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The Caterer interview – Mike Cantlay

24 November 2010 by

After a year in which it has dealt with the fallout from both boardroom power battles and Icelandic ash clouds, VisitScotland now has a clear vision. Chairman Mike Cantlay tells James Stagg how its focus on marketing will maintain its reputation as a top tourist destination

How is tourism in Scotland performing in the downturn? This year in particular it's tough and that's because of unpredictability with air travel and coming out of recession. But we're very resilient and it's amazing the number of businesses that are surprised to be performing well.

Every business would say it's hard work. Spend in particular is challenging but overall Scottish tourism is performing pretty well.

Is the sector growing? VisitScotland's objective is to focus on the fact that the recession is a global feature and we want to come out having gained market share from our competition. The resilience the industry has shown puts us in a good position to do that.

You're funded by the Scottish Government? What's the breakdown and has the total been reduced as it has south of the border? In broad order we get £40m from the Scottish Government and an extra £20m from various other industry and local government partners.

Our spending review isn't until the middle of November so we don't know yet [last week the Scottish Government announced that VisitScotland's budget would be cut by 6.5%].

If you go beyond funding to look at public sector money in tourism we're talking up to £150m and there's no doubt that over the period of the next spending review everyone will have to look at what they do.

What will the spending priorities be? The watchword for VisitScotland is to focus on what others can't do and on areas where we get maximum yield. And our core specialism at VisitScotland is destination marketing - promoting Scotland as a tourist destination in the UK and round the world.

We're about to launch our Winter White campaign. Last year this was a £1.4m investment that returned £66m of additional spend in Scottish tourism. We are consistently able to get these kinds of returns for the campaigns we run. Even though there will be tough decisions in terms of spending, the key will be to continue to sell.

What sets Scotland apart and how do you promote its individuality? We have unique icons to sell. It could be golf, whisky, festivals, the islands and the Loch Ness monster.

This year after the volcanic ash problem we devised a campaign that appealed to the close markets of the rest of the UK. We invested £5m to stimulate £100m of investment. I put my neck on the line to promise that return and the campaigns are still underway but I'm confident that VisitScotland will more than deliver.

We're flexible enough to focus on the markets that will work best for us at any given time.

How important is tourism to the Scottish economy? The difference is that tourism is the fifth largest industry in the UK but it's clearly largest in Scotland. With a turnover of £11b and employing 270,000 people it's the bedrock of our economy. The job of promotion has to be maintained at this point in the economic cycle.

This year has been one of change at VisitScotland with well publicised power struggles. Why has it been so difficult for the management to agree a strategy? It's not so much a power struggle, more of a change in direction to focus on what we do best. The new chief executive, Malcolm Roughead, has been director of marketing for the last 10 years and is the architect of the success of our campaigns.

If there's been a challenge from the industry it has been anxiety in the role that VisitScotland did and should do. That's why the board wanted to make it clear where the organisation was going forward by appointing the director of marketing to chief executive.

Could former chief executive Phillip Riddle not put the case for marketing to your audience? Phillip has huge strengths but I came into a board that believed it was time for change in the midst of the challenges that we face.

In Scotland, the area tourist board network disappeared in 2005 and we've seen a large number of destination management organisations popping up that have had an uneasy relationship with Visit Scotland. Going forward we will help the industry take the lead in its own affairs and support it taking products to market, be it a city product or adventure tourism products.

Is there some friction between the various organisations and bodies? There's been some ambiguity as to who does what. In the last two weeks I've been to the Orkney Islands meeting all the highland and island councils, the outer Hebrides and Edinburgh and I've found we need to clearly define the role that industry groups perform on the ground and the role that VisitScotland does to take that product to market.

What is the industry telling you in terms of what it wants from VisitScotland? There are 280 odd trade groups in Scotland now and while I'd like to help them with administration and those kind of activities our priority is to focus on marketing.

Having said that we do have a growth fund, which is a fund available to support the best initiatives undertaken by these bodies and other groups.

What kind of initiatives does it support? The theme for this year was food and drink but next year it will be active events and the Scottish Islands.

Are you on target to meet the 2006 target set out in the Tourism Framework for Change to grow tourism revenue by 50% by 2015? The honest truth is that's why I stood to be chair of VisitScotland. We're halfway through the period and we have these ambitious targets and there's little growth at all.

Right now there's hardly any movement on the £4b revenue which is very frustrating. My objective is to work with industry to identify the step changes that will facilitate growth. That might be securing high speed rail to Edinburgh, route development in terms of airlines or capital investment to attract more Donald Trumps to come. The key is to have a debate about what the range of big hits we could choose and prioritise them.

We will have to make decisions. If you take transport, there are many different options but the industry will have to prioritise what is best for the long term.

One of the key features is to get tourism into perspective. It's been our core industry for decades. Scottish tourism started 200 years ago and we've been leading the world ever since. We would hope to be leading the world for the next 200 years so we need long-term vision.

Does VisitBritain do enough for Scottish tourism? Yes it does. The truth is that VisitScotland and VisitBritain have a perfect relationship because Britain provides the infrastructure abroad, expecially in markets that we don't reach, and we help bulk up their campaigns in some of the closer markets like Europe.

We have no staff abroad and we rely on VisitBritain to help us with their network and reach, particularly in emerging markets.

What's the difference with VisitScotland today? Now we have a total industry focus. VisitScotland is here to do what industry can't, otherwise why would we be here. My hope and aspiration is to drive confidence in the industry that we can do the bits that they can't, especially taking the Scottish product to the world.

FIVE KEY SCOTTISH FEATURES

Bagpipes The stirring sound that's quintessentially Scottish.
Burns Supper Champit tatties, bashed neeps and maybe a wee dram or two - the only way to celebrate Scotland's national poet.
Golf With more than 550 golf courses the country considers itself the home of golf.
Walks Scotland's landscape caters for a gentle country stroll or a breezy coastal walk, trekking long distance routes or scrambling amidst the majestic lochs and mountains.
Whisky Something that began centuries ago as a way of using up rain-soaked barley after a wet harvest, the whisky industry has now grown into one of the country's biggest earners, bringing in hundreds of millions of pounds every year.

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