UP UNTIL a few years ago, a website was seen as an adjunct, a marginally useful sideline to the main selling and marketing operations of commercial organisations.
But websites have since moved rapidly centre stage. A vast army of consumers now looks to websites to provide a fast, efficient and reliable one-stop shop. Not only is all the up-to-the-minute price comparison information expected, but the means of making an immediate purchase or booking online.
For VisitScotland, making the transition from useful adjunct to centrepiece booking tool for millions of visitors to Scotland was always going to be challenging. Its ambition to encompass the widest array of tourist requirements across all of Scotland was highly dependent, not only on technological quality and expertise, but also on a consensus across a vastly differing range of catering and hospitality providers as to needs and requirements.
Many small hoteliers who subscribed in good faith to the VisitScotland service were to be disappointed at the results, particularly when it referred many potential visitors to the agency's own call centre rather than the hotel or catering establishment directly. That the website helped to facilitate millions of bookings – VisitScotland.com had 11 million customer visits, including repeat visits, last year – was proof to its management that it was providing a vital service. Others measured its failures and judged accordingly.
Now the six-year-old website, which has run up cumulative losses of 1.5 million, is to be scrapped and replaced with a new one from 2 April. It will feature, inter alia, a visitors' guide and online travel shop. For a mechanism so central to the continuing prosperity of a key part of Scotland's economy, this development will be warmly welcomed. But there are particular reasons for hope that the new website will be a success.
First, visitors will be able to contact hotels and B&Bs directly rather than having to reserve through a call centre via the site's own search engine. It will allow users to browse over 14,000 providers and shop for travel tickets and tour packages. Second, the changes introduced draw on the latest technology and have been designed and crafted in response to detailed surveys of customer and user needs. VisitScotland has worked closely with the industry to agree significant and far-reaching changes. Direct contact details will be shown clearly on the site as well as new online booking facilities. And third, it has even won the tentative approval of its predecessor's most persistent critic. Those who were pressing for change are strongly supportive of what is now being planned for the launch. This offers a real prospect that the new website will meet the needs of tourist service providers.
VisitScotland.com is a global door into Scotland. Its service, its quality and its reliability, have to be of the best.