While VisitBritain struggles with continual restructuring and shrinking budgets, VisitScotland has unveiled a tourism strategy that could just see Scotland ride out the recession. Or is it just a load of marketing guff? Rosie Birkett reports
The role of a tourist board is never an easy one, as it struggles with the job of marketing a national entity, gleaning government support and representing a nation. For VisitBritain, 2008 was a year plagued with problems as it was hit by Government decisions to cut staff, a shrinking budget and the resignation of chief executive Tom Wright in November.
In contrast to its southerly cousin - and England's heavily criticised regional development agencies, VisitScotland has developed a reputation as a successful marketing brand, historically achieving results with its tourism strategies - the latest of which has, however, divided opinion.
Homecoming Scotland 2009 is a campaign aimed at attracting Scottish ex-nationals, or anybody with Scottish connections, back to the country this year. Timed to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, the rollout of 300 special events and packages - which centre on Scotland's national products such as whisky, golf and hill-walking - began on Burns Night in January and will last until St Andrew's Day on 30 November. Hailed by many as a clever marketing move that could help the industry ride out the bulk of what has been dubbed a difficult year others have coined it a lacklustre PR stunt. So which is it?
"It's a happy coincidence," insists Peter Lederer, chairman of VisitScotland. "Homecoming 2009 has been on the books for a couple of years now. We couldn't have planned it better if we'd tried, but it's the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns, so that was the reason to do it. It's certainly given us a hook on which we can hang a whole raft of things and make this a special year for Scottish tourism. We're hoping that we'll exceed our targets of 100,000 extra visitors and £40m extra for the economy."
With £5.5m invested in the scheme by the Scottish Government, it's not surprising that Lederer sounds confident. He explains that it's all about "reconnecting with the Scottish diaspora all over the world" - a savvy tack to take given the fact that there's millions of Scots, or people with Scottish links, internationally, many of whom reside in the UK, which makes up 85% of the Scottish tourism market. So how many people are they expecting? Lederer doesn't have any concrete figures, but says: "The early signs of ticket sales and activity over the first couple of weekends have been very positive, and we're very pleased. Obviously it's early days, but the bookings we've already had for the events over the summer have been very encouraging. We're living in difficult times, so we don't want to get ahead of ourselves, but the indications are good."
The new campaign marks a slight shift in emphasis from its previous strategy, although VisitScotland has always played on the fact that Scots abroad tend to have a strong sense of patriotism. "We've always looked in that direction, but we as a country have never reached out specifically in this way, so from that point of view it's new," says Lederer. He explains that the approach is tied up with the increasingly targeted nature of its marketing strategies.
"In marketing terms we're becoming much more sophisticated in who we're targeting," he says. "The days of blanket advertising are gone, and we are much more targeted in our approach to the kinds of people who are likely to come to Scotland or are likely prospects. This leads us in to things like Homecoming, because you become much more focused on what those people are interested in and what makes them make decisions."
So while VisitBritain is pushing the UK as a value destination to cash in on favourable exchange rates, flight deals and the trend for domestic travel, Scotland has the upper hand in terms of Government support. "The first minister, Alex Salmond, has been very passionate and led from the front in how this is marketed," says Lederer.
"It's a good example of ‘Team Scotland', where Government ministers are being vocal on our behalf. If you listen to any of the Government ministers talking about anything at the moment, they bring Homecoming into it. There's very consistent messaging through the first minister, the whole of the Government, the marketing team and into industry."
But it hasn't all been a barrage of praise, and like any national body, VisitScotland has not gone without its critics. In September last year a report on Scotland's rural communities by the Royal Society of Edinburgh criticised the organisation for being too centralised and focusing too much on already successful areas - citing "frustration and annoyance over its lacklustre performance".
Edinburgh City Council's economic development leader, Tom Buchanan, has expressed worry that "tourism businesses across Scotland feel their requirements are not being met by VisitScotland", and adds that the replacement of area tourist boards with local partnerships is weakening the connection between VisitScotland and the tourism trade at a local level, creating "ambiguity in the relationship between our national tourism agency and its supply chain of providers of hospitality, accommodation and other tourism services in local areas".
Have these issues been addressed in the new push? Lederer shrugs off the critique. "I don't accept what they say," he says. "We're more decentralised than we ever were. Of the 900 people in the organisation, only 200 are based in the main office in Edinburgh - all the rest are spread out throughout the organisation.
"Of course we concentrate on our strong areas - why wouldn't we? You build on your strong muscles, not your weak ones. Would we like to do more? Yes, but it's about resources. We try and do the best we can with the money we have. My plea to everyone in Scotland is, instead of criticising, think how can you get involved and help. The only way tourism can work is when government, industry and all the players work to one agenda and a clear set of objectives."
Lederer also has something to say about VisitBritain's seemingly evaporating budget. "We need a united, strong Britain. VisitBritain has had its budget cut for the past nine years. In the current climate, one of the things the Scottish Government has realised is what a boost tourism can be when you've got a tough economic environment. People will still travel. They still want to have a break.
"We've got three things working in our favour from a Scottish perspective: Homecoming, the currency - and the biggest single one is if the UK market stays home more. If we stay at home for even one more break a year, that makes a real difference to our own industry. The only way that's going to happen is if the industry works better together."
- 2-4 March
- SECC Glasgow
- Alex Salmond, first minister
- Jim Mather, minister for enterprise, energy and tourism
- Marco Pierre White
Who else will be there?
- More than 200 suppliers across Food & Drink, Interiors/Exteriors & Tableware, Catering Equipment, and Technology
Highlights of the show
- The Scottish Tourism Forum will host high-profile seminars, including the keynote address from First Minister Alex Salmond
- The UK Barista Championship Finals
- The UK Sandwich Design Championships
- The World Culinary Grand Prix will showcase top international chef teams whose food can be sampled in the Restaurant of Nations.
- The Scottish Culinary Championships will take place in the Live Theatre. It will feature 250 chefs competing across 50 culinary competitions for the Knorr Scottish Chef of the Year title and other awards
- Wine+ Scotland
- Café Life Scotland
- The Studio Kitchen featuring demonstrations from Scotland's premier chefs
- Scottish Culinary Awards Dinner
For tickets to ScotHot or more information visit www.scothotexpo.co.uk