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Visit Scotland | Alba
Article published 23/08/2019

…hospitality

We turned 50 on 25 July 2019 - the date when the Scottish Tourist Board was created. To celebrate we’ve been taking the time to talk to those working in the tourism industry to look back on how Scottish tourism has become a real powerhouse of the Scottish economy in a very short space of time.

This month we spoke with Willie Macleod, Executive Director for Scotland at UKHospitality, on the changes he’s seen across the hospitality sector and what may lie ahead.

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

I started my working life as a raw, graduate trainee with Forte Hotels in London in 1969 – the same year as the Scottish Tourist Board (STB) was set up - so, I’m no spring chicken! Over the years I’ve encountered many fascinating characters and found myself in some interesting situations here and abroad.

A lasting impression

Some people have left a lasting impression: I’ll never forget the tricks of the trade I witnessed at London’s Criterion in Piccadilly from the slick trio of east-end banqueting head waiters - Messrs Fish, Cohen and Grill - who master-minded day-to-day operations; the sheer, effortless professionalism of Norman Drummond, the general manager of a now long-defunct Clyde coast hotel, from whom I learned so much and the understanding of tourism as an economic force which exuded from my first boss at STB, the late, redoubtable and knowledgeable Lt Col Howard ‘Pat’ Paterson.

For a time, I worked as a steward on board Canadian Pacific transatlantic passenger liners. The hotel crew were tough but dedicated to delivering first class service and entertaining the passengers - earning sizeable tax-free tips in the process. Company-crested, silver-plated cutlery was in diminishing supply as voyages progressed (items were purloined by passengers as ‘keepsakes’). One older steward I worked alongside used this to great advantage by keeping a CanPac teaspoon, attached to a length of string, in his pocket. This was passed round his table during after dinner coffee service - much to the amusement of passengers who rewarded him most generously at the end of the trip.

In the 1970s I managed a one-time west highland coaching inn. As Christmas approached one year, our usually diligent and personable postie (let’s call him Angus) arrived at reception around 0800 with our mail… greatly the worse for wear following a heavy bender the night before. Despite a hearty full breakfast and several black coffees (courtesy of my competent, kindly and maternal cook) Angus was clearly unable to continue with his deliveries.

There was only one thing to do – I bundled him into the left-hand footwell (there being no passenger seat) of his red Royal Mail Morris Minor van and drove him on the remainder of his very rural round… during which he received a seasonal dram at almost every house he visited, ending the day in a worse condition than he started. He enjoyed this so much that he suggested a repeat exercise the following day – an offer I firmly declined. Such was the variety of Highland hotel-keeping!

A group of friends together in the Clachaig Inn, Glencoe.

Credit VisitScotland / David N Anderson, all rights reserved.

The Scottish Tourist Board (STB)

During my early days with STB, there was a team who administered the Hotel Development Incentive Scheme which enabled the modernisation of much of the country’s outdated hotel stock. This group comprised a roguish assortment of officers retired from the armed services (a Major, a Squadron Leader and a Captain) and former civil servants – none of whom had any regard for management hierarchy, bureaucracy or discipline.

Over time, this evolved into the team which I joined, and which managed a fund through which the national tourist boards invested grants and loans in all manner of tourism projects. This highly effective, if irreverent, team dexterously assessed the market and financial feasibility of thousands of projects which resulted in new hotels, restaurants, self-catering accommodation, visitor attractions and activity centres as a result of which tourism in Scotland flourished.

I well remember papers going to the STB Board for investment approval which included such memorable and unintended lines as: “This hotel specialises in shooting clients” and, in relation to provision of an indoor horse-riding facility, “Lady F’s ménage has been open to the elements for some time now and urgently needs to be covered”.

What have been the main changes in hospitality over the last 50 years?

UKHospitality is the current variant of a hospitality industry trade body that has its origins in the Incorporated Hotel-Keeping Association which was founded in 1907. Over more than a century the organisation has represented this innovative and resilient industry to Government, championed change and witnessed evolution on an unforeseen scale.

