Scottish sector update with Gordon Morrison

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, I speak with Gordon Morrison, CEO of ASVA, the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions

Gordon Morrison is the CEO of the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions (ASVA), the representative body for the attractions sector in Scotland, a position he has held for the last 3 years. In this role, he has responsibility for the day-to-day operations and overall leadership of the organisation. Over the last 19 months, he has been instrumental in helping the sector in Scotland navigate a path through the pandemic, providing advice and guidance to attractions across the country and ensuring that the needs of the sector are heard within the corridors of power at Holyrood. He currently sits on a number of key industry groups, including the Scottish Tourism Recovery Taskforce, the Scottish Tourism Skills Group, the Scottish Thistle Awards Industry Panel and Scottish Tourism Emergency Response Sectoral Organisations Group.

Gordon previously worked as Quality & Tourism Manager with VisitScotland where he was responsible for the delivery of the highly regarded Visitor Attraction Grading Scheme. He was also Commercial & Visitor Services Manager with Museums & Galleries Edinburgh where he led on shaping the visitor experience at iconic attractions such as the Scott Monument and Museum of Childhood.

In over 15 years of working with the sector, Gordon has visited and offered advice to hundreds of different attractions across Scotland. He is universally known within the tourism industry as the authoritative voice on all things relating to the visitor attractions sector in Scotland.

“ASVA played a hugely important role in informing the sector, and supporting the sector, and fighting for the sector throughout the pandemic.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • The state of the Scottish attraction sector
  • The need for more personal premium experiences
  • What’s happening at Scotland’s National Tourism Industry Conference

To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.

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The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Gordon Morrison


Kelly Molson: Gordon, welcome to Skip The Queue.

Gordon Morrison: Thank you so much for having me, Kelly. I’m guessing that you’ve started at the bottom and you’re going to work your way up for the rest of the series.

Kelly Molson: No, it doesn’t work like that at all, started at the top, Gordon, started at the top. Now, as you know, I know that you listen to the podcast, so we’re going into our icebreaker questions. I’m going to ask you what your favourite film is and why it isn’t Top Gun.

Gordon Morrison: Wow, that’s a great question. And how did you know it’s not a Top Gun because Top Gun is a wonderful movie. I am a child of the 1980s. I could be obvious and I could go down the Star Wars route because I am a big Star Wars fan. But however, undoubtedly, the greatest movie ever made is National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Kelly Molson: Yes, that’s a great film.

Gordon Morrison: It’s just beautiful in every way. It is funny, it is moving, it is heartwarming, and it’s also a bit crude. All of the things that I really enjoy. And I’m a huge Chevy Chase fan, a huge Chevy Chase fan. We had the opportunity to meet him a few years ago in London. He actually was over in London and I paid a considerable amount of money to do a meet and greet with the great man himself.

Kelly Molson: That’s amazing. I don’t know anyone that’s done one of those. This is-

Gordon Morrison: Really?

Kelly Molson: … is news to me, no.

Gordon Morrison: I would not do it for, probably not for anyone else, but for Chevy Chase, I was determined to meet him before he pops his clogs because he’s getting on. He’s getting on, he’s an older man nowadays. I also love The Three Amigos as well I should say. And Steve Martin and Martin Short are also two fantastic comedy actors and they’ve actually got a great show on Disney Plus just now, which is well worth watching. But however, Chevy Chase is my idol. National Lampoon’s Vacation, I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it. But I can pretty much recite it.

Kelly Molson: I love this. And National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is-

Gordon Morrison: Probably the second greatest movie of all time and becomes the greatest movie of all time at Christmas-

Kelly Molson: At Christmas time, yeah. So I’m going to say that, is it my favourite Christmas film? It’s definitely one or two. I think that and Home Alone are like the two, they’re the ones that I would watch every single Christmas, got to watch those. Oh, this is great. I’m finding out so much about you today. Okay, if you had a human body, which you do, but the head of an animal, what animal would you pick?

Gordon Morrison: That’s an interesting question that I haven’t thought about before, strangely enough. I think if I could have any animal’s head, I’d want it to be a really cute puppy. That’s what I’d want it to be. I think I’ve got some doglike qualities to me anyway. But yeah-

Kelly Molson: Loyal.

Gordon Morrison: Yeah, yeah. Very loyal, like to sniff my own bum, that sort of stuff. So yeah, I think a acute, maybe a Golden Retriever, a Labrador, because it’d also be quite useful to have a really powerful nose and be able to sniff out trouble and things like that. So yeah, but mainly because I do quite enjoy getting my head stroked, so it’d be quite nice to constantly have that happening to me.

