Kenny MacAskill: Who needs bricks and mortar tourist offices?

A beauty spot like Glencoe sells itself (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
A beauty spot like Glencoe sells itself (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
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Bricks and mortar offices will not sell Scotland to the world, writes Kenny MacAskill

Tourism has transformed since the Scottish Tourist Board was established almost 50 years ago.

From the internet through budget airlines to the growth of both the inbound and outbound Asian market, the travellers’ world has changed. The agency has itself transposed into Visit Scotland. 
But, a recent stooshie over the closure of some local tourist offices has raised the question of its purpose in the 21st century? Is it a marketing agency, a regulatory body or an information provider? Or an amalgam of them all? What services are to be provided and if so by which agency or by whom?

READ MORE: VisitScotland to shut 60% of tourist information offices

It should firstly be said that VisitScotland must be doing something right as tourism in Scotland is booming. Not just the usual haunts of Edinburgh and the Highlands but now the islands and more isolated rural parts, are benefiting. Of course, some of that may be down to the collapse of the pound and “staycations” perhaps brought about by fear of terrorism.

READ MORE: Instagram gallery will put tourists in picture about Scotland

However, it has to be acknowledged they’ve laid on superb marketing campaigns promoting Scotland with inspired advertising, whether on golf channels or elsewhere.

So, what’s their core function? Obviously as a national agency it’s to promote all of the country, in all its facets. But how does it do that? Once upon a time they had expensive real estate with fancy offices in London and elsewhere. It was soon realised that was a waste of money and promotion was better dealt with via advertisement and direct sales.

I asked a senior player in the tourist sector who Scotland should be copying in its promotion. He mentioned British Columbia, which he said had simply hired keen young people in a variety of countries, provided them with laptops and phones and told them to go sell the Province. Advertising from TV and cinema to internet and virals was still required but the lesson was clear: it was promotion, not a fixed site, that mattered. In that aspect, I think VisitScotland is doing well, even if money is tight and more could be done.

But selling the idea of a holiday in Scotland has to be their primary task, both within the UK and abroad. Yet the number of countries to be targeted and the media and social media outlets to be utilised has increased exponentially. Likewise, the nature of the Scotland they are promoting has changed. It’s no longer just castles and glens, there’s everything from archaeology and ancestry to walking and wildlife, cruise liners to road tours, and literary festivals to weddings. Promoting such myriad options, along with the natural history and beauty, has to be the priority and where the greatest resource is put.

It also has a regulatory role, though that has been lessening and should be light touch. Visitors do need protecting but there’s a limit to what a tourist agency can do and there are other statutory bodies charged with public protection. If it’s poor food and unclean conditions, then local authority health and safety departments have more extensive skills and powers.

Providing categorisation for quality is needed, though there are other private agencies that do it, from the AA through to Trip Advisor, albeit with different levels of investigation and supervision. The world is changing as AirBnB becomes the largest room provider, but standards for others must still apply. Having some national quality accreditation is still needed and logic dictates that it rests with them.

But, what’s not needed is a tourist police force. Visit Scotland cannot and should not be the enforcement agency other than when standards are clearly not met or other breaches have been made resulting in a loss of categorisation. I recall a discussion with a senior civil servant on that when he was seeking to argue precisely for that role. Both of us had travelled extensively in Scotland and had also received poor quality service on occasion. Yet, neither of us had ever bothered to report it to the national tourist agency. I rested my case, so to speak.

The method of dealing with bad service was to never return and to tell friends and family to avoid it. Now it’s no doubt naming and shaming on social media or poor reviews on Trip Advisor. By all means it’s VisitScotland’s responsibility to remove accreditation if a hotel is failing but not to address poor service if dinner is not available after 8pm.

The final aspect is the provision of local services, which has been the source of the recent spat. But why should it be a VisitScotland job. I recall attending a Homecoming event many years back. Visitors from Canada bewailed that the tourist office in the town to which they had returned had shut. I asked them what they had done instead. It transpired that they had got information and booklets from the hotel and directions from a police officer. It seemed that they simply missed the building, as the services it previously offered were all available through other agencies.

That was many years ago and now, with phones and internet, there’s even less need. The accommodation of whatever standard will provide information, from maps as to what to see and do. Cafes and restaurants likewise. Other public buildings, from community centres to historic sites, equally so. The need for a fixed tourist board office is as unnecessary there as it was in London or New York. There are limited resources in an age of austerity and maximising the impact of the tourist pound is vital.

The priority of the national agency has to be promoting the country and its attributes. Regulation of standards is needed but an information provider, other than one making general suggestions, is not. Information should be provided by the services themselves or just by asking a local.

After all, as VisitScotland says, tourism is all our business.