From clients watching the sun rise in their underpants in the Hebrides, to driving around Scotland in a Bentley – the ‘pressures’ of looking after the high-end traveller.
EventsBase checks in to The Balmoral to catch up with Hello Scotland and Andrew Burnet & Co, who are celebrating a combined 36 years as destination management companies (DMCs) in the incentive travel industry.
Business roundtable featuring Bill Thomson, Founder, Hello Scotland; Andrew Burnet, Managing Director, Andrew Burnet & Co; Neil Brownlee, Head of Business Events, VisitScotland; and Kevin O’Sullivan, Editor, EventsBase.
KO: Congratulations on celebrating 21 years (Bill) and 15 years (Andrew) respectively in business. What’s been your personal journey in the industry and how has incentive travel evolved in that time?
AB: I came into the industry in 2002. I was very aware of hospitality and tourism but not as aware of the MICE market. I started off as a corporate event organiser and golf event organiser; my background was golf having worked at the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews, which was my last hotel job. I started off quite slowly – the odd meeting, dinner or golf day but the changes since then have been huge, especially the expectations in terms of turnaround time, with shorter lead times becoming more common. But the awareness of Scotland and the product we have as a destination around the world is immensely positive now.
BT: I almost tripped into the industry; it wasn’t pre-meditated. I studied at physical education college and then went off to Australia and stumbled into sales, because there was a depression that hit that point in 1990. It was commission only selling insurance, but I had my first taste of the industry after I qualified for a two-week incentive. I didn’t know what an incentive was, I just thought it was a jolly to the States.
I went back into that industry here and through a referral from a friend ended up as a general manager of a small company of which one small part of what they offered was MICE-related. I started my own agency two years later in 1996 and that was when Hello Scotland was born. For us, the world has become a smaller place and with the aviation business booming it’s now a multi-billion-pound industry. We’re competing on a world stage. We’re in an audition and you need to be at your best.
KO: How much has the industry professionalised?
AB: After 2008 and the crash, I think a lot of people went to the wall then who weren’t set up correctly to professionally deliver what we did and continue to do. Within our peer group I think we are among the most professional people I have met.
NB: This end of the market almost self-defines as professional because you are only going to work with people you trust to work with your client, ultimately, whether it’s a coach company or a gala dinner caterer, never mind the venue. It all comes down to relationships because incentives are reward trips, they are typically four or five star. It’s one of the most professional niches of the entire tourism industry.
KO: Is the industry becoming more joined-up?
BT: Yes, 100%. They’re all waking up and smelling the coffee now and full credit to Principal. They’ve come on and taken the George Hotel and the Roxburghe; they’ve spent a fortune but not only that they’re raising their game in terms of the quality of the experience.
NB: If you want a part of the MICE pie, this is what you need to do. It’s not a matter of us sending it to you. You need to commit to it long-term as a part of your marketing strategy.
AB: A good case in point is Aberdeen which before the oil crash was corporate as the day is long. It didn’t know what MICE business was. Now their corporates have disappeared virtually overnight so they’re now interested in what we do, what we bring and they’re desperately trying to understand the incentive market.
KO: How have clients’ tastes changed?
AB: There’s been a lot of debate about luxury recently. Is luxury a five-star room with a view, and a spa? Not really, that’s part of it, but it’s the experience and that’s what we can deliver – it’s bespoke, we’re there on-site, it’s different, it’s non- touristy and it has an experiential feel to it as well.
KO: So, you have to be creative?
BT: White wine and gin works for me.
AB: It’s being creative with the brief of the client – we haven’t been as funky as I know Bill has been, but we did the launch of the Bentley Mulsanne about three years ago where they were bringing in media for weeks. They gave me a Bentley Continental GT for a month and I had to go and drive the routes that they wanted. It was tough!
We had to produce a road book and publish it, it was a step-by- step guide – it was great, and really interesting and I learnt a lot more about the geography of Scotland as well. It was a successful trip.
BT: Moments make it special. We had Jaguar Land Rover last year; we did a stay-over on a remote Hebridean island. On the way out we took four ribs and met up with local scallop and langoustine fisherman; they were involved with pulling the produce out of the water, getting the lobsters. It was all prepared on a barbecue and we had a meal that night.