Kelly Molson: We are learning so much about you today, Gordon. I would go giraffe because as we met in person a little while ago, we are both slightly vertically challenged.

Gordon Morrison: We are.

Kelly Molson: So I thought giraffe would help me grab stuff from the top shelves.

Gordon Morrison: So you’re including the neck then as part of the-

Kelly Molson: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that’s part of your head, kind of, isn’t it?

Gordon Morrison: Yeah, absolutely.

Kelly Molson: Okay. If you could be in the Guinness Book of Records, what records breaking feat you attempt?

Gordon Morrison: I would attempt the longest continuous Elvis tribute act performance. I have said that Chevy Chase is my idol, he absolutely is, but I’m also a massive Elvis Presley fan, to the extent that I used to, on occasion, don the outfit and take the stage as Elvis Presley.

Kelly Molson: Is there any video evidence of this?

Gordon Morrison: No, there is not because it was the sort of mid to late ’90s or early, it was early 2000s. It was early 2000s that I did this. And it was still really early stages of mobile phones and all that sort of stuff. So therefore, there is unfortunately, no… But listen, if you want me to record something, I’ll do it.

Kelly Molson: Well, I mean, I’m thinking at some point next year of doing, a group meetup for podcast guests and listeners. So maybe you could be the entertainment.

Gordon Morrison: I have a gold lamé suit and I also have a jumpsuit. Whether I can still fit into them is an entirely different… But surely that looks even better. That’s more authentic if I can barely fit into-

Kelly Molson: Completely authentic, you are hired. Okay, and what is your unpopular opinion?

Gordon Morrison: Sure, I’ll go topical. Adele is rubbish.

Kelly Molson: Oh God, oh wow.

Gordon Morrison: Cannot stand anything that she does.

Kelly Molson: Nothing at all?

Gordon Morrison: Nope. I thin-

Kelly Molson: Never had a little weepy moment to an Adele song?

Gordon Morrison: Not once.

Kelly Molson: You are stone cold.

Gordon Morrison: Well, I’ve had a weepy moment, but the weepy moment is more I’m like, “Good grief, get this awful banshee off of my radio.” I cannot stand anything that she does. I think her vocal style is lazy.

Kelly Molson: Oh, Gordon.

Gordon Morrison: I think she sings in a lazy way.

Kelly Molson: I don’t even know where to go with this, I really don’t. Started with a bombshell people. Let’s now-

Gordon Morrison: Keeping it topical. That’s good, isn’t it? Come on, keeping it topical.

Kelly Molson: It is topical. Let me know how you feel about that, listeners. I’m feeling uncomfortable. I’m really excited to have you on the podcast today. So Gordon and I, listeners, if you don’t follow me… Oh, did I put this on? I think I’ll put this on Twitter. If you don’t follow me on Twitter, why not? But Gordon and I met in 2020. We met in COVID times, but we met virtually. So we didn’t actually see each other when we first met. Gordon and I were at the Visitor Attractions Conference, which actually brilliant, a brilliant virtual conference in 2020 that they were forced to do because of COVID. And Gordon came to visit me on my virtual stand, which if you’ve ever done a virtual stand at a virtual conference, it’s a very, very lonely place.

Not many people come and check in on you. It’s hard enough when it’s an actual stand and you have to drag people to speak to you. But a virtual one, yeah. It’s tough times. But anyway, Gordon came over, had a little chat, and then we arranged to have a Zoom meeting, which we then had a great Zoom meeting. But I was a bit poorly and I did it in my pajamas because that’s how all the best Zoom meetings start, in your pajamas. And then since then, we’ve gone on to do a few webinars for ASVA and their members. And the two of us have spoken quite a few times. And we actually got to meet in real life a couple of weeks ago, didn’t we? At the Visitor Attractions Conference.

Gordon Morrison: It was lovely to meet you in person and see other people I’ve only communicated with via this medium before. So it was quite special actually, it really was quite special. And it was lovely to see just how diminutive you are, Kelly, such a big personality, such a diminutive form.

Kelly Molson: Big gob, small stature, I think that’s how I would be described. So tell us a little bit about ASVA and what your role is there.

Gordon Morrison: Okay. So ASVA is short for the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions. We are the trade body that represents the attraction sector in Scotland. We have over 250 member organisations, which equates to roughly 500 visitor attractions all across the country. I’m the Chief Executive. I’ve been chief executive there for three years. A particularly interesting last two years, as I’m sure you can imagine.

Kelly Molson: Yep.

Gordon Morrison: And really, the organisation almost like the way that our members have had to pivot during the pandemic, ASVA had to pivot during the pandemic. We certainly existed, initially, to provide inspiration and best practice. That really what we were there to do, shine a light on all that was great and good happening, not just in the attraction sector in Scotland, but nationally and internationally as well. During the pandemic, we really had to become much more of a lobbying organisation. I had to cut my lobbying teeth very quickly, Kelly and was fortunate to work with some great people within the industry, that helped me with that as well.

