VisitScotland’s director of events Paul Bush talks strategy, vision … and lobs in a few controversial thoughts

In the years leading up to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup in 2014, there was a sense that these occasions would represent the pinnacle in Scotland’s ambition to establish itself as a world leader in staging events.

It was a subject that was discussed openly, within the industry and by those observing the build-up. With what, exactly, could Scotland ever hope to top the scale of an international multi-sport event, such as the Games? Certainly not the Olympics, nor the football World Cup, nor probably even the Rugby World Cup (though Ireland’s contention for 2023 should give pause for thought).

As 2014 neared, it was difficult to escape the feeling that, without another ‘tent-pole’ type of event to look forward to, the five years beyond to 2020 would be like a slide down the other side of the mountain.

Despite the undeniably positive impact that the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup – as well as the 2014 Culture Programme and the second Year of Homecoming – had on Scotland, for those whose business is events, the question was, well, what now?

For some, particularly those who were hired from outside Scotland specifically to lead the Games, the answer seemed obvious; move on … to Gold Coast, Rio or Tokyo. While the Scots who also held senior positions have tended to stay here in other jobs, some lower down the hierarchy began looking outside Scotland in order to maintain the upward trajectory of their career.

Nursing a coffee in a branch of Costa, across the road from VisitScotland’s office at Ocean Point in Leith, the organisation’s director of events Paul Bush is clearly familiar with the phenomenon and he has his own, typically trenchant, views on the migratory nature of event organisation (more of which later).

But, as for Scotland’s future, Bush appeared genuinely optimistic; a mood which would be validated a few weeks later with the announcement that Gleneagles had been chosen as the venue for the 2019 Solheim Cup, the top team event in women’s golf, beating The Bro Hof Slott Golf Club in Sweden after the two had been whittled down from a shortlist of 10.

“I’ve always had the belief that 2014 was not the top of the mountain – and that we would just fall off a precipice – but that 2014 was part of a journey; a springboard to the future,” he said. “There are some classic examples of where that [fall] has happened; where’s Athens now after the 2004 Olympics, where’s Delhi after the 2010 Commonwealth Games?

“There were a range of reasons; [lack of] vision and aspiration, political support, finance. Yet, there are other examples from around the world that have done really well. Look at Melbourne from 2006; it’s just a constant supply chain of success.”

Bush was speaking on a bright September afternoon, following the publication earlier that month of a new ten-year “collaborative strategy” to grow Scotland’s £3.5bn events industry. The strategy, ‘Scotland – The Perfect Stage’, describes how Scotland can enhance its reputation nationally and internationally “as the perfect stage for events” (see panel).

“So, we looked around the world to ensure that we too have got that constant supply chain – and the focus for us as an organisation between 2010 and 2014, was to put that in place. Just look at this evening, for example,” said Bush, referring to MTV’s ‘Live Lockdown’ event and the opening of the Turner Prize preview both in Glasgow later that day. “And MTV is on tonight because we couldn’t get them into Glasgow two weeks ago because it was full for the Davies Cup!”

The ‘new’ strategy is not wholly new, more of a refresh, said Bush; an affirmation of why events were identified, back in 2003 when the strategy was conceived, as being fundamental to Scotland’s economy – and of the effectiveness of a local, regional, national and international portfolio. But the difference this time, he believes, is that the events industry itself is responsible for its direction and ambition over the next ten years.

The result of an 18 month-long consultation, with more than 100 contributions from the public, private and third sectors, the strategy covers everyone involved in planning, securing, supporting and delivering events in Scotland. This includes major events of international significance and smaller events supporting local communities.

At the centre of the strategy is equal responsibility for delivery on the Scottish Government, the events and festivals sector and individual event organisers. It represents a more collaborative approach to ensure that Scotland continues to develop, improve and invest in the events industry.

“We took a step back,” said Bush of the process behind the refreshed strategy. “We thought, ‘Scotland – The Perfect Stage’, there’s probably nothing wrong with that; it’s a great line. Scotland’s a great country. There was a debate around whether you push the contemporary button, or [stick with] your history, heritage and culture. I think you need both. Why do people traditionally come to Scotland; the castles, the whisky, great people, great countryside.

