2012 will go down as the year of Argyll and the Isles. The Tourism Summit held yesterday at the spectacular Portavadie Marina resort was, for the first time, fuelled by self-belief, by a can-do realisation, energy and universal buy-in to the initiative.
Ambition – at long last – appears to have infiltrated Argyll and the Isles.
2012 will also be the year that Argyll and the Isles has a fully representative branded presence at the VisitScotland Expo; and makes its presence felt at an international exhibition.
As Mike Story (below), Vice Chair of Argyll and the Isles Strategic Tourism Partnership (AISTP which hosted the event), said in his address, this initiative ‘will massively raise the profile of all of your efforts’. AISTP now has a promotional war chest – up to £177k by the end of yesterday – in its cargo hold.
Emphasising that good partners mean good leverage, Mr Story pointed to the fact that already, AISTP, working with major tour companies, has seen them booking between 150,000 and 200,000 room nights.
It was fitting that a Tourism Summit foregrounding marine tourism, should pick up speed from the pontoons at the marina venue for the event – as two of the Kintyre Express fast passenger ferries delivered – free – delegates and media representative from Campbeltown, Tarbert – and Islay.
As the boats cruised in to berth, waiting for them were a cluster of those headlining the event, James Stuart, CEO of the Royal Yachting Association (left above) with Malcolm Roughhead, CEO of VisitScotland and, in the background, Iain Jurgensen, General Manager at Portavadie, getting his marching orders from Janet West of Argyll and Bute Council’s communications team.
The sector of the industry responsible for moving people, vehicles and freight around the complex waterways and scattered mainland and island communities of Argyll and the Isles, were there in force – CalMac, Western Ferries, Kintyre Express, Clydelink.
Alongside them were the businesses directly supporting marine tourism: Craobh Haven Watersports, Hebridean Island Cruises, DC Marine (pre-purchase yacht and powercraft surveys), Seafari Adventures, Lochaline Dive Centre, Love Loch Lomond, Gigha Boats Activity Centre, Stramash, Oban Marina…
Appropriately wrapped around the water sector were a host of local marketing groups from all across the area – including Islay, Mull and Iona, and Bute; visitor attractions; cultural heritage specialists; walking and wildlife holiday operators; restaurants; accommodation providers including the high-end Isle of Eriska Hotel and Portavadie Marina itself; with a spectrum of tour operators and specialist holiday providers.
Fuelling the lot were representatives from Food From Argyll and the Argyll and Bute Agricultural Forum.
A wide variety of first class local provenance food was showcased in a presentationally and gastronomically superb lunchtime buffet from Portavadie Marina – and that followed an actively sinful array of coffee time treats.
Why is this initiative working?
First and foremost, this initiative is working because it is working. Mike Story probably cannot or does not care to count the hours he and his team have spent. They have transformed an honourable start with last year’s summit to a highly motivated, professional, well organised, funded and target-led organisation that has wowed the industry this time around. The static crackle of excitement around delegates yesterday was almost audible.
Now the industry is in the driving seat and the support is in support. More than that, the local industry is in the driving seat. This time there are all the opportunities and no excuses.
All the support is there – from Argyll and Bute Council and from VisitScotland, with the centrality of local knowledge at last recognised as it must always be. You can only speak passionately and with authority about what you know.
ViitScotland is the mothership, the Starship Enterprise in every way. Its overall promotion of the country, its Growth Fund, its contacts and its resources – and markedly the free and fabulous Tourism Intelligence Scotland, are of real value and are there to be used.
Argyll and Bute Council have been crucial in providing the seed funding that gave the initiative the credibility it needed to attract the substantial external funding for marketing from VisitScotland’s Growth Fund, Leader and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
The lesson here – one that confers responsibilities upon both parties concerned, is that no major initiative seeking funding will get off the floor unless they have the backing of their own local authority – and of their own constituency. Here too, all 28 local marketing groups in the area are signed up and contributing financially.
The Council was in from the start on this one and yesterday it was present in force, with council officers contributing strongly and energetically to the set-up, the organisation and the presentation of the day. This is what good teamwork can do, conducted in a spirit of openness and commitment. This is what everyone wants to see and this is what everyone wants to be part of.
All the council now needs to do – apart from a sustained commitment to this vital drive – is change its name. ‘Argyll and Bute’? So yesterday. ‘Argyll and the Isles’? Into the future.
If they were to do this, everything would come right. With a name like this – which accurately describes the territory, the council would see and feel differently about itself. It would lend its massive weight to the mission-critical branding of the place. It would contribute to what the area has always needed – a strong, single identity everyone from all of its rich and complex parts would use to locate themselves, descriptively and psychically.
The ‘team photo’ for yesterday shows the buy-in to Argyll and the Isles.
Alongside members of the Argyll and the Isles Strategic Tourism Partnership were the Duke and Duchess of Argyll – with the Duke later presenting the Argyll and the Isles Lifetime Achievement Award to a stunned but delighted Ian Cleaver of Highland Heritage.
Provost – and now Freeman – of Argyll and Bute, CouncillorBilly Petrie, gave a positive and a poignant address, saying goodbye at the end of it, as he is to retire from local politics at the council elections in May. In a moment of mixed emotion, he could take pride in the step change in Argyll and the Isles’ drive for economic development which he was celebrating.
Councillor Neil Mackay, Spokesperson for Tourism, presented the day’s event with good humour and an obvious pleasure at the success that was now out of the nursery and well on its way.