I know that you had Bernard on your podcast the other week, who’s a very experienced lobbyist. And I learned from people like him. We also had to take everything online as an organisation, which is truly fascinating for us because we were an organisation that did everything in person, absolutely everything in person. We are 32 years old and had never once hosted an online event, online meeting. Then, pandemic hits, everything changes. And we have now run something like 60 online workshops or events throughout the pandemic. All about supporting the sector, helping the sector get through to where we are today, which is still not in a perfect situation. There are still many challenges ahead for the industry.

But ASVA played a hugely important role in informing the sector, and supporting the sector, and fighting for the sector throughout the pandemic. At the height of the pandemic, we were actually producing daily bulletins that went out across the entirety of the industry, about what they needed to know. All very much tailored to the visitor attraction sector, nothing cut and pasted from any other areas. It was all tailored specifically to visitor attractions. We’ve had many, many meetings with the Scottish government in particular, but also the UK government as well, to highlight just how desperate it was for a spell, just how desperate it was for a spell.

And we were successful in getting funding for the visitor attraction sector in Scotland, which I was particularly proud that we were able to do. And indeed, we helped to ensure that when we got the funding, that funding went to the right places and went to the attractions that needed it the most. And therefore, we got ourselves into a situation where our sector has not had the catastrophic failure that we feared it may have had. Well, things are still not great. And I know we’ll talk about that shortly. We are now seeing, hopefully, some of the green shoots of recovery and we’ll get the sector back on an even keel in 2022.

Kelly Molson: That’s really good to hear and we are going to talk about that in a minute. But I just want to, just something that you mentioned about how when this all kicked off, when the pandemic happened, I mean, that must have been unbelievably overwhelming for you. Because not only are you looking at your own organisation and saying, “Wow, we have got to change absolutely every way that we’ve done things in the past, everything has to change now. We can’t do any in person whatsoever.” So having to deal with all of that whilst also, like you say, learning how to lobby. So putting hat on, and then being there as a support. And I guess a shoulder for people to cry on, scream at, shout out, whatever they needed to do, for all of your members as well. That must have been an unbelievably overwhelming time. How did you feel?

Gordon Morrison: Yeah. I mean, overwhelming is the correct word. And of course, none of us had ever been through anything like this before. That’s the other thing, there was no guide book for this. There was nowhere for me to turn and say, “What have you done when we’ve previously seen a pandemic such as this?” We had never seen anything like this before. You mentioned being a shoulder to cry on or cry at, that genuinely happened on quite a lot of occasions. I had members phone me up in tears, sometimes angry tears, sometimes just sad tears. And that was particularly challenging. When sometimes you didn’t have answers, you couldn’t just tell them, “Oh, everything is going to be okay.” Because it didn’t necessarily look like everything was going to be okay.

I think for me, there was one crucial decision that I made, which at the time didn’t actually feel crucial. But we looked at ourselves and our own operation at ASVA, and we’re a pretty small team, Kelly. Well, at the time, there was only three of us working for the organisation. And I was and still am the only full-time member of staff. ASVA, we’ve got two and a half full-time equivalent staff working for us at the moment. We had, at the height of the pandemic, just two full-time equivalent staff working for us. We had an office in Glasgow and I took the decision that whilst we would get rid of our office and felt that we didn’t need an office anymore, we would not scale down our operations. We were there to support our sector.

We would actually scale up. We would do more to support the sector, which it was a difficult decision because the obvious thing to do was protect the business. And so therefore, why don’t we put the team on furlough and you’ll ride this through? But however, it was a no brainer for me in the end to say, “No, we are there to support our sector.” Therefore, like I said, we scaled up what we did. We pushed everything online, we learned really fast. I developed really close contacts within the Scottish government as well. Not necessarily always talking to the ministers, officials are often the right people to get in front of and talk to.

And as a result, ASVA actually grew. We were really worried at the beginning of the pandemic that we would lose members, obviously, because you think, “Well, who can afford a membership fee when they’ve got huge, huge financial problems?” But actually, what we found was that not only did we retain our members, we grew our membership because of that desire that we had to truly, genuinely support the industry. And I have to thank my own board as well, the Board of Directors of ASVA, for giving me steer on what the industry needed. We’ve got 12 board members, who all work within the attraction sector. And they were there at a drop of a hat every time I needed them.

