He helped rejuvenate London with the 2012 games. Can the new head of VisitAberdeenshire now transform tourism in the North East?
Chris Foy is blessed with all the urbane charm one might expect from a civil servant who has burnished his government credentials working at the Foreign Office.
Ensconced for a spell at Number 10, Foy has found himself, at various points in his career, working on the Mayor of London’s and VisitBritain’s masterplan to transform the city through the delivery of the 2012 Olympics, where he was ‘Head of the Games Unit’, to sponsoring a yacht (exercising British ‘soft power’) as it travels around the globe looking for new trade and investment opportunities.
I’m meeting Foy on a snowy day in the centre of Aberdeen, in a suite of offices on Union Street which are quite a long way removed in distance and prestige from Downing Street. Foy, diplomatically, points to its virtues and describes the city as on the cusp of a “renaissance”, with £9bn worth of public and private investment slated to take place in the North East over the next 13 years. It is part of carefully considered plans to rebalance the region’s economy, which since the late 1970s has been heavily dependent on oil and gas; the energy sector will continue to thrive well into the future, Foy insists, ‘long after he’s pushing up daisies’, although falling revenues over the last several years has pushed economic diversity higher up the agenda.
Foy was sounded out last year for the job of running VisitAberdeenshire – the region’s destination management organisation (DMO) – and found himself quickly wrestling with the notion of leaving the comfort of a metropolitan and global city 550 miles away where he not long been installed as Head of Business Events at VisitBritain.
“It did start with me saying to my wife, ‘People have been in touch about a job in Aberdeen. Don’t worry, we’re not moving to Scotland – I just want to see how far this goes, to test myself somewhat’. But what appealed to me was, ‘here’s a chance to apply for a job, and what was really clear was the scale of opportunity in the North East of Scotland’.”
Foy was duly installed as Chief Executive of VisitAberdeenshire in August last year – and after moving his family lock, stock and barrel to the so-called ‘Granite City’ has now settled into the role. The private-sector led Opportunity North East (ONE) is the principal funding arm of VisitAberdeenshire – which came into being as an organisation in 2018, following the merger of Banffshire Coast Tourism Partnership, VisitAberdeen and Visit Royal Deeside – and has backing also from Aberdeen City Council, Aberdeenshire Council and Scottish Enterprise; that support has enabled Foy to raise a budget of ‘just shy of £2m-a-year’, which in spend terms compares very favourably to other DMOs.
Tourism is one of the ‘key sectors’ – along with Life Sciences, Food, Drink and Agriculture and Oil and Gas – identified by ONE as growth areas for the region; Scotland’s west coast has long benefited from tourism and Foy recalls stories last summer about a ‘saturation’ point being reached in the Highlands and Islands – particularly on Skye – where increasing visitor numbers were apparently putting strain on local roads, accommodation and facilities.
Foy thinks the real picture might be more ‘perception’ based, but nevertheless the time looks ripe to start banging the drum for the North East. A brand new £333m convention centre – the replacement to the existing AECC – is set to open in 2019 and usher in a new era for entertainment and business events in the city; the airport was extended last year, and a new £350 harbour opening in 2020 will enable large cruise liners to dock in the city. That’s not to mention that Aberdeenshire apparently has more castles per acre than anywhere else in the UK, with over 300, which is an appealing fact to throw into the marketing mix.
“That’s the nub of the whole leisure project here really, growing awareness of and ultimately visits into the eastern side; it’s not as simple as the ‘west is full’ so they’ll come here. The west has got its very distinct geography and offer and I think what we have here is quite distinct as well in terms of landscape, but at the same time for those people just wanting that authentic Scottish experience of whisky and castles and Highland games, we’ve got it coming out of our ears in some respects,” Foys says.
He adds: “We have a large slab of the Cairngorms within Aberdeenshire, [and] the national park has a strategy to start moving a greater percentage of their visitors to the east side of the park because it’s very busy around Aviemore and places like that. There are quite a few bodies and organisations thinking along the same lines, in that there is space to breathe over here and therefore an opportunity to grow.”
It’s clear Foy has a lot of “toys to work with”, as he puts it, but he is in no rush to put out a message which doesn’t chime with potential visitors; on the leisure side, one of his principal markets is the UK, with industry passenger and tourism surveys clearly showing the bulk of Scottish tourism is made up from people coming from other parts of the country. But he will also be working to stimulate overseas visitor numbers, particularly off the back of Aberdeen’s growing number of direct air links.
Foy also wants a strong ‘creative proposition’ in place before any campaigns are launched; this work will only commence once he has completed a review of the region’s tourism strategy, first developed in 2013, which set the visitor spend target at £510m. Whilst he doesn’t expect the research will throw up “too many surprises”, as to where the focus should be, he does envisage that the visitor spend bar will rise and he’s also looking to inject a bit more “rigour” into how campaigns are evaluated.
