ORGANISERS of the troubled Battle of Bannockburn celebrations this summer have revealed a ticket sales target of just 15,000 for the event - a third of its original capacity - as they complained that plans had been hampered by a clash with the UK’s main Armed Forces Day commemoration a few miles away.
MSPs were told that the national tourism agency was hoping to sell only 7500 tickets a day for the centrepiece event, which is projected to generate just £750,000 for the local economy, despite costing up to £650,000 to stage.
The target figure was revealed as it emerged under 3800 tickets have been sold for the event, now just nine weeks away, while another 620 have been reserved for commercial sponsors and promotional give-aways.
Officials at VisitScotland, who took over responsibility for the event - which will feature a huge battle re-enactment, live music and food and drink showcases - from the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) earlier this year, amid fears it was heading for a huge financial loss, insisted it was now in “excellent shape” and said they were “very confident” it would still be a success.
However the predicted spin-offs from the event, which will be staged next to the new Bannockburn visitor centre, means it will attract just a fraction of the £10 million said to have been generated five years ago from a huge clan gathering in Holyrood Park, which later collapsed into financial disarray leaving a trail of debts.
It has emerged that fewer than 700 visitors from the United States have booked up in advance for this year’s Bannockburn event, out of a total of 1254 overseas sales, despite extensive marketing of the event to key diaspora markets since last June.
Holyrood’s tourism committee heard yesterday how the third day of the Bannockburn Live festival, which was launched last June, was axed after it emerged fewer than 150 tickets had been sold in advance.
Peter Irvine, managing director of Unique Events, the firm brought in more than a year ago to mastermind the celebrations, insisted they had been forced into a rethink after discovering, via media reports, that Stirling had won a bid to host Britain’s biggest Armed Forces Day event on the first day of the Bannockburn celebrations.
Stirling Council chiefs giving evidence to MSPs were unable to offer an explanation of who had approved the Armed Forces Day bid and whether they knew of a clash with the Bannockburn event.
The Scotsman has learned that the bulk of tickets sold in advance for the event by the middle of January - when NTS passed responsibility to VisitScotland - were actually for the Saturday of the event, when Armed Forces Day is being held.
Figures obtained by The Scotsman show that, by the time of the handover, 655 tickets had been sold for the Saturday, compared to 335 for the Sunday and 134 for the Monday.
As of yesterday, 2343 tickets have been sold for the Saturday of Bannockburn Live, which will be headlined by singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean, with just 1415 snapped up for the Sunday, with Gaelic songstress Julie Fowlis topping the bill.
Mr Irvine said: “I saw this as a real opportunity to do something that had never been done before in the UK. This event has been 700 years in the diary but we were very keen to expand it from what people thought it might be, not just a battle re-enactment. For £20, it is just about the best deal in Britain for a festival.
“We would anticipate a lot of people will decide to come in the last few days. The event has never been done before and there’s perhaps a lower expectation of it than an event that’s been going on for decades.
“It was obvious why we had to completely reconfigure things and have a more realistic target, given that another free landed in the same small town on exactly the same weekend, it was the sensible thing to do. It was a real concern when we heard about the dates clash - not just about how we maintain the event but also the integrity of the event.
“The National Trust were particularly concerned that a free event elsewhere in the town would attract a lot of people and they would not come (to Bannockburn).”
Caroline Packman, director of Homecoming Scotland at VisitScotland, said: “We’ve have had very strong interest in the ticket sales so far. We’ve now sold almost 3800, which we’re very pleased with. It’s already a quarter of our target.
“We’ve had strong international interest, with 33 per cent of ticket sales so far coming from overseas visitors, and 18 per cent going to the US market. All the pitches for clans are completely sold out.
“At this point the event is in excellent shape. We’ve already been promoting it extensively ourselves and through our partner networks, as well as press and radio advertising, but the big marketing push will come next month with outdoor advertising focusing on trains and buses. We’ve every confidence it’ll be a huge success.”
Mr Irvine refused to comment on suggestions from SNP MSP Joan McAlpine that there was political motivation behind the staging of Armed Forces Day in Stirling on the same weekend in Bannockburn Live.
She said: “I’m really shocked at what I’ve heard about the way that Armed Forces Day seems to have been bounced on the organisers of the existing festival.
But Mr Irvine said: “I don’t get involved in politics and I don’t like to get involved in commenting on politics. I’m not ducking the question. But we did hear about it from the media. I’ve no further comments to make.”
Kevin Robertson, head of planning at Stirling Council, told MSPs that the projected cost of hosting the Armed Forces Day event was around £524,000, with the local authority ring-fencing £250,000, around £25,000 coming from the Mod, and the Scottish Government expected to pay around £80,000.
Neil Berry, deputy leader of the council, said: “When I first heard about the Armed Forces Day national event it wasn’t clear that there was a clash of dates because they were not set. However the MoD did come in and set the date and we didn’t have a choice in the matter.
“It is tremendously important to me and the council that the Bannockburn event is successful. There was no attempt to diminish that event from the council. Armed Forces Day is taking place on the Saturday, the curtailment of the Bannockburn event has been on the Monday, I don’t see the connection myself.”
However Green MSP Alison Johnstone said: “I’m somewhat staggered at the lack of co-ordination and discussion within the council.”
VisitScotland chairman Mike Cantlay said: “We would have liked to have at least known the event was coming a little earlier if there was the possibility. But we’re in the events business and we take every opportunity that we get. We’re delighted to be working with the council and are determined to make the most of this weekend. This is a real opportunity to position Stirling on the world stage.”
Officials at NTS, which had been planning a modest re-enactment event to mark the 700th anniversary of the battle at the end of June, were persuaded to take on a bigger event by VisitScotland after the council pulled the plug on a planned clan gathering amid concerns about how much it would cost the authority.
But the trust had been concerned about left to foot a substantial bill if ticket sales failed to match expectations.
Pete Selman, director of strategic development at NTS, said: “We are still fully involved with this project, as a host, a participant and extensive marketing support of it as well. We haven’t gone away, but we are not taking the risk or sharing in the potential upside as well.
“We had always planned a form of re-enactment, albeit a modest one, for June 2014.
“We were subsequently approached by VisitScotland, with the Homecoming team, on the back of questions as to whether or not there would be a clan gathering in Scotland this year. There was a discussion as to whether there was an opportunity for the country to widen the scope of our canvas and extend its duration.
“This was on a condition that this would be cost-neutral for us. It’s not our core business to be speculating on a commercial enterprise.
“Everything was moving along quite nicely, but we were taken by surprise last August when we heard through the media that the Armed Forces Day event was happening on the same weekend.
“We immediately had to go back to the drawing board and think about the impacts on the business model that had been put together.”