Tourism summit put Argyll and the Isles at the centre of innovation and shone a spotlight on local rising stars

Innovation, collaboration, regeneration and inspiring future tourism leaders were some of the key themes at the heart of this year’s Argyll and the Isles Strategic Tourism Partnership Summit at Cove UK’s Drimsynie Holiday Village last week, marking Scottish Tourism Month 2024 (March) and National Apprenticeship Week. As part of an innovative new partnership initiative, five inspiring local Rising Stars were given centre stage in a jam-packed programme filled with some of the country’s most prestigious tourism and recruitment leaders, including TV and social media personality The Hebridean Baker.

Jointly hosted by the Argyll and Isles Tourism Cooperative, Argyll and Bute Council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and VisitScotland (who together form The Argyll & Isles Strategic Tourism Partnership), the Summit welcomed over 100 delegates and set out to inform and inspire tourism business owners, foster networking and facilitate opportunities for young people to further develop their dream career in tourism. A refreshed strategic tourism strategy was also launched at the event to “support the partnership’s ambitions for a competitive and sustainable visitor economy.”

Summing up the event at the end of the day, Cathy Craig, CEO of the Argyll and Isles Tourism Cooperative (AITC) said: “Our region has many outstanding attributes that make it one of the nation’s leading visitor destinations, but as so well evidence at The Summit today, it’s the people working within tourism and hospitality that makes sure our vibrant local industry is at the forefront of sustainable tourism excellence. The clear energy and passion demonstrated by participants from across Argyll and the Isles was incredible. It was fantastic to see them all collaborating to explore new ideas, solutions and ways to work together to enhance the visitor experience and support their local communities.

“We’d like to thank all our delegates and truly inspirational and insightful speakers, but a special mention must go to our Rising Stars who showed impressive skills and courage to stand up in front of a room full of industry leaders to share their experiences and thoughts on how the industry can address the destination’s recruitment and retention challenges. With young people like them, the future for tourism in Argyll and the Isles is truly looking bright.”

The event, which took place during National Apprenticeship Week, recognised five impressive apprentices as some of the sector’s leading Rising Stars: Sarah Macintyre from the Loch Melfort Hotel in Arduaine, Lewis Macleod from Tigh An Truish in Clachan-Seil, Connor Nichol from Portavadie, Evie Edgington from The Olive Garden in Oban and Amy Girdwood from The Blairmore in Dunoon. A video showcasing Amy’s work at The Blairmore was screened at the Summit and the four remaining apprentices took part in a Q&A led by UHI Argyll’s Modern Apprenticeship Support Officer, Alana-Kathryn Mathers. The apprentices are being supported as part of an innovative partnership between UHI Argyll, a partner of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and the Argyll and Isles Tourism Cooperative. As one of the first programmes of its kind in Scotland, the project has been welcomed by leading industry figures across Scotland.

Left to right: Apprentices Evie, Lewis, The Hebridean Baker, Connor and Sara

Through the apprentices’ participation in The Summit, alongside presentations from Sara Cook Head of Operations at Get The Gen (a social enterprise that supports businesses on intergenerational working) and Jane Wylie-Roberts CEO of Stafffinders recruitment agency, business leaders learned about what is required to recruit and retain younger generations.

Connor Nicol, an apprentice at Portavadie, who was thriving on the experience, said the opportunity had made tourism an important part of his life and recommended more businesses take the time to tell their staff “we believe in you and we want you to be part of our business.”

Get The Gen’s Sara Cook highlighted the importance of engaging Gen Z (age 11 to 26) to support the sector through some of the current challenges: “Hospitality and tourism businesses need to engage the full spectrum of their workforce if we’re going to weather the storm. We are at a generational changing of the guard. By 2025, Gen Z will make up a third of the world’s population and 27% of the workforce.”

After The Summit Sara added: “What an inspiring day. The positivity and engagement from everyone in the room was incredible! It felt like I was watching a big family reunion, so many industries could learn from the cooperation and strength of those in our hospitality and tourism sector.”

Marc Crothall, Chief Executive Officer at The Scottish Tourism Alliance agreed: “It’s always a really good destination conference attended by proud passionate and much valued tourism and hospitality leaders and rising stars working across Argyll and the Isles.”

Other topics explored at the event included an AI in tourism led by TravelTech for Scotland’s Joshua Ryan-Saha, ‘Reaping the Rewards of Collaboration’ with Scotland’s Tourism Individual of the Year Melanie Allen (Chair of the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere and owner of Nithbank Country Estate, a 5-star luxury tourism business with a sustainable, responsible and local focus), and innovation, with a workshop led by Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Caroline McLellan, Senior Innovation Manager at Highlands and Islands Enterprise said: “At its core, innovation means making changes that will improve your business. This could be a process change to improve your productivity, adapting your business model to open up ways of reaching new markets and customers, reducing waste and inefficiency to operate more sustainably.”

VisitScotland’s Head of Research, Susan Dickie and Regional Director David Adams McGilp shared some key visitor insights and trends that highlighted challenges and opportunities for businesses. Among many useful insights David said: “Despite the current economic challenges, the appetite for Scotland as a destination is still very strong, from the USA in particular – accounting for a fifth of all overseas trips to Scotland and well over a third of all overseas spend in 2022.

“With so much history linked to Scotland, Americans want to feel an emotional connection to our land and our people. There’s an opportunity for tourism businesses in Argyll & Isles to provide those authentic Scottish experiences to target this important market.”

After his own success in the US and Canada, The Hebridean Baker Coinneach MacLeod, one of Scotland’s best-selling cookbook authors, shared his insights on how businesses could best engage with this high value market. He talked about the key drivers for their visits, the importance of ensuring the highest level of customer service, “crafting a narrative that resonates” with Americans and “introducing characters they might meet on their trip.” He added: “What they’re looking for is something authentic and that’s what we can offer in Argyll and the Isles.”

Other speakers at the event included: Alison McRae Chair of the Argyll & Isles Strategic Tourism Partnership, Scotland’s Minister for Public Health and Women’s Health Argyll & Bute MSP Jenni Minto, Argyll and Isles Tourism Cooperative Chair Robert Kidd, and General Manager at Cove UK Brian Docherty.

Developed by The Argyll & Isles Strategic Tourism Partnership, the area’s refreshed Visitor Economy Recovery and Growth Strategy reflects evolving local tourism challenges, trends and opportunities and how the destination is “enviably placed” to play a key role in national tourism ambitions. It also outlines partners’ commitment to, and their investment in, the region.

Reinforcing the importance of the strategy in, the Partnership’s Independent Chair and Scottish Tourism Alliance Board Director Alison McRae, said: “Through challenging circumstances, the partnership continues to work hard within the parameters of this cohesive strategy to support infrastructure improvement, encourage tourism, recreation and leisure products and markets, and promote the region’s outstanding assets.

“Collaboration is absolutely critical for destinations to succeed.”

The Summit was open to all tourism businesses and suppliers in the Argyll & Bute local authority region.