Distillery on banks of loch

“When the winds of change blow, some build walls while others build windmills”so said Chris Moule, Head, of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Robert Gordon University, at a recent Interface business support webinar.

The ancient Chinese proverb perfectly illustrated the theme of our recent webinar, specially tailored to industries hard hit in the last six months by COVID-19; hospitality and tourism, and food and drink.

Scotland launched its first national food tourism action plan in 2018, a partnership between Scotland Food & Drink and The Scottish Tourism Alliance. In the wake of COVID-19, a food tourism recovery group has been established to re-shape the action plan, aligning with both the tourism and food and drink recovery plans.

Food tourism is a fast-growing sector of tourism, with people willing to spend more and to travel significant distances to sample Scottish food and drink, or combine culinary experiences with walking and cycling, or with visits to farms, distilleries or breweries.

Lockdown has changed many of our habits, from having a staycation, to eating differently – more out- of- doors dining and shopping for food and drink in our local neighbourhoods.

When surveyed during the recent Interface webinar, 32% of participants (who were a mixture of food & drink and tourism businesses) said that they would change the direction of their business, while 50% said “maybe”. We know that many businesses already have – distilleries making hand sanitisers, restaurants transforming into take-aways, one B&B baking to support the local community during lockdown, now diversifying to add a new bakehouse and takeaway to expand their offering of exceptional food tourism experiences.

The creativity and agility displayed by these sectors is impressive, and the hunger for development from businesses and academics, significant. Fiona Richmond, Head of Regional Food, Scotland Food & Drink, added: 

“The industry has shown remarkable courage and innovation during the pandemic, arguably reinforcing the public’s love and  appreciation of local businesses and the products and experiences they offer.”

The past few months have truly demonstrated the entrepreneurial spirit of the food tourism sector.  When Interface, VisitScotland and the Scottish Tourism Alliance launched Adopt a Business over the summer, matching industry to academics and students, more than 80 tourism businesses were connected to 12 Scottish universities, with their staff and students as far afield as Dubai and Australia, working from home on collaborative projects to help the companies diversify and develop. 

One business which has benefited from further diversification after tuning into Interface’s food tourism webinar is Bellevue Farm on Arran. The farm had converted farm buildings into holiday accommodation and had developed safari tours around three years ago and were looking to follow that success by creating a farm-to-fork visitor experience for holiday visitors and island residents. A student from Robert Gordon University collaborated with the company to develop their product and an effective marketing strategy, thereby setting them on track to reach new visitors and grow their business.

We are looking forward to seeing the outcome of this, and all the Adopt a Business initiative collaborations that have harnessed the resilience, creativity and innovation from the sector.   

According to the World Food Travel Association, one of the top 10 predictions for food tourism is that our love of good food and drink won’t change. While our appetites for quality, enjoying local produce and memorable food and drink experiences, combining our love of food and travel will remain, how we access these has already changed dramatically this year and requires fresh thinking.

During these exceptional times, Interface brokered academic projects can support business survival, diversification, adaptation, and recovery through many areas such as new product development; changing markets; digital innovations; strategic models, business planning.  Businesses can draw on support to capitalise on longer term opportunities such as embracing the circular economy, sustainability, or improving green credentials.

We are marking Scottish Food and Drink Fortnight (5-20 September) with a call to action for all food tourism businesses with a hunger for change to get in touch and find out more about the possibilities of tapping into academic knowledge.