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Isles wait for you

01 January 2000
Isles wait for you

Sorrowing Shetland, Shetland shame: the headlines concerning the spill from the oil tanker Braer, which ran aground at the beginning of 1993, bring back bad memories for Shetland Islands Tourism chief executive Maurice Mullay. "I'd rather forget Braer," he says. "It was a disaster for us. We lost five years of valuable tourism growth."

Mullay is not alone in wanting to put the Braer episode behind him. Five years on, Shetlanders are reluctant to recall the legacy of the Braer, but all acknowledge its impact. Few forget the week following the spill, when the world's attention turned to the 100-strong island group, an area which markets itself on green tourism. "Groups cancelled because they thought Shetland was awash with oil," says Mullay. "That wasn't true, but it was a perception embellished by the media."

It wasn't all bad news immediately after the incident. Shetland hotels were full of journalists, solicitors and loss adjustors, perversely giving operators the best occupancy levels ever experienced during January. That was the week that the story was hot news - until the paparazzi were lured away by Camillagate, leaving Shetlanders to pick up the pieces. The business community, dominated by oil and fisheries, continued to come; the tourists didn't.

Predicted tourism growth

What was so galling was that, until the Braer spill, tourism to the Shetland Islands had been showing a year-on-year growth of 10%, and a further 10% had been predicted for the 1993 season. Instead, visitor numbers fell by 10%, which meant a 20% deficit on what had been expected. Claims to the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund were unsuccessful, with the tourist board receiving only a nominal amount towards staff costs to deal with the massive number of enquiries the spill generated.

However, Shetland is now moving forward. This year is the first in which visitor numbers are predicted to return to pre-Braer levels, and Mullay is confident that the ghost of the incident will be laid to rest.

In the first five months of this year, Mullay had 4,314 enquiries from prospective visitors - a 32% increase over the same period last year. March 1998 showed the most significant change, with a 149% growth over 1997 figures. Bookings during the first five months were also up by 33%, with May holiday reservations showing an increase of 85%. The Shetland Islands Tourism Web site, established two years ago, has had 100,000 hits in the past six months.

So how has this change come about? According to Mullay, it's partly down to crisis management to rebuild the Islands' reputation as a wildlife paradise, as well as a natural period of recovery that saw visitor numbers gradually increase. But other factors have helped.

A new ferry link between Shetland and the Scandinavian countries, with ongoing connections to the Faroe Islands and Iceland, has widened the net. And there are now direct flights between Oslo and the archipelago. The Scandinavian market is an important one to the Islands - a standard joke among islanders is that Bergen is considered to be the nearest railway station.

Marketing centres on the "Shetland experience", offering a total overseas package with a difference. This is important because getting to Shetland is not cheap. P&O Cruises and British Regional Airways hold the monopoly on travel, with prices of flights from London as high as £450. So, to amortise costs, holiday-makers stay longer - an average of 6.9 nights.

Targeting high-spenders

Because of the associated costs, visitors to Shetland will typically belong to a high socio-economic group, and it is at these high-spenders that marketing is targeted.

As new entrants to the market, Marjorie and Gordon Williamson are relying on niche marketing as the key to success. In May, they opened the 13-bedroom Herrislea House hotel at Tingwall. They had anticipated spending £200,000 on their new venture, including the purchase price of £110,000; they spent £402,000.

Their target market is birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts, affluent consumers who might subscribe to specialist birdwatching magazines and attend events organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

But the return will not be swift. Anticipated occupancy levels are low - a mere 13% in year one, 32% in year two rising to 42% in year three. Turnover is predicted at £200,000, £248,000 and £268,000 in those three years respectively, giving a loss of £32,000 and £18,700 in years one and two, and a profit in year three of £1,600. Marjorie accepts they are taking a big risk but believes that niche marketing is the way forward. "We've got to get the marketing right and see the project as an investment if we're going to make it work."

As the Williamsons search to find their niche, other more established players are also planning to increase their share of the action. The 64-bedroom Shetland Hotel in the capital, Lerwick, and the 31-bedroom Lerwick Hotel are both owned by solicitor Robert Smith. At the time of the Braer spill, he owned only the Lerwick, with the Shetland a competitor.

Bob Walker, general manager of the Shetland throughout this period, recalls that group cancellations resulted in £150,000 of lost business from June to October 1993. But, having weathered the storm, they are now confident about the future - which will involve more proactive marketing. "We've got to go after business aggressively, rather than sitting back and expecting the tourist board to do it for us," says Smith.

Marketing in tandem

Although aimed at fundamentally different audiences - the Shetland attracts groups and the Lerwick individual business travellers - the two properties will now be marketed in tandem, an unusual move for Shetland hotels. Most rely on the communal effort of Shetland Islands Tourism to promote the Islands first and individual hotels second.

The Shetland and the Lerwick have planned a two-pronged attack. The first step is to go after the Scandinavian markets, taking advantage of the ferry service and hoping to boost the stay of those who come over, generally for one or two nights for shopping and partying.

Last year, £6,000 was spent on a campaign encouraging tour operators to bring clients to Shetland, a cost that Smith describes as self-financing and thus deemed to be moderately successful. This year is a lull period, as the hotels wait to review the success of the new ferry service.

Next year, the target will be Aberdeen. Details are still sketchy but the basic plan is to target the affluent, Aberdeen-based consumer who can take a direct flight from Aberdeen to Shetland for long weekends or short breaks.

A pleasant surprise

For Peter Jones, owner of the 20-bedroom Busta House Hotel at Brae, the increased visitor numbers have come as a pleasant surprise. A year ago he had had enough and was ready to retire, putting Busta House on the market earlier this year for £595,000.

But this year has been his best year yet so he is now not in a hurry to sell, but will wait for the right buyer. "I'm seeing a resurgence that makes me think it's worth holding on for a while," he says.

Busta House is near the oil terminal of Sullom Voe and consequently sees a lot of high-level business. It also attracts the US market via a Web site that Jones established at the end of last year. So far this year, it has yielded 20 private bookings from Americans.

Jones also has plans to attract more local business during the winter months. This will be in the form of discounted packages on the normal rack rates of £88.50 for a double and £68 for a single, to persuade them not only to eat at the hotel but to celebrate a special occasion by staying over.

Things are looking good for the Shetland Islands. Next August, the annual Cutty Sark Tall Ships' Race spends three days at Lerwick as part of its programme, and Mullay anticipates 6,000 visitors as a result. For 2000, there are big plans for a Hamefarin' ("home faring"), a nine-day event encouraging many generations of Shetlanders to return to their homeland. Some 700 people are expected to attend.

There's some way to go yet, but the overall mood in Shetland is positive. Braer has gone; from its wreck, a new Shetland is emerging.

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