Sunday, September 27, 2009


Look, I'm not an expert and I'll get a lot of this wrong. But I'll bet that most of it will be right.

The Oban Times has just reported that the new local visitor centre at Mallaig (pop 797) has just processed 3,000 visitors a month. It is staffed by local volunteers, set in a local internet cafe. They hand out info about all the local accommodation and facilities. A little display board shows what's going on locally. A bit old-fashioned I hear you say. Yes, well, that’s quite good in my book because it works.

They were grumbling in the paper about getting no involvement from VisitScotland. Yet Mallaig gets 25,000 visitors each year to the local Marine Zoo. On its own.

This is not another knock at VS. It is no good grumbling about it lads and lasses, VS have no money. They also have rules that their visitor centres can only promote locations that are in membership of VS. Once you go down the central subsidy route your life won't be your own. Fancy a career as a box ticker, do you?

The locals are the ones with the headache so they need to buy the tablet as Mallaig has done. That way they'll make it work.

Gillian and I arrived in Lairg, Sutherland, a bit early. Nice little VS centre told us where to eat, a few places to visit. Two well turned out young VS ladies there - and us of course. Great film show about the birds and bees. Lairg is not big, there are 2 people per sq km in Sutherland.

Shin Falls is a couple of miles away, and that has a huge Visitor Centre to cater for bus parties. Wonderful exhibitions, very very good cafe. Shop sells Harrods products, no less. Not surprising the Visitor Centre is staffed, very well, by VisitScotland but completely owned by Al Fayed. It is a totally commercial operation as you would expect, not one bit of local involvement. If you ask about accommodation, they'll send you to the other VS centre.

Shin Falls is not that great. I'd rather amble over to Inchree, by Onich, any rainy day to be impressed.

You know, if I am a Visitor, then the Visitor Centre I prefer is the homegrown one in Mallaig. The people are deeply involved in everything going on locally. They’ll set me right.

VS, through absolutely no fault of its own is held rigid by its constitution. It cannot work as it is.

I've spent my life working with large company managements at very senior level. At one time 25% the companies in the FTSE 100 index were my clients at senior level.

I've watched takeovers and turnarounds galore. There is a standard routine.

How to effect a turnaround.
Outsiders, turnaround experts, take over failing businesses and turn them around often in 9 months from longstanding losses to profit. It is a bit bruising to say the least. Everyone gets upset at the changes but at least 7 out of 10 people will stay. If they are not turned around then all of them will go in the end.

My special takeover pal, call him Stuart, would have his team track a take-over target possibly for years. Just as Kraft have been doing with Cadburys until they struck last month. Cadburys are now "in play" as the rather jolly saying goes, for someone to take them over.

He'd know a huge amount about the company, its management, its people, before he started. Once he has bought them, he and his top team would 'walk the job' for three weeks, meeting the top teams and looking at them as individuals.

He would not spend much time with absolutely top management at parent Board level, because none of them would survive the cull to come. None. Even if they are good, and they are often very good indeed, they have to go. Otherwise, with them still in place, they will quietly block the changes to come. The staff would remain in awe of them. But Stuart aims to set the staff and their energies free. The top people must go.

Then he would take three large sheets of paper. Ignoring completely the existing organisation he would describe the absolutely essential tasks of the organisation. The high profit returns, and the growth tasks would be added.

Then, not being a total brute, he would add some "desirable" tasks. That is the first bit of paper completed. He might take a walk through the mountains and lock himself away while doing this. Maybe even stay at the Clachaig Hotel. It is a lonely task.

The next bit of paper he would fill with his necessary organisation and key jobs, ignoring the existing team and structure. That would break up the units a bit, maybe find some bits for selling off later on.

The third bit of paper hurts some people a lot. Others end up loving it. "That take-over was the best thing that ever happened to me". Yes, it is not at all unusual to hear this afterwards.

(Just imagine the reactions of the existing VisitScotland inspectors who stay on under the new plan I've got. They'll love it. It just makes so much sense. Explained in a mo)

On this third sheet is a list of the existing people, the ones reporting to the Board, the Unit chiefs, and their key managers.

He now matches existing people to the proposed jobs where he thinks they may have the skill and talent. They'll be ok.

He has some further enquiries to make about the next lot of maybe/maybe not candidates, perhaps in-depth interviews. He wants to keep as much existing knowledge as he can, as much existing experience. He does not want a baby and bathwater scenario.

