Scottish coast

It’s summer holiday time and whether you are jetting off to sunnier climes, or having a well-earned staycation, one thing is for sure: Scotland will continue to welcome thousands of visitors from overseas and domestic markets.

Whilst visiting our green (and slightly damp) country, these visitors will eat, sleep and spend in our 14,000 tourism businesses, making a valuable economic contribution estimated to be worth around £6bn of GDP.

For some businesses, June, July and August pass at breakneck speed in a whirlwind of visitors, before the numbers ease, so the summer months are crucial to their livelihoods. A good example of this is Arran, where the population goes from 5,000 to 40,000 during peak season. We are currently supporting a project mapping and modelling the island’s waste to come up with innovative options to develop a more circular economy.

For others, there is a year-round spread of tourists from Europe, Asia, the U.S. and beyond. One thing that all tourism businesses have in common is the need to keep moving forward to ensure their long-term success as we compete on a world stage, where building a reputation for delivering the best possible experience for the visitor is key.

The effects of megatrends – global changes that have a major impact on our lives (business, economy, culture and more) – are having an impact in a number of areas, one being technology. The demand is increasing from visitors to be well informed through digital experiences using tech such as virtual reality and augmented reality, whilst data capture is acknowledged as a valuable source for enhancing and personalising the guest and visitor experience.

As well as major operators such as Skyscanner, who have anchored their operations in Scotland, we have many forward-thinking businesses, which are discovering the power of teaming up with academics to explore workable solutions to challenges posed by increased access to data and technology with innovative applications and solutions. Matched by Interface, some leading Scottish visitor attractions have recently secured funding to explore a project on managing visitor flow more efficiently, with the potential to act as a new model for the industry. Another group of attractions and transport operators will analyse data to understand how visitors and residents are moving across cities and gain insights into what they are saying about the destination in order to better respond to needs and wants.

Emerging technologies are also key in helping businesses to innovate and grow, with Scottish travel tech companies teaming up with academic experts to apply AI and machine learning to create a more joined-up, tailor-made guest experience via mobile devices for hotel guests.

Tourism and hospitality businesses have  benefited significantly from interactive workshops organised by Interface in collaboration with industry partners, ranging from exploring dementia-friendly tourism with the Life Changes Trust and VisitScotland; developing food tourism with Scotland Food & Drink; exploring the uses of virtual reality for attractions with the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions (ASVA) and tackling tourism challenges using data; partnering with The Data-Driven Innovation initiative, part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal. These workshops have not only offered disruptive thinking and generated new collaborative group projects but fostered valuable connections between universities and industry through student research projects, placements and other activities.

Marc Crothall, CEO of the Scottish Tourism Alliance and a member of the Interface Strategic Board, said:

We have been hugely encouraged by the progress that has been made in fostering and delivering enhanced engagement between the tourism sector and academia through Interface. Given the uncertainty and ongoing impacts of Brexit on the tourism sector and the economy, embracing innovation, particularly technological innovation is critical in order for businesses to remain competitive.  Interface is uniquely positioned to support and assist the tourism sector to access the world leading academic expertise required to apply new technologies such as AI, automation, immersive tech and data developments.”   

Interface are impartial brokers across all Scottish universities and work with companies to find the most appropriate expertise to solve challenges or develop opportunities. So, when the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo were looking for expertise in visual effects, smells and sounds technology, we identified relevant expertise in Edinburgh Napier University. This has led to the development of new products to add to their immersive shows, and further collaborations. For many businesses, which are small to medium-sized, taking a leap of faith to embrace innovation in this way needs a track record, and the benefit of having good examples like the Tattoo where the outcomes are there for all to see.  

We need more businesses to think about how academic input could help deliver results and future-proof their companies. After all, fortune favours the bold.