has become a real powerhouse of the Scottish economy in a very short space of time.

What better time to talk to Marc Crothall, Chief Executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA) on the changes he’s seen across the tourism industry and, more importantly, what lies ahead.

Do you have any interesting stories you can tell of your time in tourism?

The Beast from the East

Most of my interesting stories relate back to two things – people, and our weather! Most recently, you’ll remember that on the day of our annual signature conference in 2018, with one eye on the weather report and the other eye on our Twitter feed for updates, we were forced to abandon plans for our conference, thanks to the arrival of the Beast from the East.

With our team snowed in at the host venue, laptops out, phones (sometimes two!) at the ear and in full crisis communications mode, we managed to reorganise our entire event in the space of a day and communicate this to every delegate due to join us for the two-day event. For the delegates who were already well into their journey to the SEC, we assured each of them that they would be met and welcomed by our team for a cosy, relaxed dinner hosted by us and in the weeks ahead as the snow melted, we put final plans in place to host what turned out to be one of our largest and most successful conferences. I am pleased to say the sun shone for the entire two days!

The ‘Red Shed’ underwater

Another personal memory of mine also involves the SEC or the ‘Red Shed’ as it was known back then - The Big Flood of December 1994. I worked at the SEC as the Director of Catering – and a young Peter Duthie was in charge of Operations. It was mid-December and with a series of back to back concerts done; Disney on Ice, the Jurassic Park exhibition and Bobby Roberts Circus all set up, there were just two events to go. An address from Cardinal Winning and a rescheduled Meat Loaf gig before it was Irn Bru carnival time.

Sunday came, and I returned home after Cardinal Winning had delivered his first address to the Glasgow Catholic community and it had started to rain. I awoke early to the news that the Meat Loaf concert had been cancelled due to severe flooding which seemed odd as when I left the SEC at 10.30pm the rain was not heavy, and the venue was bone dry.

With my wellies in my car I arrived at the site to find the banks of the River Kelvin had burst which had filled sewers and the water flowed across the 64-acre site through the exhibition halls and into what was then the Moat House Hotel (now Crowne Plaza) being managed by a certain Mr Stephen Carter!

In the early morning dark all I could hear was 10 days of concerts empty beer kegs clanging as they floated around the car parks and cardboard cut outs of Mickey and Donald cruised through the main SEC concourse. It was a sight to see and one I will never forget. There are plenty tales to tell and lots of funnies too - but what has stuck with me all this time was that despite the many unpleasantries caused by the severe flooding, everyone just got stuck into cleaning up the mess, keen to get the venue back open to the public so that those who had booked tickets and were looking forward to attending events and shows over the festive period would not be disappointed.

It was thanks to the incredible team work and camaraderie of the venue staff, my hard working dedicated catering team, on site electricians, council employees, local small business owners, the carnival showmen who had arrived early to get set up, and even the young man who came dressed to attend an interview and stayed to help mop up that we were back in business in a matter of days welcoming and serving many happy people!

It was one almighty feat, a show of strength, determination and commitment by all who lived, breathed and worked at the SEC back then. We could after all have taken our time, shut the doors, had Christmas and New Year off with our families but NO, thanks to the characteristic that is true in most of those of us who work in tourism, we never give up. We don’t like being defeated despite whatever is thrown at us. As the saying goes in show business, which is what tourism is after all, the SHOW MUST GO ON - and it did! Tourism was then and without question still is today ‘everyone’s business.’

Friends explore St Andrews
Friends explore St Andrews

Image credit VisitScotland / Peter Dibdin

What have been the main changes within the tourism sector / STA over the last 50 years?

Industry collaboration and innovation

I think the biggest change is in how the industry has come together in recent years, in terms of collaboration and innovation. Businesses in our sector are always looking for new and better ways of doing things, taking a global outlook for best practice and insights but also following a local approach, building relationships at a destination level and across many sectors.

It is this approach to collaboration that has strengthened Scotland’s tourism industry. Businesses from all sectors recognising that ‘tourism is everyone’s business’, the cross pollination of ideas and inspiration and the multi-way relationships that exist between industry, government and public sector agencies is what sets our industry apart globally as a case study in best practice. The STA is regularly invited to global symposiums to tell the story of how Scotland’s tourism industry has evolved into what it is today.

We mustn’t forget too, the level of resilience that exists across our industry which has been built over many years, most notably within the last few where we have experienced challenges that make it very difficult for Scotland to keep its place on the global list of ‘must visit’ destinations. Our industry has a unique character and ability to find ways to overcome barriers and look for opportunities.