I said, “Right, what do we think of this? What do we think of this new guidance that’s come out from the Scottish government? What does that mean for our sector?” And I could then feedback because the Scottish government were very much looking for me to feedback from the attraction sector and say, “Right, this is what this will mean. This is what will happen to the attraction sector if you do this.” But I do think that decision to scale up, rather than contract and just try and save ourselves was the crucial, crucial decision. Crucial decision for ASVA, but also for the sector as well. Because we really did step up to another level at that point.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, it’s brilliant. I mean the amount of content that went out, and the webinars that you put on, and the research, which we’ll talk a little bit about now actually. Because throughout the pandemic, you were surveying the sector, finding out what was happening, where they were at, what the visitor numbers were like. And you’ve just released the latest survey, which was conducted by the Moffitt Center, which let me read this out.

It reveals that a majority of Scottish attractions are still in survival mode, which is not surprising. The sector is not seeing any evidence of a staycation boom. And obviously, the press have talked about staycation boom a lot. I think UK attractions have mixed results in that, depending on where they are located up and down the country. But Scotland seems to not be seeing any evidence of that. So can we talk about that? How’s the sector currently feeling?

Gordon Morrison: So I think firstly, on the point about being in survival mode, that is still the case universally, I would say, doesn’t matter which part of the UK you’re in. I think that the vast majority of the sector is still in survival mode, rather than recovery mode. Actually, I was fortunate enough to attend the Association of Visitor Experience and Attractions Conference in Ireland, attended that virtually and it was exactly the same narrative there. That are still in survival, but looking towards a recovery. And that’s where our sector is in Scotland. We are in survival mode, but very optimistic that we will recover, rather than now thinking we are going to lose 50%, whatever, of the sector.

But in terms of the staycation boom, it’s been a really… This is an area where I’ve been banging in my head against the wall sometimes, Kelly, because it’s actually impossible for the majority of visitor attractions in Scotland and indeed in other parts of the UK, or it has been impossible for us to truly benefit from the staycation boom. Because don’t get me wrong. I agree that there have been lots of domestic visitors, there have been lots of people going on holiday in the UK because frankly, they’ve got no other opportunity or no other option than to go on holiday in the UK. But there have been restrictions in place and let’s not forget this.

There have been restrictions in place in Scotland, on things like well, we call it physical distancing, social distancing in England. These restrictions weren’t lifted in Scotland. We still had physical distancing restrictions in place right through to mid August. And if you’ve got restrictions in place that limit, that severely limit the number of visitors that you can physically get in your door, you can be at capacity. You can be, “Right, we’re at 100% capacity.” Which sounds fantastic. But that 100% capacity is actually only 20, 30% of where you would normally be. And therefore, we have missed the majority of the traditional season. And by missing the majority of the traditional season, you’re then left with a very small window of opportunity, sort of mid August to October holidays, just beyond October holidays, to make your money.

And that’s a very limited window. Let’s be honest, that really is. And that’s why our sector’s still in survival mode as we go into the winter. I think perhaps one of the most telling stats from the survey was in relation to the amount of reserves that attractions still had. And we’ve got more than one in five visitor attractions in Scotland, holding fewer than three months reserves, right? Why is that important? That is important because the winter is longer than three months and you need those reserves. In a good year, you need those reserves to see you through the winter. That’s how attractions operate. They make the money in the summer, to then see them through the winter. So that’s where the issues still exist for our sector. And again, it was interesting at the Irish conference, to see that the latest budget has just been published by the Irish government.

And they have pledged to continue their version of the Coronavirus job retention scheme right through to spring of next year. And they’ve also pledged an extra 50 million euros of support for tourism businesses, to get them through to next season. And I think that’s very telling that they have recognised the call that’s come from the tourism industry in Ireland is, “We are still in survival mode. Let us get through to next season when we will fully lead the recovery.” And I think that’s a lesson that still needs to be heard in both Scotland and the UK. Because there seems to be a feeling that, “Well, you have made it through. Well done, guys, you’ve made it through.” But there’s still a proportion of the sector that will face a very difficult winter ahead.

Kelly Molson: So are you still in lobbying mode then? Because it feels like-

Gordon Morrison: Oh, must be.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, so the sector still needs support. So the results of this survey say that very, very clearly. So you’re still in lobbying mode.

Gordon Morrison: Yeah, yeah. There’s no doubt about that. I mean, the survey is produced. We like to do it for our members and they can get an idea of where they are sitting in comparison to other parts of the sector. But primarily, I’ll be fully honest with you, we do it so that I can use it in my lobbying efforts. The first person that received this survey results, was the tourism minister. The very first person. I was like, “Bang, here you go. Can we now meet and discuss this?” Don’t get me wrong, it’s a challenge because there’s also an element of politics being played in the UK, as you’ll know, Kelly.

