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Robin Worsnop, Founder of Rabbies opens ETAG Conference with thought on the future of Scottish touri

"When I stood here last year I’m not sure anyone was predicting the way it panned out. I’m pretty sure I would have got pretty good odds at the bookies for a 3 way bet on a Brexit vote going YES, Donald Trump for President and Nick Finnigan hosting another ETAG conference. 

But I promise not to get too BREXATED today. It does pose some challenges for our industry, but we’ve survived much worse. In this century alone we’ve faced up to the challenges from the events of 9/11, foot and mouth and the 2007/8 financial crisis. 

We have worked together and collaborated to ensure Edinburgh remains a world class visitor destination. In fact we are an industry that has been around for at least 250 years and in this anniversary year of the new town look how well our forefathers had the vision to plan for creating a magnificent theatre and backdrop to help sustain our industry in the long term. So I expect we will be around for a long time yet and one might be so bold as to call us Scotland’s most sustainable, resilient and successful industry.  

With that in mind we’ve organised a session today to influence the work being carried out to create a 2050 Vision for Edinburgh to help sustain our pre-eminence and help support a better quality of life for all our residents. 

2016 saw another year of significant growth across our sector. Some might say the June 23rd vote helped as sterling started exploring some muddy depths I don’t remember in my lifetime and devaluation gave our international visitors a 15% boost in spending power. But that picture was not universal across the UK and London has been affected by concerns over security and perhaps our European markets have been put off a little by the tone of the debate within the UK. Scotland’s place as chief “Bremoaners” possibly hasn’t done us too much harm in that regard.   

Here positive news kept coming thick and fast.  Will Edinburgh airport ever shut up about their monthly year on year exponential growth? – I for one hope not. Gordon Dewar is quoted in the press saying “up” more times than the planes take-off from his runway. I’m also wondering how Nick’s crowd control training programme is being developed at Edinburgh Castle these days. 

But seriously it’s great – our 2020 Edinburgh Tourism Strategy mid-term review (completed with ETAG support last year) revealed that our industry has created at least an extra 3000 full time jobs in the city in the last 5 years. If we were the finance industry eulogies would be reaching the pearly gates of the Chancellor of the Exchequer – but it takes a bit more effort for our industry to be heard, and I ask all of you to be cheer leaders about our positive impact on society and the economy. 

Results like these reflect a pattern of growth over the last 5 years and our city is currently on target to achieve and likely to exceed the original growth targets for tourism established in 2011. As a result I very much welcome the mid-term review’s recommendation to introduce a new “stretch” growth target that would see us generate an additional £100 million of visitor spend per annum by 2020. 

Of course the devaluation of sterling is a double edged sword for our industry as we will face significant inflationary pressures to our cost base which will erode our profit margins. I also understand that the rates revaluation of 2017 is causing some significant upward rating and concern to out licensed trade and hospitality businesses in particular.   Care must be taken to ensure that these businesses remain financially sustainable. 

There is also uncertainty over future access to a workforce from across Europe. Many soft skills such as language ability may prove hard to replace. I believe Scotland’s economy will suffer disproportionately without free movement of people across Europe and the diversity that this brings.  

Many of these wider macro-economic issues are outwith our control and as an industry we have always found the entrepreneurship and innovation to survive and flourish. Demand for our city as a visitor destination remains very strong. The mid-term strategy review identified areas of our strategy that had not met planned targets, such as an increase in average visitor spend. Our annual growth masked the lack of progress in the months from January to March. So there is still much work to do and opportunities to be grabbed. 

New markets are opening up and news about Chinese and US visitor growth to Scotland in 2017 look very positive. We are getting much smarter at working collaboratively to take full advantage of these opportunities and ETAG has been at the forefront of supporting those collaborations.  

We have some great examples. In 2016 - 20 businesses across the city pulled together to invest in the first ever Edinburgh China Social Media campaign and were awarded VisitScotland growth funding to help make the city further China Ready and support Edinburgh’s airport’s ambition to secure a direct air route to China. 

In the year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017 (He Ha) ETAG is supporting 3 strands of activity – the lighting project going live in February with Signature Event funding from EventScotland, the ETAG Year of 2017 innovation funding which attracted 16 submissions and the Edinburgh in 100 Objects – an exciting and innovative new product and marketing campaign for the city with potential long term legacy. 

There are similar approaches ongoing and being developed by Youth Travel, Accessible Tourism and Business Tourism. And we will soon be initiating work around themes of Winter Tourism and extending the Tourism footprint. 

I know that many of you in this room are directly involved in these groups and you bring a huge amount of passion and expertise, as well as dedicating substantial amounts of your time and I’d like to thank you enormously for your contribution to Edinburgh. 

ETAG has been supporting all of this activity, alongside our ongoing program of business events designed to help build the Edinburgh tourism community and support innovation and collaboration.  Yet again in 2016, we delivered a huge amount of activity and 2017 is shaping up to be another busy year for the team.

I’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the great and continuing support provided by Scottish Enterprise, through both direct funding and the substantial skilled staff support provided by SE which enables ETAG to deliver all of this activity. SE has been longstanding and consistent supporters of the Edinburgh tourism sector both directly and via all of the work-streams I’ve mentioned, none of which would be possible without their support.

Following on in tradition I thought it would be remiss of me not to follow up on my 2016 ETAG conference address, where apparently I caused some people to say I had asked some challenging questions about future investment in our industry. 

The ongoing debate on how to invest and support our industry has moved on a bit. This at times is framed in simplistic newspaper headlines calling for tourist taxes. The case on either side has been made ad nauseum and I have no intention to rerun these here today. The topic is live in many cities across the UK. One of my challenges to those who sought funding was to create an investment case for any such funds. I have been reliably informed that these investment cases have been put together as part of Edinburgh’s City deal discussions with both the Scottish and UK Governments. We look forward to seeing the details in due course. They might prove to be so good that bureaucratic new mechanisms to help fund them prove surplus to requirements! I live in hope that at these times of significant challenges to our industry and our track record of sustainable growth may persuade others that we are a worthy cause for further investment so the public and our city can enjoy greater returns in the future. Alternatively it may be up to us to find that investment money to help us sustain and grow our industry.  

And finally to finish up

As we will be discussing the 2050 Vision for our city today I thought I would share my own – Edinburgh is to be the best place to be on earth. Our industry will play a significant part in helping shape that future so I hope you will continue to engage with ETAG and enjoy our conference today and may you all have a prosperous and fulfilling 2017. 

Thank you."

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