The evolution of the STA

As an organisation the STA has also evolved. Five years ago, we didn’t have the scale and strength it has today. We didn’t have the relationship it now has with industry and the endorsement of some of Scotland’s largest, most successful organisations who support the STA with their funding, expertise and partnership; organisations who are passionate about growing our tourism industry and supporting our businesses. It didn’t have the positive, productive and collaborative style of relationship with Scottish Government and its agencies.

We are in a different place as a result of these challenges and the opportunity we have had to bring industry closer together, working together for a common purpose, guided by Scotland’s Tourism Strategy. Who would have thought 50 years ago that around 12,500 industry colleagues would come together for #STM2019 in March to talk and celebrate all that’s important and great about Scottish tourism.

The evolution of today’s visitor

The experiences that today’s visitor seeks has also changed in the past 50 years; like any destination we are able to offer so much more nowadays and it’s important that we are able to deliver this range of experiences by using (and sharing) data to understand the needs, wants and motivations of the changing traveller.

Knockengorroch is a world music festival held annually among the Carsphairn hills in South West Scotland
Knockengorroch is a world music festival held annually among the Carsphairn hills in South West Scotland

Image credit VisitScotland / Peter Dibdin

And finally, what do you think lies ahead?

Tourism strategy 2030

There is no doubt that Scotland has the perfect blend of ingredients to be able to offer visitors a quality, unique and memorable experience – our assets, events, food and drink, our people and our world famous welcome, but our ability to deliver this to each and every visitor who chooses to come here is constrained by our current political and economic climate.

The rising costs of doing business are a major concern across the industry, as is our ability to recruit, grow and strengthen our tourism workforce from EU countries and manage the widening skills gap that exists within Scotland’s tourism industry.

Despite these challenges, Scotland’s tourism industry must be congratulated on maintaining a resilient and confident approach to delivering these quality, authentic experiences which are at the heart of the current tourism strategy.

As we move into the final phase of the development of our tourism strategy for 2030, we can take comfort from the fact that our industry has the strength of ambition and determination to overcome challenges and by working together across our destinations and sectors, with the continued support of Scottish Government and its public agencies, we can further strengthen the sector and ensure that Scotland remains one of the world’s top destinations to visit.

Changing visitor demands

While we continue to navigate our way through this period of change, uncertainty and unknowns, we cannot make any assumptions about the picture of the future. Our challenges are evident, but so too are our opportunities for growth and as the overarching trade body for the tourism industry in Scotland, the STA will continue to use our power of influence to build the foundations for sustained growth of our tourism industry and guide tourism businesses towards seizing the opportunities that exist currently and in the future.

We are well placed to take advantage of the mega trends coming our way, provided we are willing, and able to embrace them. In recent years we’ve seen how the battle between humans vs machines has started to play out in our industry and a recent report estimates that around 50% of all current work activities will be automated by 2055. A startling figure, but what could this mean for our tourism industry; room service robots? Man-machines on front desk? An automated concierge? Metal Mickey maintenance teams?

We already know that people travel differently now and want to experience more, often in a shorter space of time. The two-week holiday has started to become a thing of the past with travellers choosing micro-trips but still expecting maximum value and a wealth of activities and experiences as part of that. The pressure is on in terms of the expectations of our industry to exceed today’s already high traveller demands. Our visitors are looking to get where they’re going, and fast! Time is no longer a luxury on holiday, so anything that starts to eat into that by way of speed of travel, technology and indeed service will have a negative impact on visitor experience.

We’ll be embracing an 8G network in just a few years’ time, travellers looking for more virtual experiences, different foods that cater for different diets (although the growth of Scotland’s food tourism offering is something that I would envisage being held up and recognised globally as a success story).

Tourism is everyone’s business

We’re starting to see communities across Scotland recognise the benefits that tourism brings, both on a local and national level and I think there’s more collaboration and strength of spirit than ever before, but we need to continue to build on that success. People are feeling more connected and part of Scotland’s tourism industry. We will see more of that in the future as a result of the future tourism strategy.

My hope is that today’s younger generations see the value and potential for our industry to offer a career of choice – it’s Scotland’s second largest industry and not only do we have varied, exciting and numerous jobs across all areas of the sector, we have careers with defined pathways that will take someone from an entry position to a managerial one in a relatively short period and give them a lot of fun, enjoyment and satisfaction along the way.

We like to laugh, socialise and get to know each other in our tourism industry – it’s one of the secrets of our success and I am sure that’s not going to change now, or in the future.

Are you signed up to the Scottish Tourism Alliance Autumn Conference and AGM? Join them on Monday 7 October at the EICC. Read more and get your ticket.