There’s a lot of discussion going on in Oban at the moment about aspects of its visitor facilities.
One topic has caused annoyance in the key part of the local tourism sector; and one relates to a proposal which includes a major re-engineering of the waterfront.
On the first, the Chair of Oban Community Council, Mairi Malloy, has said that hotels in Oban are expensive. Several hoteliers are incensed at what they see as being undermined from within.
The remark was apparently made in connection with the opening in Oban of the 81 bedroom Premier Inn with Mairi Malloy saying
Mairi Malloy reported as saying that this was needed: ‘We put it round the community council, everybody likes it. It is a budget hotel which we don’t have in Oban. Some of the hotels are quite expensive, especially if you have children. We thought it would encourage families to come for more holidays. You have to try to suit everybody not just couples with plenty money.’
The reality appears to be that most hotels in Oban are cheaper than Premier Inn – if one uses its Fort William hotel as a benchmark.
Prices in Oban yesterday were ranging from £30 room rate to £65.00 – against £85.00 in Premier Inn for a twin or double.
There is a case to answer where a community leader, with the representative authority that position brings, makes public remarks which may have the effect of undermining the commercial performance of local businesses.
This issue of expensiveness or affordability can only be measured by the evidence of what the market will stand.
Any judgment on matters like this has to rest upon an intelligent analysis based on accurate data, which, in this case, is never likely to be securely forthcoming because of commercial confidentiality and competition.
Occupancy rates, set against room prices, set against both market periods and specific event dates and set against the sector of the accommodation market in which each each hotel pitches its offer would all need to be part of a modelling exercise before a safe conclusion could be reached.
Value for money – at any level in the sector – is the issue. If you charge a lot, you give everything visitors value – and then some. If Oban hotels are enjoying commercially healthy occupancy rates, whatever they’re charging, they must be getting it right.
Islay is a good benchmark. Accommodation costs in Islay are high – and, very unusually, accommodation providers on the island largely make no seasonal alteration to their room rates.
That means that the market is there – year round; the market is paying; and the market is presumably getting what it wants.
As an island, there is an extent to which accommodation providers in Islay have the market in a half -Nelson. But this island is also in the happy position of having eight operating single malt whisky distilleries, with a ninth coming on stream soon – Gatrbreck, on Loch Indaal south of Bowmore. The distilleries are scattered around the island, generating accommodation business through:
- the corporate life of the distilleries themselves;
- visitors coming to the place of a distinctive brand long famous worldwide for a quality product – and in the most unarguably bounded location;
- whisky tours and distillery visitor centres, with Ardbeg’s wining awards virtually year on year;
- the role they play in just about every one of the island’s major events; either in the foreground, as with Feis Ile, the festival of music and malt; or in the background, as supporting the visitor offer of the event and as sponsors.
Islay also has the pull of having been the historic stronghold of the famous masters of the seas from the Hebrides to the Isle of Man – the Lords of the Isles, a phrase that resonates powerfully even with those who have no idea what it’s about. The island copper fastens this unique attraction in having a visitor centre at Finlaggan, on a loch in the centre of the island, on the very site of the headquarters of the Lordship and with its extant architectural remains.
Oban has more of a schizophrenic offer to visitors – it majors on being the ‘Gateway to the Isles’ with its cluster of wide ranging ferry routes to inshore and outer west coast islands coming and going in its busy bay. But that suggests brief practical stays on the way to somewhere else.
This role has the benefit of bringing people to Oban. The challenge then is to make Oban a destination in its own right, dealing with what is – amongst many others, a rather run down town – but one with a uniquely beautiful location in its tiered crescent physicality, wrapped around Oban Bay and sheltered by the opposing Isle of Kerrera.
Part of the challenge is not to ruin but sensitively to support and develop this unique strength.
This brings us to the second current topic of discussion – a major propostion for a re-engineering of Oban town from Ian Dougall of West Highland estates.
This includes the filling in of the bay at George Street; and the building of an underground car park.
Whatever the attraction of the rest of the proposals, anyone who imagines that filling in a bay at a waterside town is a good idea has only to go and look at Bangor on the County Down coast of Northern Ireland – or scrutinise it on Google Earth.
Bangor and Oban had many common features, each a celebrated waterside town with a history commercially brighter than its present; each with a tiered section of the town embracing its bay; each with retail waterfront aimed at a visitor market no longer what it was; each with major yacht clubs; each with inadequate parking.
Bangor filled in its bay and made the area into a large waterfront car park. They tarted it up with twee red brick walls and flower beds.
The end result is no shortage of town centre car parking capacity – and even less reason to come to Bangor.
You only see the water from the hills plunging down into the town. Walking along the once waterfront esplanade – now a beached commercial whale that overlooks nothing but the urban desert of the car park – the water is little more than an urban myth existing somewhere beyond the limits of the car park – which is markedly underused. The Victorian retail once-waterfront of shops and hotels has declined even more rapidly and is gap toothed and squalid – think Rothesay before the effort to pull that once lovely town back from beyond the brink.
If that is the direction of travel the Oban business community want, they will wreck the potential that still remains for recovery – which depends as much as anything on gutsy private sector investment arising from a robust and durable town-wide planned identity.
Car parking is, of course an issue.
One radical solution might be for the Council to take the hit of the sunk costs in their continuingly empty Harbour Bowl enterprise; level it; and built a multistorey on its maximum footprint. That would serve the town centre, the rail station and the ferry port and would be inoffensive in what is already an immovable hotch-potch of major services provision.