He has a total headcount to think of as well, because his overall costs are going to be a lot lower, perhaps a third lower, and that goes into this mix. So all of them on the list that is left are now very vulnerable. He is going to have to get rid of some really good talent in that bunch simply because there is no appropriate job for them. This could be management buy-out time for some of them. "Best day of my life...." time again.

The other people who will go, have done absolutely nothing wrong at all. It is not their fault. But there simply will be no job for them.

After this, he has to slump into the politics of how it is done, who does what, involve the unions, government agencies, politicians, the usual treacle. Yeah, he could blow it all here, but then the company goes bust.

Now turning around VisitScotland.
The publicity and public relations is great, fabulous. Look at the Visitor numbers overall, look at Scotland's reputation.

Stuart would cut the cost of publicity material, of course. Cut back on the expensive films that few people will see, re-work the literature, and the amount if it, but this is small beer. He would keep the Graphic design head provided that he or she gives up this ambition for VS to be a "Global brand" That will continue to stultify initiative.

The local Visitor Centres, they'll need thinking about, aims and purpose, relevance, cost and a reworking into the communities which want them. If the community wants VS then maybe a service could be provided. So long as VS gets its money back. But it should be community led and made to pay for itself. Internet cafes, local booking fees, charges for providers to go on display, yes, we all need to share the pain.

It is the inspection system which is most out of date.

VisitScotland have done the job here already. They've set up wonderful standards in every but and ben, a credit to the country. They've lifted Scottish hospitality and accommodation to world standards. They have established a very high reputation for accommodation standards.

But the job is done. It is maintenance which is required from here.

Here is what I would do. I'd keep the existing scheme only for new entries to the market who join VisitScotland, with thorough inspections for them and a tough approach. Excellent.

With existing properties I would do a quick check, lasting an average of an hour, using a sampling method to check existing standards are being maintained. I don't have to stay at a B&B. I might need the right to contact three past guests for their views, I'll select them from the book myself.

I'd get in four inspections a day, average. Shock horror, it can't be done! They always say that. Then they always go and do it. Here is how.

I'd offer the existing inspectors a territory to handle, and then I'd franchise them, making them work for themselves with a contract. Give them their salary for three months (or payment by results whichever is the higher) while they get used to the new scheme, then they go self-employed. Many won't like it and will leave. Many will stay, work harder and make more money. Some will make a lot of money. People always work a lot harder for themselves than they ever work for someone else. If you don't believe it works then ask me for the hundreds of case histories I've got. Have you never bought an ice cream from an ice cream van on a Sunday?

I'd task them with bonuses to get new properties on the books. For a start they can go down the Golden Mile in Fort William and pick up some the 30 or so B&Bs they are missing now. Tip. Your past customer list is always your best list of prospects.

They'll all need re-training. The properties they handle are now their customers, they need to know that their salary is paid by the owners effectively. New attitudes will be needed. But they'll have to be tough too with some customers. Call in the heavies, maybe for a re-inspection or after severe complaints.

But, and here is the catch. The Inspectors will be inspected themselves. 1 in 20 of the properties will be re-visited and re-checked by someone from the heavy mob. In addition, each owners will need to fill in a card about the inspector's visit. Short questions, but the key one will be "How long did the inspection last?" That is the way that market research companies check on their interviews door to door, Mori, Nop, everyone good in the market research game knows that if you don't check then interviewers will fill in their own questionnaires after a while.

George Gallup, of Gallup Poll fame, once was booed at a Market Research Society conference by joking that he always recruits his interviewers broken down by age and sex, so that if they complete the forms themselves then at least he has a representative sample. Bit touchy are the serious market research people.

If we don’t get something like this done with VisitScotland then the scenario is as follows:
VS continue to lose money
In a bit to get financial control, Brussels legislation will be blamed and a government-inspired compulsory inspection system set up for everyone, on the spurious grounds of “getting rid of the rogue traders”
Like speed cameras, this will be a government money-making device
VS will get to handle it and our money will drain away.
More arrogance, more shrugging of shoulders.
Then the whole of the UK will adopt the system because it raises money.

Lochside cottage near Glencoe in the Highlands of Scotland
Lochside cottage near Glencoe in the Highlands of Scotland
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