The fact that the Scottish government takes a different route from the UK government, sometimes that that route is taken for, as far as I’m concerned, for political reasons, to create a differentiation. But also, that there are challenges with things. But when I speak to the tourism minister and say, “We really could use the Coronavirus job retention scheme extended, or we could cut to be extended further.” Those are not really issues that he can do much about, other than agree. Other than say, “Yes, I 100% agree with that.” That’s then reserved at the UK level, which is why it’s hugely important that I also feed into the lobbying that’s done at a UK level as well, by the likes of Bernard and others.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, okay. So let’s have a look more at some of the stats that have come in. So it says here, almost half, so 47.5% of the sector has seen a decrease in visitor numbers of greater than 50% this year compared to the same period in 2019. I mean again, that’s not shocking, is it? Because, like you say, you’ve had so many restrictions still in place for longer than in the UK attractions.

Gordon Morrison: That’s entirely it.

Kelly Molson: And it says turnover is down by over 50%, a third of attractions when compared to the same period in 2019. Again, not a shock, is it? None of this is a surprise.

Gordon Morrison: No.

Kelly Molson: What can be done about it? What’s the positives that can taken from it?

Gordon Morrison: Well, yeah. I think that’s important to emphasize here, Kelly, is that, don’t get me wrong, when I’m doing my lobbying, I’m painting the doom and gloom picture to the government to try and leverage as much support as we can get. But however, there are positives emerging from the pandemic. Just now, for a start, when you delve into the data in a bit more detail, it’s clear that the numbers are getting better. We are seeing an improving picture just now. And indeed, you mentioned yourself, it depends on what type of business that you have and where in the country you’re located. If you were to look at, for example, wildlife related attractions or animal related attractions, they’re booming.

Gordon Morrison: They are absolutely booming, or least the majority of them are booming just now. We just published our visitor figures for ASVA members, for the month of August. So that’s the most recent data that we’ve got and the wildlife operators were up by 14% on 2019 levels.

Kelly Molson: Oh, wow, wow.

Gordon Morrison: Yeah, they’re up on 2019, which is incredible, that really is. I mean, primarily driven by the huge popularity of Edinburgh Zoo, it has to be said, which you can imagine, if you’re an outdoor family attraction, it’s a good time for you. Speaking as a dad, you are desperate to take your kids somewhere. You are absolutely desperate to do that. And a zoo is an absolutely fantastic place to take the kids. So it’s not universally the case that things are awful. That’s the first point.

And we are seeing a generally improving picture month upon month. If you look at the figures from July compared to June, compared to July compared to August. It’s going in the right direction. And of course, we have now got rid of the physical distancing restrictions entirely, which releases the sector to actually begin to trade at a viable level. Although, interestingly, in the survey, we did ask members whether they were maintaining restrictions themselves and many, many were. In fact, we had 92% of the sector said that they were going to maintain COVID safety measures above and beyond what was required by law. And that again is useful for me when it comes to lobbying. Because what it shows is that our sector puts the safety of visitors and staff above everything else.

You cannot necessarily say that about every sector in the UK. But for our sector, we have consistently proven, throughout the pandemic, that we are putting safety and wellbeing above everything else. And therefore, for me, if there are… We’re seeing COVID spiking again, let’s not beat around the bush here. The number of cases is at, I think it’s highest level for something like six, seven months. It’s a huge, huge increase. If further restrictions are introduced again, I think it’s… But I’ve already spoken to the Scottish government about this as well. Our sector’s the one sector that actually, you’re not seeing any transmission come from, because we are very, very responsible. And I would hope that that would be recognised if restrictions get introduced again.

Kelly Molson: Well, I was going to ask about the locality thing. So obviously in the UK, during lockdown, there was a lot of appreciation for where you lived. I think that’s how we looked at it. People went out on their hour’s walk of exercise, and then they found new places to visit. But they actually, you’ve seen that kind of boost in tourism to the local places, people shopping more local. And again, that was happening prior to pre-pandemic, that was a trend anyway. But I think we’re still seeing that happen. People stay local, people visiting. Is it the same in Scotland? Are you finding that?

Gordon Morrison: Absolutely. And on top of the fact that we’re getting more of a sense of place. And I think attraction operators are actually understanding that sense of place a bit better as well. On top of that, the visitors that are coming to see us, our local bread and butter visitors, are spending money, Kelly, they really are spending money. And that is a key lesson that we need to take away from this. Secondary spend in shops and in cafes is considerably up on pre-pandemic levels across the board. Now that’s a combination, I think visitors have maybe got a wee bit of disposable income to spend after being stuck in lockdown for a long period of time.

