Scotland's traveltech industry can revolutionise trips to the seaside and speed the Covid recovery – Joshua Ryan-Saha

Imagine you’re on a summer holiday in Scotland and the weather is glorious. I know that’s a big ask as the nights draw in, but bear with me.

An app connected to the Internet of Things could help avoid a trip to an overly crowded beach (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

As the sun beats down, you plan to take the kids to the beach. You’re packing the buckets and spades when your smartphone pings.

It’s an app letting you know that the place is mobbed – the car park is full and the traffic is a nightmare. Sensors, which have been strategically placed at beach car parks to monitor crowds, have fed the information to your phone.

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Help, however, is at hand. The app contains a link to an almost empty playpark beside another more sparsely populated beach. Parking is plentiful and there are a host of other child-friendly attractions nearby. You take the app’s advice and quickly reorganise your day-out to avoid the scrummage.

Meanwhile at the crowded beach people are receiving digital information about the availability of nearby restaurant reservations, which beer gardens have space and data on other local cultural attractions.

Via the app, the day-trippers and sunseekers crammed on the beach can work out which attractions are less busy and where to go for a meal or a drink.

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They can access this information from their deckchairs thanks to technology like geo-located advertising and the Internet of Things (IoT), the system of sharing of data across countless online devices.

And if sensors on beaches sound a little far-fetched – think again. Sensor and app technology are proposed for East Lothian beaches as part of research we are undertaking at the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI).

Edinburgh University’s EFI is at the forefront of Scotland’s traveltech sector – the use of technology by the tourism industry, hospitality businesses and visitors to maximise the travel experience.

The East Lothian research is just one of the many exciting projects carried out at the EFI, which is backed by more than £55 million from the UK government through the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City and Region Deal.

As director of traveltech for Scotland and the tourism, festivals and Infrastructure lead for EFI, I am working on this particular project which will use internet-of-things and geospatial technology to generate real-time “busy-ness” data with suitable privacy safeguards. That data will be used by visitors, East Lothian Council and local businesses to understand where the busy areas are and which ones are less so.

Our aim is to proactively manage East Lothian’s beaches to redirect visitors from overcrowded destinations and encourage them to go to less busy attractions. Crucially, it is a strategy that will create opportunities for hospitality and tourism entrepreneurs and is just one example of how traveltech can transform business.

Although the impact of coronavirus has been devastating, one side-effect of the pandemic has been that there has been a large leap in small businesses adopting smart technologies. In the past, small firms were typically seen as slow in embracing the digital revolution. They tended to be too busy dealing with customers and were hidebound by limited budgets.

But this has changed dramatically and the opportunities for Scotland’s traveltech firms have never been greater.

E-commerce platforms to sell products, contactless payments, ordering and check-in systems are now ubiquitous. Savvy businesses have used track-and-trace data to build customer lists and kickstart new digital marketing efforts.

The number of museums and galleries using new online ticketing and reservation systems has increased enormously. A cottage industry has sprung up for fully-digital tourism experiences; some enterprising tour guides are now moderate YouTube celebrities.

In recognition of Scotland’s comparative advantage in the sector, the Traveltech for Scotland cluster was launched with funding from Scottish Enterprise and the 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Fund.

Hosted at EFI, and supported by Edinburgh Innovations, the university’s commercialisation service, the cluster will help Scottish businesses take advantage of the growing global traveltech opportunity.

The success and potential of the sector has been graphically illustrated by a study published this week by Tech Nation, the UK network for ambitious tech entrepreneurs.

Carried out in partnership with Traveltech for Scotland, the study shows that over £1 billion has been raised by traveltech companies in the UK over the last three years. It is a truly impressive figure, which represents more than 800 investment deals.

During the pandemic alone, traveltech companies raised £358 million in 2020 from 249 deals. There is also a healthy pipeline of new early stage start-ups with 50 per cent of traveltech companies at the seed stage.

Edinburgh-based Skyscanner is one of the most successful traveltech companies in the world, and so many developers in Scotland have worked at or with them. Those developers have gained experience and they are now an expert community that Scotland can look to when creating new start-ups or growing existing companies in the sector.

For example, Electrek Explorer is developing a platform for the climate-change conscious visitor who wants to travel around Scotland by electric vehicle. They’re mapping electric vehicle charging points in Scotland and developing routes that are within battery range. Walks and Waterfalls is a new app that helps locals and visitors to responsibly explore and ‘bag’ Scotland’s hidden waterfalls. Both of these came out of the Geovation Accelerator run by Ordnance Survey.

In addition, there are many successful companies that have been around for over ten years; Exterity provides guest experience software and FreetoBook, SuperControl, Bookster are all Scottish tech success stories offering booking platforms.

This is an incredible start for Scotland’s traveltech sector and we will continue to support, connect and promote these businesses. Together, we will make sure the momentum continues and the economic potential of traveltech in Scotland is realised as we come out of the pandemic.

Joshua Ryan-Saha is director of Traveltech for Scotland

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