February has traditionally been the busiest month of the year for our team: working all hours to organise and deliver the signature event of Scottish Tourism Month in March, the Scottish Tourism Alliance conference. In fact, if I cast my mind back to exactly this time last year, Covid still seemed like a distant and, in many respects, an unlikely threat; too far away to be “real”.
We were totally immersed in all the activity leading up to our conference and the launch of Scotland’s tourism strategy by the First Minister at the event – our hearts and minds were in the future, led by the vision of the strategy, our ambition to be the world leaders in 21st-century tourism. Covid felt rather peripheral.
The possibilities felt huge on March 5, launch day: there was a common energy and a feeling of unification and excitement. If felt like our industry was about to embark upon a new journey together with a strong, shared vision.
Fifteen days later, our industry shut, within the following week, our entire nation was locked down. As we moved through the early days of the pandemic, nobody would have ever thought that almost a year on, the doors of our cafes, bars, restaurants and hotels would be still be closed, our streets empty and only the blurriest view of the future to keep us moving forward.
The resilience of Scotland’s tourism industry and its people has been extraordinary; the people I have conversations with every day are digging deep, not just financially to try to remain solvent, but emotionally to keep themselves and each other going. Life has changed so much from everything we knew, our ‘new world’ will look entirely different, as will Scotland’s tourism product and the way that people choose to experience our vast and varied assets.
There is one constant however, one element that can be so easily forgotten about with our personal and professional connections so restricted – our people.
The people who make our tourism industry roll. Very few of them are doing what they should be doing and what they love to do but I know that our people, despite so many unknowns ahead, are ready to embrace the opportunity to rebuild our sector together.
Last month, the STA and the Hospitality Industry Trust (HIT) Scotland launched the Tourism and Hospitality Development Programme, a Scottish Government-funded virtual leadership, management and supervisory training programme which has been designed to motivate and develop top talent to enable Scotland to recover from the impact of Covid. More than 1,700 people applied for a place and the STA, HIT (Scotland) and Skills Development Scotland are working together to try to make it possible for as many of those people to have the opportunity to become future leaders of our industry.
There is a huge desire within our industry to keep moving, despite being ground to a standstill; to innovate, create, find new and better ways of doing things and connect with our markets to keep Scotland on the map. Our people have had the grit to keep moving forward when the road ahead is unknown, faith that Scotland’s tourism industry will recover and the determination that they will all play a key part in that rebuild.
We must see the same commitment from the UK Government of extension of furlough and the VAT rate with increased consequentials being delivered to support Scotland’s ambition to be the world leader in 21st century tourism.
For that we will depend on our people and we must do all we can to retain the skills, talent and expertise currently within our industry. Tourism has been one of Scotland’s most important economic drivers for decades, it is part of the solution and our people will play a very proud part in our recovery.
Marc Crothall is the chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance.