Tuesday 6 November 2012

Changes to VisitScotland.com booking facility

Let's not beat around the bush.

It's been a ten year disaster, a monumental waste of public sector funding, a process that ignored best available advice, a project driven by egos and finally with a couple of hundred words and no regrets, the Chief Executive of VisitScotland has finally done what should have been done a decade ago and pulled the VS Booking engine.

It even sounds like it's a strategic decision and not one forced upon them by EC rulings. Well it's not strategic and the hundreds of businesses using their new online booking system (which was in fact only launched in April of THIS year) were certainly not told that it was going to have a lifespan of less than eight months. The fact of the matter is that the organisation knew that this was a possibility, we even asked them why they were going ahead specifically, and ignored it claiming instead at meeting after meeting that the position with the EC ruling was clear and they had the right to sell accommodation through their systems.

Well they were right, the ruling was clear, the direction from Brussels last November told VS to get out of the process. Instead they spent millions re branding their site and integrating another online booking facility that would last for just over two hundred days.

And the introductory paragraph reproduced below... wow what a selective use of memory. 

There were alternatives ten years ago. There were even more eight years ago, five years ago and three years ago. Plenty of time for VisitScotland to get out. Plenty of opportunities for the strategy to change and plenty of calls from the private sector for them to do so. 

Some estimates I've seen bundle the overall cost of the ten year debacle at as much as £30 million. Not just software development and new website building but public sector staff time in training, in becoming sales people for the system, for buy outs of public private partnerships. 

So that's it it's all fixed?

Well no, the new digital strategy continues to make claims that it just can't justify. Millions continue to be spent on flawed software and indeed flawed strategic thinking. There is no-one accountable for the backlog of online projects and there are still major questions outstanding about additional money now being spent on a public sector funded channel manager - arguably replicating the competition errors of the outgoing booking engine.

There are questions remaining about the access to event information that has been licenced to a private company at a ridiculous cost. Questions remain about the effectiveness of the search functions within the main website. Questions remain about the roll out of regional websites and their costs and effectiveness. Questions remain about the effectiveness of VisitScotland social media strategy. Questions remain about their mobile strategy. 

And after a year - arguably a decade of asking - these questions still remain unanswered. 

Accountability? Who knows. Responsibility? Questionable.

And you know what makes it worse this rant is not written solely with the benefits of hindsight. 

The whole VisitScotland digital strategy was questioned deeply by a wide group of travel professionals ten years ago and having just reread the points raised back then the whole scenario could and should have been avoided. Having been involved at those stages we highlighted this to politicians of all colours frequently and very very clearly. I recall Kenny McCaskill's indignation in a meeting at the Sheraton Grand in Edinburgh when in opposition all those years ago. I recall Jack McConell nodding knowingly at meetings.

In subsequent years that lobbying has continued by individuals but the decision making process within Scottish tourism has failed the businesses it's meant to be supporting and developing.

Did the industry memberships do enough to raise the fears of their subscribers? Did the government and opposition do enough to question the process? Did VisitScotland question the return on investment of the expenditure? Did the Scottish media delve into any of it fully? Nope. Tourism is growing so let's leave well alone. Why worry about big issues when we can focus on having another workshop or two on using Facebook.

Well now it's not growing and maybe it's time to look at how all the other decisions relating to Scottish Tourism and hospitality are being made and implemented and monitored. Maybe a review of the whole tourism structure is well overdue. Not the restructuring of a few jobs but a whole analysis of the public sector role in 21st century tourism. Not done from the inside but from without.

This whole online booking situation is most likely to be written off as insignificant but it is to some is an indication of continued institutional failures in tourism and hospitality and is a very strong argument for the public sector not doing more but actually doing LESS. 

It is indicative of ongoing political interference - just look at the spending ahead of 2014 - and it is also shamefully indicative of a hospitality sector that will not actually say what it feels often enough for fear of alienation from public sector funding and seats around tables.

Scotland's public sector hospitality strategy has created a structure that is divisive, fragmented and creates overlap, duplication and waste. Regional and local destinations and activity groups fight for small funds so that they can compete against each other better. It's lunacy. The North East get some money so the south west counter it. The Highlands create a golf campaign and East Lothian match it. Where is the logic in funding internally competitive projects. 

The country is flooded with DMO's (destination management/marketing organisations) many set up just to bid for grant funding. Councils developing strategies to compete with their neighbours. It is lunacy. It doesn't require a genius to identify that this expenditure needs reigned in to part of a joined up strategy. This expenditure is setting area against area; region against region, tourism group against tourism group. And we just let this horrendous volume of economic displacement activity go on and on and on.