Also, they want to spend. They want to get there and spend some money. And indeed, they are having a good experience. And that’s probably the crucial point here. Again, looking at the results from a most recent survey, we asked a question about, right, what’s happened to your visitor reviews? Are your visitor reviews on Trip Advisor, on Google, whatever platform you use, are they improving? Are they getting worse? And for the majority of the sector, the reviews have actually improved throughout the pandemic. And that is because visitors have had more time, more staff interaction, and a more personalised experience.

Now, by having that, more time, more personalised experience, they then are more inclined to spend money. And this is not your rich international visitor. This is not an international visitor who’s going to want to take back an expensive souvenir. This is a local domestic visitor, who’s coming to your attraction and they are having a really great experience and therefore. They’re spending money. And that is the key lesson that I think we have to take. And the key positive that we can take, out of the pandemic, which is that I think attractions have had the opportunity, in the various lockdowns, to take a breath almost, to think about their offering and what they’re doing for their visitors.

I think, are we doing everything we can do to ensure that our visitors get a great experience? Is the model of cram as many visitors into your attraction as possible, the right model that we want to operate? And it’s proven to be throughout the pandemic, that that is not what we should be doing. What we should be doing is providing a high quality experience, which then encourages the visitors that we do have to spend a bit more money with us. And that’s where we’re going now, that’s the direction of travel that we’re going in. We’re not going to see pre-pandemic levels of visitation for many, many years, possibly ever again.

And I’ve spoken about this before in various meetings that I’ve attended. If we take somewhere like Edinburgh Castle, as an example, Edinburgh Castle, over 2 million visitors in 2019. If you speak to Historic Environment of Scotland about that. First it was, you’re a big success to have that number of visitors. Was it actually great for the castle itself? Was it great for the visitor experience? Certainly not as good as it could be. Therefore, we should be moving more to the model of, it’s been spoken about it before, value rather than volume. And that is where we are 100% going. And I think that’s going to be really positive for the sector.

And also, I think the sector actually now begins to understand what their value is. And the fact that attractions in Scotland and across the UK are actually offering really unique, memorable experiences, really fantastic experiences. And shouldn’t be scared, therefore, to charge accordingly for those experiences. And we have seen some of our operators in Scotland have increased the pricing or are delivering a premium version of their standard experience and charging a bit more to do that. And that, to me, is the way that we should be going as a sector and we will continue to go as a sector.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, I totally agree. It’s weird actually, I gave a talk for Anglia Ruskin University back in summer about that very concept of attractions having less visitors, a more personalised experience that they will pay more money for. So ultimately, less visitors doesn’t mean less revenue.

Gordon Morrison: Exactly.

Kelly Molson: That’s exactly where I see the sector going. And that actually leads really nicely onto a new attraction that’s opened, that has that mentality. And that’s the Johnnie Walker Experience that’s just opened, which looks absolutely incredible. And I know that you’ve been lucky enough to go and visit already, haven’t you?

Gordon Morrison: Yeah. And it is actually the perfect model, Kelly, for what we’ve just spoken about there. It’s an outstanding visitor experience, it’s truly unique and it’s personalised to yourself. The way I’ve talked about it since I’ve been is that you go in and you’re immediately met, firstly with a smiling face, which is always a nice thing to be met with. Although, behind the mask, but still a smiling face. And you’re instructed to create your own flavour profile for your best ever Johnnie Walker drink.

It’s like the Tinder of whiskey. You’re swiping left or swiping right on whether you like mango, or whether you like apple, or whatever. And it then creates your ideal flavour profile. You get a wristband that is colour coded. And when you go up to experience the next part of the experience, you present this wristband to a dispenser and it pours for you, your ideal highball, Johnnie Walker highball. It’s incredible. I don’t know how it works. For all I know just everyone’s getting the exact same highball. I don’t-

Kelly Molson: Ah, but the experience is that it’s personalised to you.

Gordon Morrison: That’s exactly right. And what Johnnie Walker, what Diageo have successfully done with this experience, is they’ve said, “Right, we’re not going to create a high volume, low value experience.” They limit the numbers on their tours to a really low level. It’s never going feature at the top 10 most visited attractions in Scotland or the UK. It’s never going to feature on there because they’re limiting the numbers. But I’m sure they wouldn’t mind me saying this, unashamedly charging a premium for it. It’s 25 quid if you want to take that experience, which in an attraction ticket entry place, is a high price point, it is a high price point to do that. But that is because you’re going to get a unique, personalised experience. And of course, they’ll chuck it in a high ball as well, which is a nice thing.

Kelly Molson: Oh, high praise indeed. I’ve got to give my friend, my good friend, Kazia, is actually the Brand Home Experience Manager at Johnnie Walker. So I hope that she’s listening. She’ll be thrilled to hear such fabulous feedback.

Gordon Morrison: That is a must visit, Kelly. I’m not just saying that because they’re ASVA members. But anyone who gets the opportunity to visit Edinburgh, it’s a truly unique experience. And topped off by this incredible rooftop bar that has got the best panoramic views over Edinburgh. Edinburgh Castle will argue they have the best panoramic views of the city. But what the Johnnie Walker Princes Street has got, is a view of the castle as well.

Kelly Molson: And they haven’t got the whiskey, have they? Let’s face-

Gordon Morrison: That’s true. That is true.

Kelly Molson: They’ve not got the whiskey to have up there. I really would like to see where this leads. I would love other attractions adopting this model. So it’ll be really interesting to catch up, maybe a year from now and see how attractions have kind of shifted their offer in Scotland, to see if they follow suit in terms of this kind of premium level, better experience, less visitor numbers.

Gordon Morrison: I think they’re have to, Kelly. That’s the interesting thing here is that I still speak to you lot of my members, who are waiting for things to go back to normal. That’s how they put it, “I can’t wait for things to go back to normal.” And my answer to that is that they’re not going to go back to normal. There is pre-pandemic times and then there is post-pandemic times or pandemic times, because the pandemic’s not going away.

We’re still going to have COVID-19 for many years to come. And I think that the sector has to embrace this now and say, “Okay. Well, if we are not going to have those pre-pandemic level of visitation, we all have to adapt our experiences.” And without doing a shameless plug, but why not? We hosted a conference this year in November and that is a big theme of the conferences, is looking at how you are shaping, how you are creating those memorable experiences in this new normal that we live in. And we’ll be really shouting from the rooftops about that.

Kelly Molson: Let’s talk about the conference. So Scotland’s National Tourism Industry Conference, 24th to the 25th of November. This is a culmination really, of all of the support that you’ve been giving to your members throughout the pandemic anyway. So what’s going to be there? Why should people come?

Gordon Morrison: Yeah. I mean, firstly, we’re absolutely delighted to be hosting it, both in person and online. Again, one of the great things for ASVA actually, throughout the pandemic, Kelly, was that we delivered this host of great workshops online, including some with yourself of course. And it opened us up to a much bigger audience. When we’re delivering in person events, we were delighted if we got, say 40 people to attend one of our workshops, maybe 50 people to attend one of our workshops. And I thought, “That’s a great turnout, that’s really great.” And all often from the central belt of Scotland, everyone from Edinburgh or Glasgow. Whereas, when we hosted events online, we opened it up to a much larger audience.

And we had our members from Shetlands, from Hebrides, and far flung areas, joining as in taking part in these sessions. So therefore, when it came to the conference this year, we had a clear idea that we wanted to do it in person because we think the sector wants to get by it together. But it also needed that online element as well. So regardless of where you are, and indeed, regardless of whether you’re an ASVA member, you can actually attend the conference virtually if you would like to do so. We’re also doing it in partnership with other leading associations in Scotland, including the Scottish Tourism Line. So sort of the overarching Tourism Association representing the attraction sector. And we’re doing that intentionally, because we want to not just bring attractions together, we want to bring the whole industry, the entirety of the Scottish tourism industry together, as much to celebrate that we’ve made it this far as anything else.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, it’s really important to acknowledge that, isn’t it? It’s been so tough.

Gordon Morrison: It’s been massively, massively difficult. And we’ve all had many stresses and strains throughout the pandemic. Not all of us have given birth to a child, of course, Kelly, which is even bigger stress and strain. But about, however, it has been a hugely difficult time. And we want to bring the sector together to just say, “Pat on the back. Well done guys, we have made it through to this level. Now, let’s push on. Now, let’s push on to the next level.”

And that is what the theme of the conference really is about. So I’m leading one of the days of the conference and I’m really excited about the part that I’m leading, which is all about delivering memorable experiences as we move into the year of Scotland Stories 2022. Yeah, Scotland has themed years every year. There’s a tourism related theme year. So this year we’re in the year, of course, of waters, for example. And like I said, next year we move into the year of Scotland Stories, which is a wonderful theme year for visitor attractions because we’re all about storytelling, that’s what we’re all about-

Kelly Molson: Yeah, it’s perfect.

Gordon Morrison: Yeah, exactly. So, so we are really, every part of the conference has got some link to delivering memorable experiences and delivering great stories. But what we’re trying to do, Kelly, is really put it in a, not an airy fairy way at all, as in put it in a commercial way. Say, “Right, this is what delivering a great story will mean for your business. This is how you can actually improve business performance, by delivering these great stories.” And we’ve got a host of wonderful speakers coming along. If you don’t mind me saying it, I’m most excited about the fact that we’ve got the Creative Director from Walt Disney Imagineering joining us, to talk about the Galactic Star Cruise experience that Walt Disney World is introducing next year, which is-

Kelly Molson: That’s a clever coup, isn’t it? You’ve got that speaker, it’s amazing.

