In this year that Scotland is celebrating its history, heritage and archaeology, we took a moment to chat with VisitScotland’s chairman Lord Thurso to dig a little deeper into what this stunning country can offer your clients.
Paloma Villaverde de Rico: What’s the one spot in Scotland that people don’t know enough about; perhaps an unknown gem?
John Thurso: That’s like asking me the question, which whisky to drink, because you drink different ones on different occasions. For example, Dumfries and Galloway, in the deep southwest of Scotland, is an absolute hidden gem. There are lots of places there, wonderful beaches, great golf resorts. The Highlands, obviously; people think of the Highlands and they think of the middle of the Highlands, Fort William, Loch Ness…. Go up to the top, to the north coast and go out to the west and you’ll find little places like Kylesku, which has a wonderful little inn with fabulous food. There’s also Handa Island, where there’s a shack where you get fresh crab while you are waiting to take a little boat to watch the wildlife. Go on to Aberdeenshire, full of castles, many of them open to the public, and some of which you can stay in privately. You’ve got the whisky tours there, too. And then, of course, you’ve got our great cultural cities—Glasgow, which was known in the last century as the second city of the empire, and Edinburgh, with its New Town, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Military Tattoo.
What my wife and I do when we are exploring Scotland is we pick a new destination each time, and we go away for a couple of nights. I’m supposed to know Scotland and I surprise myself every time…I find something new. It’s extraordinary.
You could pick up Scotland and put it down between Los Angeles and San Francisco and it would fit in with lots of room to spare on either end. It’s a small country and it’s also one of the oldest countries in the world, because it was created 600 million years ago when the three great continents that existed then clashed together. So for example, if you go out to the western isles there’s the Lewisian Gneiss that is some of the oldest rocks on the planet. Scotland has been through an extraordinary molding process so that you have everything including very lush agricultural areas like the Scottish Borders. There, you’ll find some lovely hotels, and you can go to Sir Walter Scott’s house, and go to Melrose and visit Melrose Abbey, which is just marvelous.
I love the coastal parts, with great cliffs. When you get up to the top on the right-hand side from the way to the Orkneys, you get these huge high cliffs teeming with seabirds. There are some wonderful walks you can do. You can walk all the way from Inverness to John o’ Groats. You don’t do it all in a day. You do it in easy chunks, staying at lovely inns along the way and enjoying the whisky and the food.
PVR: Do they transfer luggage from one inn to the other?
JT: There are some walks in Scotland which are absolutely done like that, but the one I just referenced has actually just opened [so they are still in the process]. But all over Scotland you can go on walks. The Cairngorms National Park is just teeming with different kinds of walks—starting from the 3- or 4-mile gentle walk through the Caledonian Forest to see the wildlife, right up to semi-professional and professional hiking. So depending where you are on the scale, there will be something for you, and your bags will be taken forward.
PVR: Do you see that as a big interest with Americans?
JT: It’s growing. To be honest, that kind of adventure holidays in the past have tended to be people coming from Europe, but we are seeing with the development of the new Norwegian Air routes, we think that that sort of thing will start appealing to the Millennials. What the Millennials will want to do when they come to Scotland is perhaps kayaking on the River Tay. Or marvelous pony trekking across lots of different areas; you could have a fabulous 3- or 4-day pony trekking excursion and then add a little but of culture. So there’s really a vast amount that people can do.
One of our ambitions that we are open about is to get people to come out of season. I think one of the best times to visit Scotland is October and November, because you tend to get crisp days and the air is wonderfully fresh. You can really enjoy the countryside before the full winter; equally the spring can be great as well.
PVR: Is peak season during the summer?
JT: Our peak season is like everyone’s—June, July, August and early September. Partly because people have kids, and partly because in June the sun doesn’t set, so you’ve got 18 to 20 hours of daylight. But if you come and stay in Novembe, for example, you can have fabulous walks—you come back, it’s 5 o-clock and you sit in front of a roaring fire, you have a pot of tea, wonderful Scottish scones and maybe some cucumber sandwiches, whatever, and then you have time for a nice nap before you start your evening. I think it’s a delicious thing to do.
PVR: Are you targeting Millennials with that sort of thing?
JT: Our main campaign for 2017 is ancestral tours. Our instinct is very much that a budget offering for transportation with exciting things to do on the other end is a natural fit for Millennials, who love to go away for a relatively short time. From the east coast some of those flights are six hours.
PVR: And is your main market families, baby boomers?
JT: The term main market always needs a bit of definition. Is your main market the people you most want to come or are they the people who are actually coming. And I rather think that it’s actually a wise idea to identify the people who like coming and see if there are more of them. So when I talk about the Millennials that’s an aspiration we have and I think one that is a very good aspiration. But at the same time, if you actually look at the majority of people who are coming, they tend to be people whose children have gone to college at least, so they are more at the other end of the spectrum. They’ve done the school holidays; they may be just about to retire or semi-retired, and they tend to have a bit more leisure time. They tend to stay for up to nine nights from the North America market.
PVR: Do you think it’s best to go with a tour operator that has a custom journey, or FIT?
JT: I think the best way to discover a country, and I do this myself, is to find a good tour operator. And a good tour operator is one that fits with your clients. So I’m very interested in wine, spirits and food, so if I went to a country I’ve never been to I would look for someone who specializes in that direction. So start with what your clients like and there will be a tour operator who will say we’ve got the tour for your clients. It’s like a tasting menu in a good restaurant that allows you to see lots of different bits and then you say now I get it. When your clients go back they can either do another tour or an FIT with you, the travel agent. I think it’s quite a good idea with a tour; it’s an easy way to get to know the country.
For more information on Scotland, go to visitscotland.com.