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New boss wants gold for tourism

Chris Foy, new chief executive of Visit Aberdeenshire
Chris Foy, new chief executive of Visit Aberdeenshire

The new chief executive of the north-east’s tourism body wants to offer visitors “oven ready Scottish experiences” from the coast to the Cairngorms.

Chris Foy, who helped mastermind London’s efforts to capitalise on the Olympics, has been tasked with rewriting the dated tourism strategy for Aberdeenshire.

And it’s no easy task, particularly given the impact of the oil and gas downturn in the last few years.

But one surprising benefit to tourism could be the hotel rooms that have been left empty due to the mass redundancies made in the industry.

That, Mr Hoy claims, gives the region great capacity for accommodating tourists.

And with a raft of new developments on the horizon, such as the new exhibition and conference centre and the city centre masterplan, the Visit Aberdeenshire chief said it is “a very exciting time” for the region.

Sitting down with the Press and Journal for his first interview since starting in post he said: “The olympics took up my life for quite a lot of time actually I was working with a fantastic team at Visit Britain. We saw the opportunity for the Olympic Games as being the best global advertisement for the UK we could ever imagine in terms of TV coverage etc, we were in the spot light and along with things like the Queen’s Jubilee and royal babies it all came together at the right time.

“But we had been advised by other tourism agencies like Visit Australia when they held the games in Sydney that the riches don’t quite fall into your lap, you have to work quite hard and build a very effective campaign around it and work with journalists and TV companies to really sweat the asset. So my work for a couple of years was to get the strategy together for the Olympic Games and when the games actually came round I just collapsed in a heap, my work was done by then.”

During his time in London Mr Foy also worked for the Foreign Office before he returned to Visit Britain to focus on business tourism. This is something he believes will play a big part in the growth of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, thanks to the development of the new exhibition and conference centre.

“Business events tourism is now being taken really seriously in the UK because the value of hosting major conferences and exhibitions, like Offshore Europe,” he said.

“The value of hosting these events goes well beyond the direct economic impact of 40,000 people coming into Aberdeen and spending money for a few days. It is the business that is generated from hosting the event.

“The AECC will allow for big opportunities and the beauty of business events is that delegates will spend more than leisure visitors. In some instances they will spend double the amount of a leisure visitor. If we can attract those high spending delegates and get them to, not just attend the conference but also, come into the city.”

Mr Foy said that as well as the benefits of the new exhibition centre, one surprising boost to tourism, which is coming out of the oil and gas downturn, is that we now have the hotel capacity to allow thousands of tourists to stay in their droves.

He added: “The big opportunity we have right now, as a by product of the oil and gas downturn, is that we do have capacity in our hotel rooms. It is a challenge. It is a big challenge for the accommodation sector in the city which has been calibrated around a different type of customer but we do have the capacity that other Scottish cities or UK cities don’t necessarily have. This means we can start to attract visitors here in volume during peak times when other cities are full and offer that authentic Scottish experience or that beautiful vibrant city experience.”

Mr Foy said one of the first things he would be doing in his new post is to review the existing destination strategy which was written in 2012. At the time Aberdeen still had a thriving oil and gas sector so at first glance it may appear that trying to raise visitor spend from £340million to £510million by 2020 is a bit of a daunting task in today’s climate.

However, with development in infrastructure and new projects coming on board across the city and shire Mr Foy wants to aim high.

“I want to see how on track we are to achieving that, given the new climate that we are working in but also to see if we can stretch that ambition any further,” he said.

“So the first plan is to get a plan in place that reflects the new world that we are operating in and it’s an exciting time for the visitor economy.

“It has been a really successful year for the visitor attractions in the north-east – up 20% across Scotland and we have a relatively high share of that.”

While many of us are complaining about the weakness of the pound it is actually something the tourism industry feels they could be capitalising on at the moment. For many years Aberdeen and Scotland as a whole may have been considered a relatively expensive place to visit from outside the UK, however now we are becoming more affordable for those coming from across Europe or the USA.

Mr Foy added: “The visitor economy is on a bit of a march at the moment, for a number of reasons. The UK is a relatively cost effective place to come from the Euro Zone and the US because of the weakness of the pound. Currency is always going to be a major factor but it is not going to be the only factor. That is demonstrated by countries like Switzerland which is very expensive but still very popular as a tourist destination.”

The family man said he feels that the Scotland brand is also extremely popular at the moment, aided by television and films like Outlander. However he said Visit Aberdeenshire would be focusing on how to use this to drive visitors into the north-east and not just sit back and let everyone head to the Highlands.

He added: “There has been talk about the Outlander effect on the increase in population of the heritage attractions, things like that drive interest. The challenge for us is to drive it into the north-east and not just into the Isle of Skye, Western Isles and the traditional stomping grounds. That is really going to be the basis of our strategy – to grow the strength of the visitor economy in the north-east. The challenge that we have, is that within this beautiful corner of Scotland we have quite a diverse experience that you can have up here from the Cairngorms, to the coast to the city and it is very difficult to wrap all that together and say this is Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire.

“But I think the trick to answering that is to segment our audiences as different people are attracted by different things. We can offer oven ready Scotland in a bottle experiences. People come off a cruise ship for a day and look for a dream experience, castles and whiskey trails and things like that and we can offer that. But I think also within the city here we have a fantastic offering, particularly to young people.

“We are such a diverse and vibrant student population and I think that’s certainly something that we can build on for Aberdeen to shine a light on this city which doesn’t necessarily get the same coverage as other cities in Scotland.”

When asked what he planned to do to put the north-east on the map as a go-to tourist destination Mr Foy suggested we had already started to make moves. Large events like the Great Aberdeen Run and the Nu Art festival are just a few examples of recent success which have pulled in visitors in their thousands.

He also seemed keen to use our student population to market us as the new up and coming place to be. He said he was excited by the ideas featured in the city centre master plan and that he hoped the “great minds” behind the change of Aberdeen would deliver some fantastic results.

However he stressed: “If the visitor experience isn’t polished if the businesses we are working with don’t understand how to connect with these audiences then we are probably going to fail somewhere down the line so we need think what are the priorities in terms of welcoming our visitors what are our priorities to educating businesses on the way the tourism industry is moving it’s not just down to Visit Aberdeenshire.”

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