There’s a lot of fun at EXPO – but what everyone’s waiting to here is how Argyll and the Isles Tourism hit the ground on the first day of their first EXPO.
They were a class act.
The set was clever – using two banks of stalls, each opened up into one and opposite each other. This allowed them to colonise a substantial whack of space and make it their own. Then, because each side was completely open to visitors, it created a single shared space that included the aisle. There was no ‘them and us’ about the way the space worked, it was all-inclusive and, as soon as you came round the corner at the cross roads of the aisle, it felt like party time.
On one side were all of the mainland areas of Argyll. Facing it were all the island destinations – each with an upcurving skycloth overhead.. Visitors could journey by foot-ferry from one to the other at will.
People were handing out tasty niblets of Food From Argyll. We heard offers of a dram. Each of the mainland and island areas had a crescent wooden food bar at one end, curving in to the space not facing outwards. It invited you in.
At the far end of each of the two spaces were low white timber-slatted tables and chairs – shouting summer – for meetings which then didn’t look like meetings as much as a chill out.
The AIT purple T-shirts were everywhere, their backs emblazoning some of the big USPs of Argyll and the Isles.
Doing the business
Mike Story said proudly that at the early briefing this morning, an hour before the doors opened, every single member of the team was there. Boy did they work hard.
With 52 buyers booked in before the off, spread across the two days – by lunchtime today they had had sessions with around 150, all of whom wanted more information about Argyll and the Isles.
Everywhere you looked there were business conversations going on. All of the reps from the various local marketing groups were busy selling the umbrella brand of Argyll and the Isles.
One team is manning the bridge today and another tomorrow, sharing the experience, the learning, the thrills and the buzz. And there was quite a buzz.
The mass attack on the space gave Argyll and the Isles a real presence. You couldn’t miss it.
Paul Graham from Islay couldn’t keep the smile off his face as he flew between business meetings. Fergus Younger from Food From Argyll had the look of a man who had seen the dream. David Currie from Mull kept his head down and worked on.
Brigeen Mullen (below left, with Stuart Green from Argll and Bute Cuncil), new Marketing Manager for Portavadie Marina, made her first appearance at the event. As we talked, she described her first visit to Portavadie, on the day of her interview. It was typically grey and wet – yet she found it stunningly beautiful (it is). She rang her husband to say that if it was like this on a bad day, what would it be like with the sun. And then she saw the marina resort itself. Anyone who has been there will find it easy to know how she felt.
She described the whole journey as a rainbow with Portavadie at the end of it. Not hard to see why she’s in marketing – and this wasn’t even a conscious branding image. It was lurve.
This was a good day for her to start – as a member of a team now up, running and loving it. It is this teamsense that Argyll has needed and now has.
Councillor Neil Mackay (below right) was a very happy man. He knew he should really have been out knocking doors today, with the council election coming up on 3rd May – but he had to come and see and be part of the hard business launch of an initiative he has believed in for three years.
New Chair, Calum Ross (above left) and Vice Chair Mike Story were here, there and everywhere, in business meetings, talking to the individual stallholders from Argyll, networking – with more to come tonight.
They were delighted at the way the enterprise was going – and were celebrating Mike Story’s gambit in booking 12 stalls this morning for the 2013 event. It was 67% sold out a few days ago. By lunchtime today it was 93% sold so the gamble in advance booking was very well timed.
Part of the resources Argyll and the Isles had prepared was a ‘Locator Card’. This was an inspired idea and an inclusive one that promoted all of the Argyll businesses individually present at the event. On one side it listed them with their stall numbers – and on the reverse it flagged up these stall numbers on a floor plan.
Next year a lot of the individual stalls will join the phalanx of a presence centred on the Argyll and the Isles area. From what we saw in a scout around today, nowhere else in Scotland is doing anything like it.
We caught VisitScotland’s Chair, Mike Cantlay, avoiding a happily wandersome giant Famous Grouse and cheekily suggested that an early visit to Aisle K would lift the spirits.
Checking out the display talent
Then we had a look at other stalls to pick up some dos and don’ts.
Aberdeen City and Shire had an open spread of stalls similar to one of Argyll and the Isles’ two. But while the space was open they had placed efficient desks at the front of it. Mistake. This made it like a retail area at an airport – with a semblance of openness denied by the presence of sales staff behind tills.