The evolution of hotels

50 years ago, the hotel industry was characterised by numerous independently owned businesses (where en-suite bathrooms could be a rarity) and a relatively small number of conglomerates which owned and operated larger, and in many cases grand, hotels. Although some of these companies operated in Europe, there was little by way of a truly international presence in the UK.

Franchise and management contract were rare. It wasn’t until the early to mid-eighties that Scotland had its first truly international hotel presence with Marriott in Aberdeen, Holiday Inn in Glasgow and Sheraton in Edinburgh. ‘Budget’ brands like Premier Inn, Ibis, Holiday Inn Express or Travelodge would not be present for several years yet.

The Glenegedale 'Barrel Top', featuring exceptional Scottish products, served at Glenegedale House on Islay.

Credit VisitScotland / Wild About Argyll / Kieran Duncan

The dining experience

There were fine-dining restaurants – some stand-alone such as Glasgow’s Guys, 101 and Rogano and others operated within, and by, hoteliers such as Maurice Taylor’s enduring La Bonne Auberge, Malmaison at the Glasgow Central and the Pompadour in Edinburgh’s Caledonian Hotel.

What we call casual dining today was represented by emergent Chinese and Indian restaurateurs, Forte’s Quality Inns, Grand Met’s trailblazing Berni Inns, the unique Stakis Steakhouses and some early, branded pub-based outlets… but the plethora of choice we have today was yet to materialise.

50 years on and we have an embarrassment of riches with a huge choice of accommodation and catering appealing to all tastes, budgets and markets.

There is scarcely an international hotel chain that is not represented in Scotland – although ownership is moving towards developer / investors with operation by franchise and / or management contract. Yet entrepreneurial independent and successful examples abound in country houses and smaller boutique chains.

Eating out has changed beyond recognition with fine dining offers from chef / patrons, more casual dining concepts than could have been imagined even 10 years ago, a massive choice of international cuisine to be experienced and flexible service available almost round the clock.

Hospitality is the cornerstone of the tourism industry, albeit hotels and restaurants are unlikely to be the primary reason for visiting any destination – yet where would travellers be without somewhere to eat, sleep and refresh themselves? In Scotland, hospitality today employs around 275,000 people, has turnover in excess of £10 billion and contributes over £6 billion in GVA to the economy – quite a contribution!

And finally, what do you think lies ahead?

One thing I’m sure of looking ahead is that tourism is likely to continue as a mainstay of Scotland’s economy – this is a durable industry that can’t be moved to another location because costs of production are lower elsewhere.

People will always want to travel

People will always want to travel and enjoy new destinations and experiences – the growth of international tourism over the last couple of decades has been phenomenal.

There will always be demand for hospitality to meet the particular needs of individual visitors and, if we get the products and services right, add to the enjoyment of their visit. We must ensure that our businesses remain competitive, be cautious about over-regulation and, above all, avoid overtaxing a successful industry and its customers.

Safeguard the reasons people come

This future won’t happen by magic; Scotland has no God given right to receive visitors, especially with the intense levels of international competition we are experiencing. We have no monopoly on welcome and we must safeguard the reasons people come here – our natural and built environment, our unique heritage, our culture - and ensure that these can be enjoyed actively or passively as visitors prefer. We must ensure that visitors can reach us easily and feel safe once here.

Much is being made currently, and not just in Scotland, about so-called ‘over-tourism’ which is a reaction to poor management… Our tourism industry can only continue to prosper with the consent of the host community. If we fail in this we can easily undo the marketing and development effort which has taken so long to bear fruit.

Of course, we must manage our tourism flows and organise our destinations to cope with visitors. Achieving a critical balance between supply and demand will be key to the holy grail of an enduring and sustainable tourism industry – this will not be easy and may require interventions not yet envisaged in our tourism strategic planning.

Technological advancement will only accelerate

The pace of technological advancement will only accelerate and ‘disruptors’ not yet conceived will emerge to test the resilience of established players… There will be casualties along the way. However, our businesses are innovative and resilient; they will rise to the challenge although this is likely to mean that the established ways of delivering services, the numbers of staff they employ, the costs they bear and the prices they charge will change.