David Tobin is reaching for the stars to provide fantasy travel experiences in Scotland
David Tobin had a dream. It involved chartering a pullman dining car, coupling it to the Jacobite steam train, filling it with Harry Potter actors handing out sweets and personalised wands to kids and kilts to grown-ups, who were wined and dined on the bounty of Scotland’s larder as they chuffed past the spectacle of a raging 50-strong clan battle against the backdrop of a rugged Highland glen.
And he realised it – for the benefit of a party of rich Russians, who paid handsomely for the experience.
Along with his wife Holly Mackie, Tobin runs Dream Escape, a bespoke travel agent based in Edinburgh whose business is to turn fantasy into reality. Their company provides the ultimate in tailor-made travel in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales, and bespoke holidays for high-end tourists keen to experience the exclusive parts of Scotland other travellers fail to reach. From staying at castles, country houses and golf clubs that don’t usually open up to guests, to such activities as private stalking, bagpipe lessons and whisky tastings, the Russian oil barons and Middle Eastern royalty get once in a lifetime holidays.
Of course, castles and cashmere, helicopters and high-end hotels don’t come cheap, but that’s not a problem if you’re a big-buck millionaire or oligarch. “People pay big sums of money for the programmes we put together,” he says. “The clan battle Harry Potter experience was put on for six Russians who were here for 48 hours and spent £120,000 – that’s without the private jet – and it was completely over the top. On the face of it, it seems unfair, people spending huge amounts of money on ridiculous items when lots of people are struggling, but this market is there and we can attract them here to spend their money on whisky and tweed, helping to sustain jobs.”
Another challenge for Dream Escape was a 60th birthday, but they masterminded an experience that included capturing the view from the hotel bedroom window in watercolours, having the birthday boy’s name blasted across the sky in fireworks and his health toasted with a rare 1947 bottle of whisky in a specially commissioned Hamilton and Inches case. “Our clients come from all over the world and want the inside track on Scotland, not the cookie-cutter version. They want the very best tailor-made experience available and to be able to brag about it when they get home.
“We have never run the same trip, never repeated a programme. Each one is unique and we have an amazing team of planners, curators, chauffeurs, operations people that make it happen. I’m just one of the team.”
It’s no surprise to learn that Tobin and Mackie have an advertising and marketing background, with stints at Saatchi & Saatchi and ITV under their belts. The pair met when Tobin, a Londoner and Mackie, who is Irish, were travelling in Australia. Returning to the UK, they saw an opportunity to package and market Scotland, with its magnificent backdrops of mountains, castles and luxury heritage brands to a substantial market of wealthy visitors. “It was back in 2004 and I saw what other companies were doing and it seemed very standardised; nothing was exciting or upscale,” he says. “It was a great opportunity. These amazing things were all there in Scotland, but not linked to a high level of service.”
Business is good for Dream Escape as the five-star-plus market has weathered the recession, and partnerships with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and Virgin Galactic – to sell its space travel experience – bode well. Future plans include expanding to include a Green Endeavour arm to cater for people who want to visit trouble spots.
As for Tobin and Mackie, they still have some time to globetrot. “You can’t be in the travel business and be stuck in an office the whole time. You have to get out and research the places and experiences. We’ve just been to Sutherland, an amazing wilderness.”
And with that, he’s off. Granting dreams is hard work and there’s a medieval village complete with bonfires and spit roasts to be built next to a castle where 27 Russians will soon be feasting. Tough work, but someone has to do it.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 18 June 2013
Temperature: 10 C to 21 C
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Temperature: 10 C to 19 C
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