It may be a challenging time to start a new job in tourism, but Jo De Sylva is in a good place to help mount a fight back.
With the future of the sector still unclear, having endured an unprecedented crisis during the pandemic, she feels fortunate to be working in an area that gives her a head start.
In the middle of the most recent lockdown, Ms De Sylva was appointed chairwoman of Visit Inverness Loch Ness (VILN) to lead the area’s post-Covid comeback.
And now, as Scots begin planning trips this within the country this summer once restrictions are eased, she reckons the famous body of water will be top of many travel wish-lists.
‘It’s not just about the monster, there is much more to see here’
“This is one of our most iconic locations”, Ms De Sylva said.
“When anyone talks about Scotland one of the first things they mention is Loch Ness.
“We are so lucky to have this on our doorstep and when people are thinking of where to go when they are allowed to travel, this is one of the main places they are going to choose.
“And it’s not just about the monster, there is much more to see here.
“Inverness is a great base to explore other areas. It’s not about doing a circuit and saying ‘I’ve been to the Highlands’.
“It’s about taking your time and finding undiscovered places as opposed to making a whistle-stop tour and ticking a box.”
Another invaluable asset is her experience as a former BBC producer and presenter, which she believes will help her in championing the area over the next three years in post.
“It is a huge challenge coming in at this time. But where I’m fortunate is that my background is in media so it helps in getting the message out there that the Highlands is a place to visit.
“I feel my strengths are totally appropriate at this time and it is where I can add value.”
But other professional experience means she is under no illusions about the scale of the task ahead.
With husband and business partner Bruce MacGregor, the musician and broadcaster, she has seen first-hand how the pandemic has affected the hospitality business.
The couple run MacGregor’s, Scotland’s first crowdfunded bar, in Inverness, as well as the wedding and festival venue Bogbain Farm which have both had to close for much of the past year.
As a member of the acclaimed band Blazin’ Fiddles, Mr MacGregor has also seen his stage performances cancelled.
“It’s been horrendous”, she admits.
“We’ve spent a lot of money at the farm renovating over the past few years to get it up to a really good standard.
“Last year was going to be the year we started to make money and of course we were absolutely wiped out. We went from having 40 large-scale weddings on the books to four with fewer than 20 people.
“With the bar it’s been stop-start. You just get the energy and impetus and enthusiasm to get going again and then you’re shut once more. It’s very difficult to get that energy back.
“But the most important thing is that people are safe. We’ve been able to furlough staff so they are looked after and we will open our doors when people are safe rather than rush to open prematurely.
“It means I am coming from a place where I know what people are going through. It’s been difficult for everyone so we are all in the same position, we are all struggling and no one in the hospitality sector will come out of this in a better position than they were in last year.
“But speaking to people in the industry, what’s come through during the pandemic is that people appreciate the importance of working together towards a common goal.”
Live at Five
As an example of hospitality adapting and innovating to lockdown, MacGregor’s Bar has held nightly online Live at Five sessions, featuring music and chat, and has built up an international virtual following, highlighting the important social role of pubs as well as demonstrating demand for when the doors are allowed to open again.
Ms De Sylva added: “When we started we thought it was going to be a 15-minute event and didn’t know how it would go down. It’s still going and we get people across the world watching. The response we’ve had is really what’s kept me going.
“We don’t make any money from Live at Five. It’s done purely to see everyone. It’s created its own community of people looking out for one another even though they may not have met in real life.
“When we had the lockdown break, when people could travel, we found folk coming to the bar getting pictures taken because they had been watching the programme. And a lot are saying the second we are able to visit we will.”
The strong online presence underlines the pent up demand for people to visit hospitality venues when restrictions ease again, with the Highlands also ready to benefit, Ms De Sylva believes, from changing visitor expectations.
She said: “People don’t necessarily want to go to a big city, but want to head to somewhere there is good food, good drink, and things to do, but also fresh air and space.
“No one has been lucky when it comes to Covid, but in terms of location post-Covid, we are one of the luckiest places in the UK given the fact we have plenty of space and plenty to offer people who want to enjoy slow tourism and seeking places to help with their wellbeing.
“It’s credit to people involved in the tourism industry that there wasn’t a huge spike in Covid numbers last time we reopened in the Highlands compared to other cities. People in the Highlands have always taken responsibility for safety very seriously and I’m sure it won’t be any different this time.”
End in sight
Ms de Sylva said operators can see the “seeds of recovery” with the vaccine roll-out, but that a return of tourism will initially be cautious.
“We can see an end in sight and, while people will be taking very tentative steps, we are looking ahead.
“People will be a bit more cautious when we open up at first. We’ve become so conditioned to react in a certain way which at the moment is not to come close to people and stay in your own little bubble. It will take time for peoples’ mind sets to change.
“The idea of going from being off for so long to full blast will also be a culture shock for staff, so having a gentle slide back to normality would be a good thing.
“It will be more of a mental challenge this time because this has been a long stretch without being with others. For everyone it’s going to be a period of adjustment.
“Stats are telling us that it will be 2023 before we get back to the same level of overseas visitors as we have had previously. But it seems that while we will not have anything close to the levels of overseas tourism that we’ve had, there are promising signs.”
The flip side is that more people in the UK will be staycationing and the Highlands will be one of the main places they are going to choose.
That comes with its own challenges, with most areas of the Highlands experiencing problems with irresponsible and antisocial behaviour by some visitors last year.
Working with communities and Highland Council, groups like VILN hope to provide more facilities and information this year to cope with the expected influx of people.
“We need to keep reminding people coming into our area this is our space and we want to keep it lovely for everyone. We also have a responsibility to make sure services are available to people who require them,” said Ms de Sylva.
“It’s a two way thing. If we want people to come here we have to make sure the services are here.
“We are always going to have some arrogant people who feel they don’t need to abide by rules. That’s the case in every sector of society, but we also have to make sure they have the information so they know how to do things correctly and there is a code they have to abide by.
“Also, people shouldn’t be afraid to call others out on it. In some ways we’ve become a society that turns a blind eye and then complains about it later. We have to take it upon ourselves and if we see people who are not acting the way we would expect nicely bring it to their attention – this is the way we do things and this is why.
“A lot of the time people, when they understand a particular way of doing things and the reason for it, they understand and act accordingly.”