It really is time for some serious activity, some genuine vision, some true understanding. We are blessed with some seriously visionary individuals in Scottish tourism. I can name a dozen right away who could cut through the rubbish. Some of them even currently sit on the boards and employees of the bodies driving the above. There is no lack of talent in either the public or private sector. There is however a lack of structure, responsibility and accountability.

What these influencers need to do is not sit quietly around the table but start banging the table and insisting on change.

It is a small country and yes debate and disagreement with those you work alongside can be stressful but the alternative to frank and open discussion is stale and cumbersome strategy with a lack of creativity. We can argue vociferously around the table and still have a drink afterwards.

So that's the rant over with. It may be read by as many as 100 people if we're lucky but it's great to just get it out of the system...

Downloads and Links

The following links give more information on the changes and how to manage them.


And here's the announcement that went out last night from VisitScotland

November 5th 2012

Changes to VisitScotland.com booking facility

Dear colleague,

When the online booking system on VisitScotland.com was developed ten years ago, for the majority of smaller tourism businesses this was the sole channel for consumers to book directly online with accommodation establishments. Over the last decade there have been a number of changes in the online booking landscape and there are now many more providers of this service.

Working with the European Commission and the other National Tourist Boards, VisitScotland will look at the way in which they work with tourism businesses around provision of online booking facilities via their websites. We have decided to accelerate our longer term strategy, which was to provide a website with a more direct connection between the visitor and the business.

As a result, VisitScotland will no longer be offering its own online booking facility. This means, from mid December 2012, to make a booking, visitors will have the following options: 

1.     Call or email the business directly to make a reservation
2.     Contact the business directly via their own website
3.     Click on a ‘book’ button - a new button will be introduced which can provide a link to the businesses online booking website.
4.     Use the VisitScotland Contact Centre or a VisitScotland Information Centre to make a booking, as is currently the case.
Visitors will still be able to find accommodation businesses through the search function on VisitScotland.com and it is vital that businesses continue to keep this up to date, accurate and have a description that best portrays the products and services on offer.

From June 2013, visitors will be able to book online via a third party provider. To assist businesses in identifying the systems that will be linking to the VisitScotland website, a regularly updated list will be published from the end of November on visitscotland.org.

Our priority is to do what we can to help the industry find the most suitable booking option against individual business needs, by providing support and advice on our industry website visitscotland.org, through face to face contact with our Quality and Tourism Advisors and via the telephone with our contact centre.

A letter has been sent to all accommodation businesses that appear on VisitScotland.com today, 5 November; therefore they should receive it in the mail tomorrow.

VisitScotland.com is, and remains, a showcase for Scotland, boasting a rich source of information for visitors and reaching out to some 14 million internet users. Our international and UK & Ireland marketing will continue to drive visitors to the site using a range of print and online communications, websites and campaigns all year round.

If you would like to talk this through in more detail, please get in touch.

Kind Regards

Malcolm Roughead OBE
Chief Executive - VisitScotland 


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with your comment about the idiocy of region competing against region for tourism money - and have consistently said as such in the many (normally badly constructed) surveys sent out by VS, which are generally geared to justifying what they've already decided to do.

Anonymous said...

Well well well - VisitScotland have finally had a reality check! What a pity it has taken 10 years to do so; amazing what a limited budget does to make you focus on the priorities. In our view (over 25 years in the business), VS should keep it simple and stick to what they do best and that is market Scotland as a whole country on a global basis as well as promoting Quality Assurance. Simplify the website and start 'joined up thinking'when it comes to promoting different ares. If VS were a private enterprise they would have gone bust years ago. What a shameful waste of taxpayers money!

Alan Graham said...

Ok it might not have been the best booking engine but it did the job. It must be better than none at all.

Charlie Steele, Coila said...

Well said! VS have wasted millions on online booking over the years. Ironically the system launched in April this year was by far the best, and was indeed easy to administer for accommodation providers. The TICs could also use it to search for accommodation and we received more bookings this summer from that source than ever before. How are the TICs going to make bookings now?

David Catterson said...

I am concerned about the labeling of the proposed 'book now' button. Potential Guests are being prompted to book without having had the opportunity to check either tariff or availability. Obviously that would be the next step when re-directed but, from many years online experience, people do not always appreciate how booking engines operate; e.g. "...but I've already paid". I would recommend that the button be relabeled 'Check Price/Availability'

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more - especially with regatrd to accountability and joined up thinking. VS seem unable to engage with industry sectors, but instead insist that they know best when it is usually some PYT who has been in the post for a matter of months trying to tell someone about running their own business. We have had to attend the same workshop on more than one occassion with different VS staff but the same industry representatives!