I remember the next morning at six thirty looking across at the sun rising – we’d created the ability for them to have hot water in solar bowls and they were standing there in their underpants looking out at the most amazing of views you can imagine.
KO: Have the programming elements of an incentive trip therefore becoming more interesting and engaging?
AB: It used to be a group of 50 to 60 going around in a group going around as a block, all doing the same thing. You could tell that 20 per cent were not interested, so we get asked now more and more to split the group, and can we have a choice of five or six different excursions or activities?
There’s still a group aspect to it but clients are not as precious about doing everything together. It’s a challenge because it breaks the group up but it gives you licence to be a bit more creative.
KO: Where do you see the growth coming from in the international market?
AB: For me, because I’m niche and small and not in the same room as these guys, I will stick to the markets that produce, which is France, Germany, the Low Countries, Scandinavia and North America; we’ve entered one new market in the last two years which is south and central America, in particular Mexico, Argentina and Brazil who have been very active in the incentive market and they totally understand what Scotland has to offer. China and India, I haven’t really jumped on that bandwagon. Everyone else is doing it, but I’ll just wait and see.
BT: The Indian market doesn’t faze me but you have to go about it in a certain way; we have plans to do so but through local collaboration with a business partner based in Delhi who will be the conduit and make it easier to explain what we do.
We went through a tendering process three years ago and it was an education as to how they work; there was a three or four-point negotiation process, which I wasn’t prepared for.
KO: What are the key challenges managing what seems like a busy workload?
AB: We are all busy, which is great. I’ve referred a lot as I would never turn business away from Scotland. There are 10 DMCs in Scotland and we all get on well and communicate with one another. We’re very small as well, I know my capabilities so I won’t try and do a 250 four-day programme.
BT: We had six incentives in one weekend recently and that maxed us out so we do have to be careful, but it just somehow happens. There are a lot of variables you don’t have control over so you have to leave some things to chance.
AB: But for political and economic reasons, Scotland is rocking at the moment. It can all change in two or three years with Brexit.
KO: Have you proactively sought to reassure clients over security or political concerns?
T: We did a bit more tongue in cheek approach, probably more surrounding the referendum, saying Scotland is here, no matter what. We did social media around that.
KO: What are the threats and opportunities around technology?
AB: It’s good and bad; bad is probably a strong word but the slight negative is the access people have to check availability, to check what you’re offering and even talk to some of the suppliers directly at the same time as they are talking to you. But if they are still wanting the personal, bespoke and luxury end of the market that’s where we come in. We have the knowledge and relationship with suppliers that they couldn’t get through Google. The positive is the free marketing you can get through social media if people who are attending a programme you are running are tweeting, Facebooking or putting it on LinkedIn.
BT: All of that and the fact that if we think about how we market what we do, it’s different these days. We need to embrace that and be dynamic enough to move with the times, never forgetting that there’s a strong human element in what we do. Social media is perhaps not as good as the human touch. I think there’s going to be a combination to curate an approach using traditional methods of marketing and modern day digital methods. I think to combine both in a clever way to keep the attention and to keep identifying the needs of our customers is crucial to our success.
KO: What are the activities for incentives that best encapsulate Scotland’s USP? Is it country sports, for example?
AB: Country sports, fishing and shooting, are huge. We’ve got some great partners who can deliver that. But we’ve got so many elements that do form part of a really great programme – the scenery, the accommodation options – from private houses and castles to boutique venues. The higher end groups with the budget want to go for that. The food and the classic short-bread tin stuff, the pipers, the Loch Nesses and the whisky may be clichéd but are crucial to what we do and what we are. But it’s how we can weave that into a programme and add on some of the additional stuff as well.
BT: If you were to look into our overall pot of experiences or products in Scotland, you can go from one extreme such as living off the land after being dropped by boat or helicopter to staying in the lap of luxury here in the city at a beautiful hotel like the Balmoral, and eating Michelin-starred food. And there’s everything in between; I think the key to it is to identify the needs of your customers – whether it be individual needs for a small group that’s coming, whether it be a brand need, a product extension that fits; you’ve got to dig beneath the surface to identify and satisfy that need. For example, is the group just looking for a nice hotel and nice food or is it a sales group that used to be number one in the market and they’re now down to number four, so they’re looking for this experience to drive that back up. We need to know these things. I love those ones as it gives you something meaty to work with.