THE Borders faces what could potentially be three bumper years when it comes to tourism, says the man now at the helm of Visit Scotland.
Galashiels-born Dr Mike Cantlay succeeded Peter Lederer as the organisation’s chairman last year.
Dr Cantlay has had links with tourism throughout his career, see panel, right, and brings extensive knowledge and experience of tourism at home and abroad.
His appointment as chairman has another two years to run, for which he is paid £400 per day (£24,000 per annum) for a time commitment of five days per month.
For much of his first year in office, Dr Cantlay has spent his time trying to get an overall picture of tourism in Scotland.
“I have to say that this overall picture is one of confidence,” he told TheSouthern. “Things are looking reasonably good and better than they have been for a while.
“Tourism has had it tough over the past year or two. It’s been a very difficult trading environment. Having said that, Scotland has fared reasonably well and if you identify it with any comparable rival I would say Scotland is faring better.
“We’re in better shape than the bulk of our competitors. As we sit here today, things are better than we anticipated.”
When it comes to the Borders, he says the ‘Staycation’ phenomena – where people choose to holiday in their own country as opposed to jetting off abroad – has been a boon to the region.
“Staycation was something the Borders clearly benefitted from.
“The ‘guerilla’ campaign worked very well, with visitor numbers up about six per cent last year,” said Dr Cantlay, referring to their marketing campaign which targeted three million people and encouraged Scots to leave their passports at home and find out more about their own country.
“The industry seems to be getting its act together and that has helped a great deal. A number of particular specialisms such as mountain biking have done reasonably well. This season looks ok too – things are in pretty good shape.
“But we have two or three very special years coming up in Scotland. In 2014 we have the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the next Homecoming and the Ryder Cup. Next year, we have the Olympics in London.
“So there will be significant efforts going on, involving a lot of people, to get visitors to these events to take the time to come and see places like the Borders.
“There will be a great many people coming to the UK and they’ll be looking for additional things to do and see. We need to be confident and look at all this as opportunities to exploit.
“On top of all that, next year sees the release of the new Disney/Pixar animated film, called Brave, which is set in the Highlands and portrays a rugged, misty Scotland. If we come together, we can create opportunities from that – but it’s only going to work if we all really go for it.”
On some specific Borders-related topics, Dr Cantlay was very candid. On the reported possibility of the organisation’s highly-regarded ‘star’ grading system was to be ditched, he said nothing could be farther from the truth.
“Absolutely not. Our grading system is a world leader and so successful we have just sold it to Sweden, as well as 15 other countries in the past. It is a key marketing technique so we would not want to get rid of that. It’s also a great help for businesses wanting advice and guidance on how to improve their product. The Scottish system is a world leader.”
Our next question relation to the growing number of local alternatives to Visit Scotland when it came to promotion, Dr Cantlay said he was totally happy to see people promoting themselves under their own auspices.
“There are 287 organisations across Scotland doing exactly that,” he said. “Visit Scotland is also about converting that kind of promotional activity into market reach and we have £7m to spend a year on doing that – including new ways like apps for phones.
“The providers’ job is to have a good product and our job to take that product to market and the customer, to places the providers have no hope of reaching by themselves, using platforms such as our ‘Surprise Yourself’ campaign.”
On the issue of staff numbers, and some criticism of the bulk of the organisation’s budget going on salaries, Dr Cantlay said Visit Scotland has around 1,000 employees.
“And 700 of these are out in the field at the forefront of our operations, in market-related positions.”
When it comes to specific Borders promotional campaigns, Dr Cantlay says a considerable amount of work is ongoing between Visit Scotland and the local authorities of this region and Dumfries and Galloway.
Dr Cantlay explained: “Tourism minister Fergus Ewing was in Peebles this month and it’s important he is getting out and about and meeting people to see what is happening in areas like the Borders.
“We are collaborating with bodies like SBC and Dumfries and Galloway, working together on things like lengthening the tourism season, as well as looking at wildlife and natural environment tourism.
“There has been a lot of working done on cycling and utilising the Scottish Borders Tourism partnership and its ambitions, supporting them. We’ve also had a very aggressive marketing campaign called Surprise Yourself, as so many people have never heard of the Borders.”
Tourist Information Centres (TICs) have long been a sensitive issue for the organisation. After Scotland’s 14 area tourist boards were merged with Visit Scotland, it sparked long-running concerns that the Borders was losing out because TIC staff now had to promote the whole of Scotland as opposed to their own local region.
Dr Cantlay says there are now more TICs than ever before. “We have an integrated network of 100. Over time, more and more digital media will be used and the TIC provision will have to change to adapt to that. Perhaps things like more information points will be used. What is certain is that the future will see us having to operate in a different way than we do today. These are changing times. People are less inclined to go and get their information on a face-to-face basis. There is a significant amount of money being spent on refining what we do and on different ways of doing it.
“But I don’t see this as the death knell of TICs though – there will always be a key role for a face-to-face service in Scotland, but it might have a different look.
“We have to be ready to cope with the information revolution that is on its way – giving out the right information in the right environment.
“Over the last year, I’ve been looking to take the industry and VisitScotland on a journey together so they can better understand each other. We have some special years coming up from 2012 to 2014 and we need to look to exploit the opportunities that are going to come our way.
“What we all need to do is concentrate on what the customers want – not how we want to be portrayed. It is the customer that is important.
“We have all got to work hand-in-glove to reach those customers and make sure we know what it is that they want and how they want it provided.”