VisitScotland.com books Austrian specialist

VISITSCOTLAND has restructured its controversial online accommodation arm in a move that will see the majority owner, technology group Atos, replaced by Austrian booking specialist Tiscover.

The Austrian group will take a 35% share in VisitScotland.com after pledging to invest in new technology.

The deal will also see VisitScotland, which replaced the Scottish Tourist Board, raise its stake in the site from 25% to 36%. Developer Atos will see its stake reduced from 60% to 7%.

Atos agreed to give up the bulk of its shares without compensation because the firm was not interested in developing the next stage of the VisitScotland.com site.

Tiscover currently runs holiday websites in Austria, Italy and Germany, has an agreement with internet company Lycos, and provides technology to accommodation providers such as Farmstay in the UK.

The company will invest "a substantial amount" in VisitScotland.com, which has received about 7.5m since it was set up in 2002. Philip Riddle, the chief executive of VisitScotland, said: "This partnership gives us the chance to bring in world leading technology and fresh private sector investment."

VisitScotland.com will now recruit an independent chairman to replace Stuart Curl, who was a director of Atos, and also appoint an industry advisory board to keep in touch with accommodation providers.

Riddle said: "We want to bring in representatives from industry to look at the whole of e-tourism. There are lots of disparate views; the majority are happy but there are lots of other views. We need a better forum to bring those together."

VisitScotland.com endured criticism when it was set up after operators appeared to be ignorant of Scottish geography and accommodation owners complained about having to pay for a public service. Marco Truffelli, chief executive of VisitScotland.com, said Tiscover's involvement would help to improve its offering and silence the critics.

He said: "Not only have we listened to the consumers, we have listened to the [accommodation providers] who would prefer to operate in a different way."

Riddle said VisitScotland's internet strategy would extend beyond the flagship website. He said: "It is bigger than VisitScotland.com. We don't see that as an exclusive channel. We would like the industry to take it on in a wider way."

Atos gained its stake in VisitScotland.com in 2003 when it bought the IT services group Schlumberger Sema, which had won the original VisitScotland.com tender.

Riddle said: "Atos realised the way [VisitScotland.com] was developing was not their core business.

"They have handed over the baton to Tiscover to take it to the next level."

He said Atos's remaining 7% represented an "emotional" connection to the project and a sign of the company's commitment to public/private contracts in Scotland.

Truffelli said: "We need a bigger, more powerful technology platform as potential visitors increasingly demand more information and more capability to research and book their trips online. That is what Tiscover are helping us to build."

VisitScotland.com enjoyed a boost this year when the site was used to book almost every hotel and guesthouse room on the Isle of Skye for the cast and crew of the forthcoming movie Stardust, based on the book by Neil Gaiman, which stars Michelle Pfeiffer.

The company enjoyed its best day for individual bookings last Wednesday, when it took 75,000.

The number of visits to the VisitScotland.com website is expected to double to 13 million this year from 6.4 million in 2004 and the company which runs it, ETourism, is expected to start making a profit next year.

The company's other shareholder is Partnerships UK, the public/private partnership investment group.