Obituary: John McGee, conference manager

Born: 3 May, 1931, in Glasgow. Died: 20 March, 2014, in Dalkeith, aged 82
John McGhee: Glaswegian who spearheaded drive to put  Edinburgh on the conference tourism mapJohn McGhee: Glaswegian who spearheaded drive to put  Edinburgh on the conference tourism map
John McGhee: Glaswegian who spearheaded drive to put Edinburgh on the conference tourism map

John McGhee had already been appointed Edinburgh’s tourism manager, leading a small team of colleagues promoting the city as Scotland’s top tourism destination (and later conference venue) to the UK and overseas markets – especially North America – when I joined the Public Relations and Tourism Information Service in 1970.

The PR section of the office was located at 343 High Street, almost opposite St Giles Cathedral, whereas John’s tourism and accommodation desks and staff were in the Old Cockburn Hotel, Market Street, requiring him to make dozens of journeys a day between the two for meetings called by the redoubtable Miss Lorna Rhind, a former journalist originally recruited by the corporation and appointed the city’s publicity officer.

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He was proud that it was a Glasgow boy helping to put “his” new city on the tourism, incentive travel and conference map. He quickly amassed expert knowledge of Edinburgh under Lorna’s guidance and, in his relations with the trade – from small guest houses to leading hotels and the Scottish Tourist Board – he became the “face” of tourism in Edinburgh.

John represented the city on outside bodies and advised the council and in particular the general purposes committee to whom we were responsible, on tourism policy and development, introducing the relatively new concept of corporate, conference and incentive travel business – a side of the business which involved considerable overseas travel.

He built up the official accommodation register from a series of typewritten sheets (those were the days when few had access to computers) into a full-blown, glossy brochure from which visitors could select almost any type of accommodation from a comprehensive list of entries.

The selection process was later changed from being a manual one to a computer-driven system, ensuring fairness and countering any suggestions of bias from individual operators. Even then, some disputes did arise and he and his staff had to resolve them amicably to the satisfaction of traders and the visitor.

John’s knowledge of the major hotel groups and individual guest house proprietors as well as experience of the airline business – his late brother Cyril was with Air France – gave him an expertise in striking the best deals for the city while still meeting the trade’s needs.

Those were early years for Edinburgh’s developing conference business and the city was short of suitable spaces to hold big events, especially when it came to enquiries from the major players in the US market.

This meant he had to “sell” new ideas and incentives to elected members on the council and persuade them of the attractions the incentive travel business offered for local business and traders.

He was appointed the capital’s first conference manager and saw both aspects of the department’s work brought together under the reorganisation of local government in 1975, following the report of the Wheatley Commission.

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In the promoted post of principal officer and with business growing, John oversaw the move to new premises first on Waverley Bridge, where a bookshop was included, selling a huge range of tourism publications, and later on the top level of the new Waverley Market complex, where he supervised the allocation of accommodation for the now much bigger staff, with all operations under one roof.

John would often lead a small group of office colleagues to the nearby Doric Tavern, owned by Jimmy McGuffie, in Market Street, where the day’s business would be thrashed out while we enjoyed a meal.

On special occasions, like the visit by the then government tourism minister to the newly opened tourism information centre on Waverley Bridge, he would urge everyone to make an extra effort, by trotting out a phrase from his RAF days: “Come on everyone, kit and swank!” which, roughly translated, meant “Look and do your best!”

For the special anniversary celebrations to mark the 30th year of Edinburgh’s twin city link with Munich, he helped arrange a special civic mass for the official Bavarian delegation in St Mary’s Cathedral.