“But then if you weave into that things like music, fashion, the provenance of food and all the other great contemporary things we have, then it’s a pretty powerful offering. The strategy is a refresh; I think that’s a pretty important message to send, that we are doing a pretty good job. But, we can’t afford to be complacent or arrogant.

“Our raison d’etre hasn’t changed; we want Scotland to be recognised as the perfect stage to bring events to, not just sporting and cultural, but also business events, incentive events, but also we’re thinking outside the box about different kinds of business events, as well as live events, launches for products and fashion.”

EventScotland, the events directorate within VisitScotland, has undergone a reorganisation to better support the industry, make it more cohesive. Three teams now focus on event development, event industry development and business events.

Of the strategy, which will be aired at the National Events Conference in Edinburgh on 3 December, Bush said: “It’s exciting, it will challenge people. I think the big message is that it’s a call to action for the industry. People have to work in partnership, to realise the next vision for 2025.”

To an outsider, the strategy document might lack specifics. It is certainly a strong framework. But, given the nature of the events business – that they can take years to bid for and win – it cannot hope to be a 10-year diary of confirmed events (though, naturally, Bush can reel off a list of major wins over the next five years).

But, still, to put Bush on the spot, what could 2025 look like? “You have to have a vision. My answer would be threefold. Retain our great assets; protect things like Hogmanay, T in the Park, the Open Golf, and all the things that sit under that. We need to sustain and grow what we have.”

Unsurprisingly, Bush also mentions the Edinburgh Festivals which already have the capital at bursting point – why not, suggests Bush, consider satellite Festival venues not actually in Edinburgh, in Perth or Dundee say?

“Then we need to look at new markets. These lie with young people and mass participation,” and at this Bush launches enthusiastically into an idea for mass participation events to run in parallel with the European Sports Championships in 2018.

“With young people’s events you have got to think differently, putting music and sport together, for example,” albeit one such event in England, Freeze Big Air, combining snowboarding, skiing, an Alpine food festival, pop concert and ‘London’s biggest apres ski party’, at the Queen Elizabeth Park in London, has since been postponed. “And there’s Masters Events which are huge in the Southern Hemisphere.”

Ambition and thinking outside the box appear to be Bush’s watch words for the years ahead, all the while sustaining and growing Scotland’s existing events assets. It’s clear he also wants to generate debate. Earlier in our conversation he expressed determination to have home-grown talent running events: “I’m not great a supporter of bringing in ‘event junkies’,” he said pledging, prior to the announcement that Scotland had won, no-one would be imported to run the Solheim Cup.

If suggesting that the Edinburgh Festivals should also think, literally, outside the box, might also be considered thought-provoking, Bush’s parting shot in the interview is sure to be even more controversial: “Events don’t always need special infrastructure. But, if you look at two recent additions – the Hydro and the Emirates Arena – it’s difficult to get space in either of them.

“So, do we need a new national stadium? A stadium with a retractable roof. There’s a debate around the future of Hampden, there’s a debate around the future of Murrayfield. For me, off the M8, right in the middle [of Glasgow and Edinburgh], a multi-purpose stadium for football, rugby, 2020 cricket, pop concerts … that would probably be the icing on the cake.”

Scotland – the Perfect Stage

“The strategy updates the previous version, which culminated in the unprecedented success of 2014 when Scotland hosted the 20th Commonwealth Games, 2014 Cultural Programme, The Ryder Cup and more than 1,000 events in the Homecoming Scotland 2014 programme. Produced with over 100 contributions from the public, private and third sectors, the strategy covers everyone involved in planning, securing, supporting and delivering events in Scotland. This includes major events of international significance and smaller events supporting local communities. At the centre of the strategy is equal responsibility for delivery on the Scottish Government, the Events and Festivals sector and individual event organisers. This represents a more collaborative approach to ensure that Scotland continues to develop, improve and invest in the events industry.”