Gordon Morrison: That’s a mind blowing story. They don’t even call it storytelling, let’s call it a story living experience because you actually go and live on a star cruiser in the Star Wars Universe for two days. Kelly, I’m there. I am there.

Kelly Molson: It’s blowing your mind, isn’t it, Gordon? I can see.

Gordon Morrison: Oh my goodness, yeah. But actually referring back to what we spoke about earlier, what’s interesting about it is, that’s a premium experience, that’s about as premium as it gets. They are not ashamed of the fact that they are charging $6,000 for a two night experience, $6,000. And they know that they will get an audience for that.

Kelly Molson: Oh yeah.

Gordon Morrison: But that’s because it is a high quality, truly unique storytelling experience. And those are the lessons that we’re looking for, on a smaller scale to take. I’m not saying to our members, “Right, the way you create memorable experiences, have light saber jewels throughout it.” As much as love that, I would love that and the Johnnie Walker Princes Street, that’d be fantastic.

I think what attractions need to do is think about what their unique stories can be. And then implement those storytelling experiences at their attractions. And they will find that they can charge an appropriate level to their visitors, because visitors will eat these things up. They will want these truly unique, different experiences. And so that’s what we’re covering at the conference. And it’s going to be a wonderful couple of days, it really is.

Kelly Molson: It really sounds like it. And I will be there virtually. I’d love to be there in real life next year, definitely. I don’t think that tiny person that I gave birth to will be too comfortable with me leaving her for a couple of nights, to head up to Scotland. Thank you for sharing that. I do think that that conference is going to be a real celebration of just like you say, yes, we’ve absolutely made it. We’ve made it this far. Now, what can we do to push on and be better? Open better, that’s what we need to be driving the message of. And that’s absolutely going to do that at that conference. So I’m super excited about it.

Gordon Morrison: Thank you.

Kelly Molson: We are at the end of our podcast interview. And I always ask our guests for a book recommendation, so something that you love or something that’s helped shape your career. Just something that you’d like to share with our listeners.

Gordon Morrison: I had a long think about this, Kelly, what I would recommend for a book, I’m an educated man. I’m a historian. I could recommend some really great historical texts and some very worthy books that have helped to educate me and take me to the level that I am today.

Kelly Molson: I feel like you’re not going that way though.

Gordon Morrison: I’m not going to go that way at all, because it’s not actually who I am. I am deeply in love, deeply in love with Calvin and Hobbes. I don’t know if you’ve ever read any Calvin and Hobbes before.

Kelly Molson: I haven’t, no.

Gordon Morrison: So for those who don’t know, it’s a comic strip effectively, a newspaper comic strip from the United States that has been brought into a whole series of different collections that are available in all good book shops. And it’s two characters. Calvin is a five-year-old boy and Hobbes is his tiger. And Hobbes is a stuffed tiger, who only comes to life in front of Calvin. And there’s a question about whether Hobbes is real and just no one else gets to see him as being real or whether it’s all in Calvin’s imagination.

And Calvin is a wee cynical, hilarious boy, and Hobbes is a much more stoic and measured character. And combined, they have these incredible adventures. And it really is, it’s a moral compass thing, that’s the only way I can put Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin and Hobbes is a moral compass thing. You can read Calvin and Hobbes and it will set you straight on the path that you need to be going on because they are righteous. They are genuinely righteous. And it’s also hilarious. It is one of the most hilarious things you could ever read.

But my favourite… I mean, any of them are good, Kelly. Because I know you’ll then say, right, here’s one that you can look at. I would say that There’s Treasure Everywhere is a great compendium. And the last one that was ever produced is called It’s A Magical World. And it has the most beautiful end story of any story you can ever want to read. And the last words of it are, “It’s a magical world.” And I’m actually, I can feel my emotions rising as to talk about it just now. So Calvin and Hobbes, It’s A Magical World. I would urge everyone in the world to read it. You’ll feel like a million dollars.

Kelly Molson: Ah, what an absolutely wonderful book recommendation to end this podcast interview on, that’s perfect. As ever, if you want to win a copy of Gordon’s book, then head over to our Twitter account, which is Skip The Queue and retweet this episode announcement with the comment, I want Gordon’s book. And you could be in with the chance of winning it. I feel all emotional. This is how I feel when I listen to Adele.

Gordon Morrison: Oh, oh, you’ve just ruined it.


Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.

Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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