Anonymous said...

What a shambles. As the owner of a small B&B, we now have a month to find an alternative system to handle online bookings. VS is going to make recommendations to providers in June next year? That's way too late for a season that only really lasts from Easter to October. Small B&B owners are already struggling due to economic conditions and I fear that the last-minute nature of VS' communications - for something they surely have known about for a while - will only add to their troubles.

Anonymous said...


Sack the lot of them and save millions of public money.

They have always been useless self-serving parasites, and just creamed off commissions from accommodation providers.

Peter Shearn said...

A very apt post.
Unfortunately VisitScotland failed to learn from the even more costly errors previously made by VisitBritain.

This has been nothing less than a scandal over the last few years. Mr McCaig is quite right to be curious as to how this has not 'blown-up' in the media. Panorama often reports on cases much less onerous than this. Behind the scenes people have tried to responsibly and diplomatically stop the tourism authorities from throwing public money down the toilet but to no avail.

To respond to a couple of posts here; Mr Graham said:
"Ok it might not have been the best booking engine but it did the job. It must be better than none at all."

The pros & cons of the booking engine itself are not the issue here. At issue is a publicly funded authority competing with the public sector, using public money to do so. It simply can't. Not only is it illegal, but even more importantly it is not financially viable. The money spent is not recouped in bookings or profits - in fact, the losses of authority booking systems are very high indeed.

Point 2:
Anonymous said:
"VS is going to make recommendations to providers in June next year"
Do not wait for a proclamation from VS about what booking system you need to use. They do not have any knowledge beyond your own and why would you wait to be told what to do in the middle of your next season at the worst possible time anyway?
Act now and Google "Hotel Booking System" and take it from there - you wont be short of options.

Jimmy said...

I worked for the snappily-titled Greater Glasgow & Clyde Valley Tourist Board until 2002, before moving to England. I had worked for GGCV (previously GGTB) for 10 years up to that point. Between 1997 and 2002, Visitscotland's response to the changes in destination marketing brought about by expanding internet usage was lamentable. They acted then (and seem to have acted since) as if VS had to be the conduit for bookings, rather than just get out of the way of individual businesses, or act simply as a portal for every other business's own web presence. Instead VS went in search of truly piddling 10%s and fees, modeled on the old TIC BABA system. Once professional and political reputations had been invested in making it 'work' it was too late to admit that the organisation did not in fact know what it had gotten into - non-commercial individuals trying to be commercial - not a pretty sight.
My then CE, Eddie Friel, warned them, but they didn't listen because he was an old pro at winding them up, and playing the Glasgow-underdog routine. What they failed to acknowledge was that he also had more commercial nous and strategic perspective in his little finger than the lot of them put
together. So, Glasgow ended up setting up the Glasgow Marketing Agency to try to escape the amateurish, bungling, centrist, bureaucratic grip of VS, and establish a stronger relationship with its own tourism businesses in the city and surrounding region. Not been following subsequent events in the last 10 years very closely, but it seems VS still lacks leadership, and it is hard to believe it has taken this long to pull the plug on the whole VS.com fiasco. Sad - it seems Scotland will never get tourism right, and that vested geographical and parochial political interests will always trump marketing effectiveness.

David Keith said...

I agree with many of the comments here. My own experience of VS has been mixed, at times easy and others shambolic, I wince at the shear waste of money and complete lack of industry and business knowledge. There should be someone on top who knows what they are talking about and be much more in the public eye like a figure head, someone who is trusted and seen as a bastion of common sense. I am sure there are many people out there capable of fulfilling such a roll.
I feel that many business owners should just take matters into their own hands and all should have their own manageable and very affordable bookings system, nothing to fancy just practical that works, makes life easier and hopefully gets more bookings. Organisations like VS/TIC's or whoever else are created as agents and if they have someone who wants to book they can go and check availability and give an immediate answer or make a referral through to the accommodation providers own site. I may be able to help those left in the lurch by VS. Currently I am conducting a survey of b&b, guest house, small hotel owners etc. to find out exactly what they want from an online bookings and management system. Even if they want one at all!! If you'd like to help and have your opinion heard please go to thebedbooker.com and complete the anonymous survey. There will be no spam mailing. Once I have enough feedback, a system will be designed and built that will fulfil the needs and wants of accommodation providers and this nonsense with VS will become nothing more than a memory.