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Interview with Visit Scotland's John Thurso

You can refer to him as Viscount Thurso. Or Lord Thurso if you prefer. Sitting down with Scotland’s chairman at this year’s Visit Scotland Expo he makes it clear instantly that he prefers to be called John Thurso or, even better, simply John. This unassuming chairman has only been at the helm since 2016, but already he has confounded the critics who flagged up his career in politics (he has also served as an MP) as not being an ideal grounding for his current role. Quickly delve into his CV and what he tells me was a ‘brief diversion into politics’ as an MP is outweighed by an impressive career in hospitality. He was the manager of the Hotel Lancaster in Paris at the tender age of 27, before returning to the UK to take up a string of high profile hotel and hospitality roles, perhaps most notably heading up the successful Champneys Luxury Spa Hotels group. I sat down with John and popped him a few questions in a Q&A format. I was both surprised and impressed at how open, welcoming and direct he was. Mike Cantlay was always going to be a tough act to follow, but I found the signs positive as I ran through a wide range of tourism related issues with the top man at Visit Scotland.  

Q: How do you feel that your career has prepared for your pivotal role at Visit Scotland?

A: I’ve had a few distinct careers, but I see my main background as being in hospitality. I’ve worked in Parisian hotels, in the golf sector in England and the US and was at the helm of Champneys in the UK. I can bring all my experiences of these various strains of the hospitality industry to the table.

Q: What do you see as the key strengths of Scotland as a tourist destination?

A: I genuinely think we are a unique destination. We have a unique combination of natural heritage, warm hospitality and an extraordinary natural larder. Other tourist destinations would kill for the range of assets we have. We are, of course, the Home of Golf, with iconic heritage coming across in our castles and a string of museums with the new V&A in Dundee a shining example of this. Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow are also all world-class conference centres and the SSE Hydro has been brilliant, a serious global player up there with the likes of the O2 in London and Madison Square Gardens in New York.

Q: What do you say to critics who say Scotland is just a summer destination?

A: It isn’t and this is key. We need to get across to people that Scotland these days is very much open for business year round. Enjoying a walk in the great outdoors and then retreating to the comfort of a cosy pub with a wee dram as you sit warming up by a peat fire is just as enjoyable, maybe even more so, in October, November and December. We have a range of experiences to offer in the winter months too.

Q: What potential areas for improvement can you see for Scottish tourism?

A: Connectivity for me is key. I’m a bit of late developer on technology as it first really came to me when I had to use iPads in political committees. I thoroughly embrace it now and think connectivity and the involvement of tourism in the digital world are essential. The government is continuing to work in the further roll out of digital infrastructure and in tourism we all need to grab the opportunities this creates. In tandem with this we need to keep creating products and experiences designed to attract an ever more demanding visitor. We need joined up thinking and rich experiences.

Q: Small and medium size businesses play a crucial role in Scottish tourism. What would be your messages to them?

A: I fully accept and appreciate the importance of Scotland’s hard working SMEs. To them I’d say watch this space and get involved as we have a lot coming up. I’d like to encourage them to get involved in the digital marketplace as much as possible as some are still not fully connected. If they can get access to fibre optic broadband I’d recommend they use the opportunities that it opens up. Every business these days needs to be connected to the digital world as much as possible to allow themselves to be on a level playing field.

Q: A lot has been made in global tourism about the need for destinations to attract the burgeoning travel classes of emerging tourism markets such as India and China. How important are these for Scotland and how do they compare in importance with the domestic tourism market?

A: The majority of tourists who travel around Scotland are still very much from Scotland and the rest of the UK and it is crucial we recognise and cherish this. We also need to invest in emerging markets as, although the actual numbers of visitors are comparatively low, the average spend from emerging markets is significantly higher, with obvious benefits for the wider economy.

Q: As a journalist I’ve watched in the past tourist strategies veer between trying to reinvent Scotland whilst neglecting its more traditional charms and then circling back to push those self same charms again. What balance do you think Scotland should strike between pushing the traditional charms of shortbread, castles and whisky and the new appeal of vibrant cities, adventure sports and conference centres?

A: I’d like to use a gardening analogy here. To check the health of your garden you wouldn’t rip up the roots of all your plants to take a look would you? In the same way we need to preserve the core strengths and traditional appeal we have in tandem with developing new attractions and experiences for visitors. We have deep-rooted culture and traditions in Scotland and that remains central to our tourism offer.

Q: Much has been made of developing tourism towards 2020. Where do you see Scottish tourism developing beyond that?

A: I think we need to continue to look at bringing on more interesting and exciting experiences for visitors and not rest on our laurels. How we do things and how we deliver tourism is also going to come more sharply into focus. I reiterate that technology will be key. You look at how fast technology has marched over the last decade. It will be a challenge we have to meet to keep abreast of technology and meet the needs for example of tech savvy millennials. Repeat visitors will be crucial and I’m happy to report we get a very high level in surveys of both people happy with their experiences and indicating a desire to return with 90% satisfied and 70% very satisfied.

Q: How do you see the development of Visit Scotland as an organisation?

A: Even in the short time I have been here I have witnessed and been involved in a significant level of change. We have been very focussed and are developing clear ideas of the way forward. You just need to look at our new website to see that. We are determined to deliver and also to meet people’s expectations. As an organisation we want to keep hold of the great people we have and also to encourage them to stay with us. We have a high level of staff loyalty and we need to work to make sure that continues.

"Interviewed by Robin McKelvie, for more articles on holidaying in Scotland have a look at our blog here"




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