Conference creates connections
Issued in partnership with Visit Scotland
The challenges, opportunities and lessons learned of creating a unique tourism brand set amongst Irish rural communities were addressed by the keynote speaker at this year’s Highland Tourism Conference.
The conference – the first since 2019 – was jointly organised by VisitScotland and The Highland Council and was held at The Kingsmills Hotel in Inverness today (Tuesday, 29 November).
Cllr Ken Gowans, Chair of the Economy and Infrastructure Committee at The Highland Council, said: “The variety of people from industry and community attending today’s Highland Tourism Conference demonstrated the ambition to come together to learn from others, talk through challenges and explore new opportunities both in business and in how we immerse tourism throughout communities.
“Visitors are looking to embrace localism and be part of an authentic Highland experience. The Highlands’ abundance in rich culture, magnificent landscapes, Gaelic language, food and drink; fused together with inspiring people and communities offers visitors a premium experience.
“Strategic planning, collaborative partnerships and ambitious people are vital to ensuring we embrace opportunities and continue to thrive and steer Highland tourism businesses forward in line with the national ambition to be leaders in 21st century tourism.
More than 160 delegates from across the tourism and events industry in the Highlands and beyond listened to Paddy Mathews, Head of Ireland’s regional tourism brand with Fáilte Ireland, the National Tourism Development Authority in the Republic of Ireland, share insight into the development of the country’s newest regional experience brand, the Hidden Heartlands.
His inspirational talk outlined to Highland businesses how they could work together to grow tourism in a way that also benefits those communities which are popular with visitors.
Mr Mathews also spoke about the benefits of tourism ‘clusters’ and how they can evolve and grow, allowing businesses to develop packages and itineraries with other cluster members; how the cluster can expand and be marketed together and how new experiences can be developed - for example a food experience partnering with an activity provider.
The event provided presentations, workshops and exhibitions from a range of organisations and experienced industry professionals that offered insights and practical solutions to help tourism businesses take advantage of a host of new opportunities to increase visitor numbers and enhance the visitor experience.
Delegates were given an insight into the place planning process, which gives communities the opportunity to prepare Local Place Plans and for them to play a proactive role in defining their future.
This was followed by a community session with presentations from three local groups who are leading the way in their ambitions to create a better place to live and visit.
David Watson, from Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust, focused on tourism infrastructure development; Russell Fraser, SCOTO (Scottish Community Tourism), spoke about the Loch Ness Hub and gave an introduction to SCOTO’s ambitions and work; and Murray Ferguson, Director of Planning and Place at the Cairngorms National Park Authority, discussed the community-led Badenoch the Storylands project, storytelling and authentic experiences.
Conference delegates were also invited to attend workshops on accessibility, digital decarbonisation, networking and green tourism.
Michael Golding, CEO of Visit Inverness Loch Ness, led a discussion and industry showcase on Going Net Zero and Rob Dickson, Director of Industry and Destination Development at VisitScotland spoke about looking ahead to 2030 and beyond.
Paddy Mathews, Head of Operations for Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands, with Fáilte Ireland, said: “I enjoyed sharing our experience in sustainable tourism development in the Midlands of Ireland with the delegates at this year’s Highland Tourism Conference.
“The Hidden Heartlands brand is quite young and we are a visitor destination at an early stage in our maturity, so we are focused on raising consumer awareness of the region, building the range and quality of visitor experiences, establishing strong industry coalitions and ensuring that we do all of this in a sustainable manner. We have a particular focus on regenerative tourism in our region which seeks to make tourism work for local communities and nature.
“It was great to engage with conference delegates on these issues and to hear about the challenges the tourism industry is facing in the Scottish Highlands and how it is addressing them.”
Chris Taylor, VisitScotland Regional Leadership Director, said: “It was fantastic to see representatives from so many tourism and events businesses from the Highlands and beyond here today. Following a challenging few years managing a global pandemic and now the impact of changes to the economic landscape, tourism has endured a great deal since our last event in November 2019.
“Through this year’s conference, we wanted to reinforce our support and encouragement for the sector and inspire attendees to take another small step forward with their business.
“Scotland has much in common with Ireland - stunning scenery, hills and waterways, rural communities and similar challenges and opportunities. Paddy’s experience with Hidden Heartlands offered a fresh perspective on how we can make the most of these opportunities.
“Responsible tourism and sustainable tourism remain high on the agenda, with increasing evidence and insight to support the unique experiences and products that visitors are looking for during their stay in the Highlands. However, this needs to be sensitively balanced amid the current cost challenges.
“Tourism is a force for good and its impact spreads far beyond the industry itself - it benefits our economy, our community and our wellbeing. VisitScotland is committed to championing change to shape the responsible growth of Scotland’s valuable tourism and events industry in a way that respects people and places.” ”