The industry needs to be bold and seize a generational opportunity
Mike Cantlay’s view is simple. Scotland invented tourism and – 200 years on from Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake, and the first tourists that followed – it still leads the world in offering a collection of unrivalled experiences; nothing less.
This view shapes his approach to the chairmanship of VisitScotland. Cantlay has a long track record in the industry, in both the private and public sectors. But his accession to head the national tourism agency was not without controversy.
Last spring, it emerged that Philip Riddle, VisitScotland’s chief executive since 2001, had been asked by the board to stand down. It coincided with Cantlay’s return to the organisation after a five-year spell as deputy chairman at the beginning of the decade. But the development came in a leak to a newspaper, not in the ordered announcement Cantlay would have preferred, and unleashed a series of stories about a power struggle at the top of the agency.
With Scotland clinging to the hope that the sector would mitigate the worst effects of the recession, Liberal Democrat MSP Iain Smith told Parliament: “Now, more than ever, Scotland’s tourism industry needs clear leadership. But what does it get?
“Chaos at the heart of VisitScotland and confusion at the heart of Government. At a time when ‘steady as she goes’ might have been a wise approach, we see instead the chair of VisitScotland grabbing the helm from the captain and steering the organisation on what is yet an unknown course.”
The controversy came after a steady withdrawal of funding for VisitScotland from local authorities amid murmurings of discontent at the agency’s effectiveness in promoting the country as a place to visit.
“The truth is,” said Cantlay in an interview with Holyrood earlier this month, “when I arrived back in the organisation there was a lot of friction in the industry about the role of VisitScotland and the board felt that it was time to listen to that, to be bolder and to deliver for the industry.
“I see just extraordinary potential for Scottish tourism and to be frank, although we had these ambitions for the growth of the industry, there was no clarity on where that was going to come from and the reality was that there was precious little growth during those years.
“But this business is massive; an £11bn turnover, it employs 270,000 people and includes 27,000 businesses. What frustrated me during the recession was the surprise in some quarters at how big it is and how resilient it is. We have these unique features, these icons, be they golf, whisky, castles, food and drink or festivals and no one can take them from us.
“The changed economy means that we are much more competitive as an inward destination for international visitors and appealing to folk in the UK looking at the cost of going abroad. Combine those two elements with a unique opportunity to capitalise on some major events over the next few years and, tough though it be, where else would you want to be?
“There have been some big step-changes in tourism; the coming of rail, the adoption of the car. What’s happening between now and 2014 are, individually, not as major but combined they represent a series of things that will provide the economy with a significant short-term boost and make a profound difference longer term.”
Cantlay reels off the components: the emerging domestic market – Scots discovering their own country; the so-called ‘international invitation’, boosted by the Royal weddings; the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup, acting as catalyst for attracting yet more events; the renewed growth in business tourism, benefiting from improved infrastructure; the emerging markets of Russia, China and India; the potential adoption of VisitScotland’s quality assurance scheme by more than a dozen countries; a new digital platform that is in development; improved transport infrastructure; and £2bn-worth of investment on tourist attractions.
“And finally, if that’s not enough to capture the imagination, we have Brave,” said Cantlay. “You’ve heard of Brave? It’s the next Pixar movie, set in Scotland and starring some great Scottish names [see panel]. It’s going to be huge. We’ve been working closely with Disney. And we’ll be making sure that we’re ready for a new generation around the world to fall in love with Scotland.
“Put all that together and where else in the world would you want to be if you were in the tourism business? But we have got to be bold and seize the opportunity. And I’d like to think that by 2015 we will be in a position where tourism – so key to the Scottish economy just now – will have moved forward significantly.
“Economically, Scotland has some laudable ambitions; renewable energy, for example. But these are going to take time. Seizing the opportunities we have in tourism will bring fast returns to the Scottish economy and allow us to look for continued growth into the future.
“So, I think we are in very good shape but it’s about everyone realising the scale of what could be achieved. It’s a generational opportunity.”
Was VisitScotland’s status among politicians and local authorities still an issue? Cantlay picked up on Iain Smith’s “steady as she goes” comment: “We took the view that we needed to be bold. In Malcolm Roughead we have a chief executive who is one of the best marketers in the world. There’s a difference between promotion and marketing; one is talking up a destination, the other is converting that feel-good factor into actual visits and spend.
“The industry is about product, be it a hotel, a restaurant, an event or a venue. It has to aspire to be the best. What we are about is finding the customer and bringing them to the industry. We have a huge amount of data that allows us to reach the right people with the right offer. When Malcolm and his team spend £15m in marketing, that brings Scotland more than £400m of tourism spend.
“So, I think a year on there is a much better appreciation among politicians and the media of who does what. And in terms of local authorities, we are working very closely with them and they are investing in the campaigns that we are producing, such as the Surprise Yourself campaign which has reached more than 25 million people. We have come a long way and I think those turf wars are a thing of the past.”
As Cantlay was speaking, the industry was digesting the comments of former chairman Peter Lederer who said that individual marketing organisations such as VisitScotland, EventScotland and Scotland Food and Drink should be merged and run as an industry-led organisation called Marketing Scotland with less reliance on the Scottish Government.
“I know where Peter is coming from. But our board is very private-sector orientated and VisitScotland is very entrepreneurial, as the industry would like us to be. And on top of our budget, we tap into additional private and other partner funding. So, we are getting closer to that model all the time.
“We may evolve into something different. But the way to do that is to appreciate that in the short term we have to work hard on these immediate projects and the next few years will dictate how we go forward; driven by the industry and driven by success.”