He is also effectively establishing a convention bureau for the city under the direction of a new Head of Business Events, along with other, more specialist personnel he is looking to bring on board. “You can kind of look at this as the beginning of chapter two of VisitAberdeenshire,” he says. “My task now is to get us into shape to embrace the next really important two or three years ahead as a lot of these big projects start to open in 2019/2020 and we need to have the right shape organisation to respond to that; the strategy work that is being completed at the moment is not our corporate one, it’s for the whole destination.”
He says: “What I’m doing will be in response to that and how we shape up in terms of our targets, where we put our focus, the balance between leisure and business, the markets and the segments within. In terms of the structure to support that I’ve got a reasonably good idea where we should be putting our resources now and what that destination strategy will do is help fine tune what those people do when they’re in place.”
To another extent he hopes to work with different sectors (as well as bigger partners like VisitScotland) to bring “other brains into the equation” for more impactful campaign delivery and greater reach; it’s clear he’s not just thinking of the usual tourism suspects of hotels, airlines and train companies although he won’t be revealing any names just yet.
The new AECC, which is quietly taking shape directly under the flight path of Aberdeen airport, will be one of the beacons of the rebalancing effort for the North East. Foy arrives just as the venue operator, SMG (appointed last year by Abedeen City Council) is preparing the ground for its opening in 2019, with NEC Group veteran Nick Waight taking the helm as MD in March. Part of the diversification of the region’s economy will be reflected in the types of events the venue – which will have a capacity of 12,500 people – will look to secure. “When you talk to SMG, they’re bidding for events and subject matter that goes way beyond the energy sector and oil and gas,” says Foy.
“Of course, that’s still going to be a really important part of Aberdeen’s USP but in a way the convention centre is a bit of a microcosm of the whole North-East economy, which is diversifying away from oil and gas, drawing on the expertise that has grown up in Aberdeen.”
Ultimately Foy’s appointment may signal the beginnings of a cultural shift in terms of how the tourism industry works together in the region. When you speak to locals, and industry experts, the feedback is that Aberdeen is not as well configured as Edinburgh or Glasgow (particularly on the business tourism side) – where both have long-established destination management organisations, that are membership based, all feeding into initiatives and campaigns, for leisure and business tourism. It is perhaps a victim of its own success in the oil and gas industry – which has helped fill hotels with relative ease in the past – that accommodation providers have not had to think of new ways of attracting custom. As to whether VisitAberdeenshire might foster any restructuring, Foy’s not ruling anything out. “Funding models are always going to change and rise to new challenges, I suppose. So, I wouldn’t rule anything out,” he says. “But I’m also keen to attract private sector support whether that’s cash or in-kind, for specific campaigns or projects, which is probably more on the leisure marketing side. There is a thriving community of tourist attractions who work well together across the whole area and this is important from the events side as well in terms of what people do in down time as part of their programmes.”
He also draws attention to recent local cooperation where eight attractions got together to promote a ‘buy one get five free’ initiative to stimulate more people visiting museums and attractions during the off season. As for events, the local consortium Aberdeen Festivals has developed what Foy calls an “emerging cultural festivals and events programme in the city” and has helped attract international events from places like Stavanger in Norway with its Nuart festival, which runs for four days in April.
On the sporting side, the Great Aberdeen Run was a successful entrant into the market last August with its inaugural event, and checked well against the organisers’ (the same company which stages the Great North Run in Newcastle) objectives with higher spend figures per capita than the event south of the border. Additionally, the Tour Series cycling event – which airs on ITV4 – added Aberdeen to its calendar last year under sunnier skies than elsewhere in the UK (helpful for projecting Aberdeen’s image on TV) and will return in 2018.
I ask how excited he is about leading the organisation and the city into this new era, taking in the huge breadth of possibilities of a more expansive role, with his career thus far having been characterised by working towards ‘big moments’.
“I don’t tend to get excited things in a kind of jumping up and down way but it is [exciting]; it’s also having that degree of responsibility as well,” he says. “I have compared it to working on the Olympics – it was fantastic, there was a real adrenaline rush, but it kind of disappeared at the end of 2012 and that was it, the circus moved on. Whereas we’re working up towards some very big projects including the convention centre and the harbour; they’re going to be ongoing so the whole project should be more satisfying.”
He adds: “There are a lot of eyes on the development of tourism in this part of Scotland. With that comes a responsibility. I’ve always had in mind that a good career move would be to run a DMO at some point, but I do look around and see friends and peers who run DMOs and spend most of their time running around chasing money and trying to find scraps of money here and there – for bidding and running campaigns and things like that – whereas here was a serious statement of intent both from the local authorities, from ONE, and from a lot of business as well, to really invest in tourism.”
Pictures Copyright of Mary Turner