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 LinksThe 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 facilityDear 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.
Malcolm Roughead OBE
Chief Executive - VisitScotland