Local MSP, Michael Russell, echoed calls for fit-for-purpose connectivity as a sine qua non for the area, repeating his campaign following the widespread storms and power cuts suffered by Argyll and the Isles in December and early January. He nailed the mobile phone operators for their utter failure to get their networks up and running again in anything lke an acceptable timescale. O2 were a named major disgrace, its mast down for over a month, from 8th December 2011 to 9th January 2012.
Needs and messages
The big needs of Argyll and the Isles that were continually reinforced all day were:
- Get the roads infrastructure sorted – as a priority. This message was painfully underlined by the fact that a BMW en route for Portavadie to the event, lost a wheel in a pothole. Embarrassing and expensive – in every way. Ian Cleaver of the Highland Heritage coach tour and hotels business, reported that he no longer uses the A83 up Loch Lomondside – the arterial access to Argyll – because of the accident potential. Lobby for roads.
- Get the air routes and the air access sorted – and get on to this now. Brian Keating, of the Machrihanish Dunes golf resort and of URTV (which was a welcome working presence yesterday), made an informed and powerful point on this, illuminating how far our assets and potential are still not being brought into alignment with the needs of the market and the attractions of our tourism offer. Mr Keating sees a disjunction between Public Service Obligationss (PSOs), tourism and aviation. He cited 500,000 private aircraft in the UK – unable to use Campbeltown, Islay and Oban airports over the weekend. They’re, ahem, closed. And airports operator, HIAL, charges an eye-watering £2,500 in landing fees for using Campbeltown airport at the weekend – arriving and leaving when it is actually open. As Malcolm Roughhead of VisitScotland said succinctly of visitors, ‘If they can’t get here, they won’t come’. Lobby for aviation tourism development. This is a high net worth sector.
- Get the connectivity sorted – as a matter of urgency. This was sharpened by the collision of two points made by Mike Story of AISTP – that by 2020 50% of all internet traffic will be on hand-helds – while , as he said, somewhere at the south end of Loch Lomond the information superhighway shrinks to a single tracker. People will not come to Argyll if they cannot get their emails on their mobile phones; and if they cannot track down quickly and by the same device, key online information local to where they are. and important to their personal interests and needs – including rescue. A Mike Story said, with bitter realism: ‘… make them give us 3G before they give everywhere else 4G’. Lobby for much better 3G and broadband.
The main messages emerging were:
- play to the strengths of Argyll and the Isles
- be proactive about creating products and services to fit upcoming market availability – and get out there and sell them in good time
- think about the real needs of the market sector you cater for and provide those needs generously and warmly
- be responsive to need – if weather or closed roads have delayed visitors from sea or land, don’t play ‘the kitchen is closed’ line. Make it good for them.
- develop and support familiarisation trips for key industry players – as a contributor to the Marine Tourism workshop said, ‘we’ve got free inventory’ – meaning that a few seats on a ferry, an aircraft or a seaplane, a few room nights, a few meals, a few wildlife tour experiences, a few rounds of golf, a few guided visits to cultural heritage sites cost the operators virtually nothing and, as a shared collaborative initiative, can be put together to create an irresistible local offer.
Core market strength
Malcolm Roughhead, CEO of VisitScotland, underlined Argyll and the Isles’ core strength in its domestic tourism market, which is 74% of its overall tourist market, seeing 80% repeat visits. Argyll and the Isles took 10% of Scotland’s 2010 overall tourism revenue of £400 million.
Scenery is a key driver, with 49% of visitors of all kinds coming here by land and water for that reason. This does open up the issue of the widescale on and offshore windfarm expansion which will impact very powerfully on Argyll and the Isles.
Speaker after speaker rammed home the need for tourism operators to design and sell products and services to fit the needs of parts of the spectrum of visitors who will be available during the Olympics and at the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup in 2014.
James Stuart, CEO of the Royal Yachting Association, offered liaison to bring sailing championships to Argyl and the Isles to add to the key annual events we already have – in what are the best sailing grounds in Europe.
He dropped a valuable insight into the midst of a positive and challenging address. He said, ‘Don’t forget dinghys’, pointing to events like the annual Topper Dinghy championships. The maths are 300 boats which, with competitors largely under 18, means the 300 families that travel with them – here for a week.
He stressed that the Clyde provides much of the access for marine tourism in Argyll and the Isles and asked businesses in the tourism industry to think of visitors arriving from a boat – moorings, shelter, showers, food, water, fuel. On the moorings front, the charges levied by the Crown Estate Commission are clearly and widely resented and ridiculed. On the matter of thoughtful provision for sailors, Portavadie Marina’s family wet bathrooms are a wonder to be seen. The kids can be thrown in the shower to get warm and clean, with a flat screen television to keep them happy while their parents do the same thing. Mow THAT’s walking the talk.
The experience of yesterday at Portavadie, a place imbued with quality and ambition – and designed to be full of light, has set the standards from now on.
Stay away from dark halls and gloomy places for events like this – they are literally a killer. For other events, if you’re stuck with a place with no or poor natural light, flood it with lighting. Make it sing.
Be ambitious, inventive and proactive. Believe in Argyll and the Isles – there is no place with better resources to reward commitment. ‘Stronger together’ – collaboration and cross-marketing initiatives will, as Jim Mather used to say,’… float everybody’s boat’. Never take ‘No’ for an answer.
Let’s hear it for’ Argyll and the Isles Council’ – and in the meantime, for the rest of us, from now on, this is ‘Argyll and the Isles’.