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 VisitScotland.com. 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...
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