Thursday 23 July 2009

What Role TICs in the 21st Century?

The headline in the Sunday Herald stated "VisitScotland to spend £500,000 on new image" and was followed by the article outlining how the word ‘tourist’ was being dropped from the title of tourist information centres to become VisitScotland Information Centres or VICs.
The article was factual enough - a revamp of the centres, new colours, new logo was scheduled after "A £60,000 research exercise concluded that tourist information centres should be renamed "VisitScotland Information Centres" and VisitScotland admitting the 103 information centres lack "a common identity", and the "visitor experience is unclear".

Unfortunately the journalist then misses the key question - concentrating instead on branding and imagery and apart from a final closing paragraph "The VICs will continue to provide free advice and help with accommodation, as well as new "self-help" options, such as online booking." - and asks nothing about the actual role of these centres in the current online marketplace.

I remember being on the Tourist Board in Ayrshire possibly as many as ten years ago sitting opposite one of Ayrshire's most prominent hoteliers during a discussion about what TICs Ayrshire and Arran would have to close. His answer was quite succinct and in essence it was "close them all as they have no role whatsoever in the modern marketplace." His argument was that the overwhelming majority of purchase decisions were indeed made prior to departure - travel arrangments, car hire, accommodation, golf and activities - other spontaneous and less organised decisions on where to visit, where to eat, where to drink, where to shop were then made on arrival he argued but not based very often on advice from a TIC. You'll ask reception, or the taxi driver, or the shop assistant (anyone remember the goals of Welcome Host?!) but not very often will you enter a TIC to find somewhere showing the footie tonight.

At the time I agreed and I think the situation is even more clear now. So what is the role of the TICs or VICs as we now must call them.

Online reservations? The figures do not stack up here and certainly there are better ways of offering online reservations than manning 103 centres for the (relatively) odd booking for your next destination. And who does online reservations better? It's certainly agreed even internally at Leith that it's not Hotels and Guest House all offer their own availability online and then there are the multitudes of OTA's (Online Travel Agents) all with rooms available throughout the country - is this public money still being used to concentrate online reservations in TICs to a single public sector supplier? Even in these days of open competition? Well actually yes it is? Certainly again an inefficient distribution method and not one that anyone would actually create at this moment in time.

Tourism Information? Only a fraction of the visitors to any area base their next or indeed any purchase decision based on TICs; leaflet and distribution companies, wifi in hotels and restataurants, pubs and B&Bs ensure that inforamtion is available 24/7 from handheld held devices of laptops. Receptions and arrival areas at visitor attractions have more information available than any TIC can possibly support. A wasteful logistics exercise to say the very least.

So what do we spend the money on? Research and redesign. Now I am certain, knowing their work, that Curious will have done a wonderful job on the rebranding but it does not shy away from the fact the there are 103 archaic and high cost institutions around Scotland that are providing little added value (and then only to a minority of the travelling public) at a time when public spending needs to be railed in.

Politically is where you can find the reasons for their existence. It would just be too much of a fight to overcome local opposition to closures. The councils would be up in arms, they would claim it to be the death knell of tourism in the area and a massive reduction in services. Well would it really?

VisitScotland, the Scottish Government and the councils need to understand that there is a not a single visitor bednight created in Germany or Sweden or The States or the rest of the UK by having this "network" of TICs across Scotland; there are no spends lost in restaurants because of a TIC being in the High Street. And in all honesty the advice that can be given (with of course the proverbial exceptions to the rule) could be received from any number of sources in hotels, or local shops, or visitor attractions at no additional cost to the public purse.

In actual fact I think VisitScotland of the three above know all of the above. If they had a choice of rediverting funds from providing information locally to marketing internationally I'm pretty certain which one they'd select.

I could however be very wrong...


sharon makepeace said...

Hi there,
The Sunday Herald article was inaccurate and a letter to the editor has since been written and submitted from Philip Riddle, our CEO of VisitScotland.
VisitScotland is investing into the refurbishment and upgrading of Visitor Information Centres throughout the network, many of which have had little or no investment since the 1980’s. The aim is to provide a world class information network giving consistency to our visitors and everything we are doing is the result of recent, extensive customer research.
The changing role of VICs in the 21st Century
The role of information centres has indeed changed but we know from extensive research we have conducted that 5.5 million visitors both use and value these facilities. You mention being on the Tourist Board in Ayrshire a possible ten years ago, so you will be aware of how things have moved on since then with the development of technology. Where accommodation bookings were very much part of the VIC they are now not a primary function of this service although online booking is still required to a degree. The primary function of Information Centres now is to encourage people to do more and see more in the local area, ultimately having them spend more bringing economic benefits to the local area.
Our research shows that visitors value the ‘personal touch’ and like face to face contact and yes people can obtain expert information from taxi drivers, shop owners etc We would be the first to advocate that tourism is everyone’s business, but we know from our research that a good quarter of our visitors require a focal point, somewhere they can not only obtain information they ask about but a place where they can be inspired to experience beyond what they may have originally done and this is very much where Information Centres play their most crucial role in the 21st Century. Our research shows that as a result of professional and expert local tourism information, people do go on to see, do and spend more. Another finding is the fact that people expect assistance on arrival to an area and the emphasis here is very much ‘on arrival’ marketing. The promotion of local visitor attractions would be a good example and ASVA (Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions) have provided research results that indicate the same conclusion.

sharon makepeace said...

It is absolutely correct to say that not everyone uses an information centre but 5.5 million visitors still do and that shouldn’t be ignored. VisitScotland is communicating with different audiences in different ways through multi channels - the Visitor Information Centre being just one channel.
Technology has brought about many different ways to reach our visitors/potential visitors and this year for example VisitScotland has developed an ‘outreach’ marketing project where we have branded mobile Information Centres at some of the country’s biggest events which have the largest footfall. These events include T in the Park in Perthshire, The Gathering in Edinburgh, The Open at Turnberry etc If we use the example of T in the Park, VisitScotland branded an inflatable ‘dome’ and worked with Bluetooth technology to reach thousands of festival goers informing them of what they could see and do in the local area, encouraging them to experience more of the region.
Moreover VisitScotland responds to customer demand on the back of credible research and communicates with local and visitors in the most cost effective and relevant way. The funding being used for this national programme of refurbishment is coming from a central fund and will not take away from local marketing campaign budgets.
The name
The centres will be known as VisitScotland Information Centres – with no need for ‘visitor’ or ‘tourist’ as our research has shown that whether Scots, UK or international - these words are un-necessary (Scots and UK visitors do not see themselves as tourists for example).

Almost half of all visitors to Scotland are Scots and the upgrading activity offers a valuable opportunity to reach many more locals and let them know about the great attractions, accommodation and facilities on their own doorstep. Particularly during this current economic climate we imagine this investment would be welcomed by the industry as we encourage more people to discover more on their doorstep.
It should be remembered that the name change is only one element of the whole upgrade programme which is to not only deliver but exceed visitor expectations.
Communication of VIC rebranding plans
We will be presenting the refurbishment programme for VICs on the 1st September (venue tbc) where the Head of Local Marketing Vicki Miller, will outline the plans and you are welcome to attend this.