This felt very different from the Argyll and the Isles set up – which was very communal and inclusive. This is the core point. A place as rich and as busy with opportunity, challenge and excitement as Argyll and the Isles can never be cool – because it’s warm. And it’s that warmth, that open playfulness and welcome that people responded to today. The door was literally open.
Ayrshire and Arran had a neat flat screen setup, with compelling and good quality footage – a note for the future. They didn’t use a stand as such but had uber-attractive curved double-vertical display sections forming a back ‘wall’. But then they did as Aberdeen had done and put – very slick – pedestal stands at the front – which somehow turned it into an airport check in.
The Lochcarron stall was gorgeoous. As a tartan fabric weaver with leverage in the fashion world, it was very tactile cosy and stylish – with tartan covered armchairs and full length fashion-sketchy wall illustrations. All very well judged with appropriate design savviness.
Hilton Worldwide had a couple of tall bar tables with stools – with backlit photo panels behind them. The backlighting – like a computer screen does – gave the images vitality and the whole ambience of this set was cool.
The Isles Hotel from Barra had a tall banner at its stand that gave it a carnivalesque attraction. Manning this stand was Maggie Miller who, back in 2006 was in Tarbert in Kintyre, working at the then legendary Victoria Inn. Those were the days.
Maggie adores Barra. She got engaged in Kisimul Castle last year and is to marry there this year – in the castle that rises straight up out of the sea in the centre of Castlebay. Talking about some visitors to the island expecting to be able to go shopping – she mentioned that they tend to be assured that there’s always the TopShop. And there is. It’s the one at the top of the hill – but Philip Green doesn’t have a lot to do with it.
Someone from Tarbert or Kintyre will remember Maggie – whether she likes that or not. We sort of threatened to ask.
Argyll on the MOVE
For a lot of the time today, the Royal Highland Centre was like home from home. George and Sally Hall’s appearance in the aisles was the first clue to another Argyll signature at the event. Wild Biscuit’s MOVE – the music and dance fusion event, teasing tradition with contemporary translation and marrying pipes, drums, saxophone and guitar with the rap and breakdance of Random Aspekts, is the inspiration of John Saich and Mags Russell, whose own manifestation in the hall gave the game away.
Yes – a short version of MOVE is part of the entertainment for buyers tonight. That’s going to add another dimension to the growing awareness that Argyll and the Isles is a major surprise.
Now to the overall event venue
This – and the presentation of sales events like Expo – is is immediate need of serious revision.
Signage? There’s virtually none. Road signs more or less get you to the vicinity from the M8 but after that, you’re on your own.
The whole Ingliston area is one shapeless, formless, sprawl with no clues to guide those who have not been there before. It lacks logic and geometry – all very ad hoc. As a national exhibition and large scale event centre it is no way good enough.
We also expected to see celebratory banners or billboards flagging up EXPO as we got within a strategic radius. Not one. Was anything actually going on? Even in the approach to the Highland Hall within the complex, it wasn’t immediately obvious that this was where ‘it’ was. Selling a country is not about understatement. It’s about celebration.
The VisitScotland staff inside were first class – quick, friendly, helpful, efficient. Just what you want – and need.
But events like this really don’t need to be run today as they have been for years. Yet there was no sign of any reinvention – or even of a more evolved understanding of what is possible now and therefore should be done.
Take light. Each stall sorts out its internal lighting but the aisles are not lit.
This makes the experience of being at EXPO an oddly nocturnal one, walking through rather dim alleys and looking into ‘rooms’ that are more or less lit. It’s too soporific, too leaching of energy, too unproductive.
An event like this needs to blaze with light – energising, motivating, enlivening.
It was depressing to see what is supposed to be THE major annual ‘home based’ sales event for Scottish tourism trundling on as it has done for a long time. Stalls at these events are not cheap. Stallholders should get more contextual support for their money.
While there was a real buzz around the Argyll and the Isles area, the event itself lacked the electricity to charge Scotland as an irresistable destination of choice. To be frank, we had expected far more stalls than there were – for the entire mainland and islands of Scotland? There was a lot of dark empty space with a few tables thrown into it trying to occupy the back end of the hall.
And yes, this is a challenge to VisitScotland to do better with these flagships. They should be in your face from miles away. No one should fail to know they’re on. Today, going looking for Expo required constant searching for clues.
Where is the value in selling Scotland in secret?