What is Expo?
"Expo" is frequently talked about at STA meetings and investing in a Shetland stand at the show is one of the group's main out-goings each year.
But some members might still be unsure what exactly Expo is, what happens there, why the STA are investing in it and what benefit do members see from it. So with this year's Expo just around the corner on the 2nd & 3rd of April let's try and answer some of those questions.
What is Expo
The VisitScotland Expo - to give its proper name - is Scotland's largest and most important business to business trade fair for the tourism industry. It will be attended by 270 businesses from around Scotland promoting their tourism product to buyers representing tour operators, travel agents, travel media and incoming agents (businesses that prepare tour itineraries for international operators). The buyers that are attending have mainly been targeted because they have existing Scottish products available or potential new buyers that have shown an interest in developing a Scottish product.
All sounds terribly dry! But it is important that Shetland doesn't miss the exposure which is gained through having a stand at this show. With 350 buyers from UK companies and 470 from international markets there is huge potential for Shetland to sell itself.
What happens at Expo
This year's stand is a joint venture between the STA, Promote Shetland, VisitShetland, VisitOrkney, the Orkney Tourism Group, Northlink Ferries and Pentland Ferries. These stands have always been grouped close together at previous shows and so it was decided that it would be more cost effective and have a greater impact to have a combined stand, effectively creating a North Isles destination centre.
The stand of course is visually appealing to attract passers-by but the core activity of the show is pre-booked appointments. Potential buyers who have a definite interest in developing a Shetland product come looking for facts, what attractions are there for their customers, what facilities are available, what duration should a tour be, what unique selling points can they offer their customers.
But who are these buyers? With over 60 pre-booked meetings already the Shetland representatives will be meeting buyers with a broad range of interests. There will be some of the larger scale tour operators who in recent years have been reshaping their model to fit better with the way that people want to travel now. But far and away the main potential buyers are the niche market tours and travel agents, tours specialising in horticulture, farming, textiles and photography to name a few. Travel agents from developing markets such as China, India & Russia where a place like Shetland could be classed as an exotic destination (exotic as in striking and different rather than hot and lush - in case you thought I had really lost it!) Most importantly though are the developing markets where we already have strength, Canada & the USA. Classed as developing because of the improved direct airlinks that have been developed between North America & Scotland, Shetland has of course been basking in the limelight of 3 notable ponies and a Viking invasion which has given us multiple mentions on television & a storm of social media interest.
Why the STA invests
In Shetland we are quite accustomed to planning our holidays and travel ourselves using the internet and there is no question that the internet is now the primary source of holiday planning. But travel agents and tour operators still play an important role and are reshaping themselves to better suit todays traveller. The key word here is niche and Shetland ticks a lot of boxes for the niche markets!
Long haul travellers are more likely to use travel agents, particularly visitors from the USA & Australia. But something that all visitors to Shetland have in common is they are looking to have a unique experience, they want to feel they understand and are engaging with the local culture and are being entrusted with the secrets of the best places to visit and sights to be seen. Tour operators and agents can create this kind of experience for their customers based on the contacts and information they gain at Expo. Once the customer is here it is then our job to reveal that there is so much more to see and turn them into a repeat customer.
As council, government and EU funding becomes less and less accessible it is important for the industry to maintain the presence of Shetland at Expo or we risk losing all of these potential customers to other regions of Scotland. It is for this reason that the STA fell that Expo is the best possible use of funds to feed back into the tourism industry in Shetland.
What benefit is there for members
Well here things do get a bit intangible, it would be lovely to be able to say X number of visitors were generated, X bus tour stopped at all these locations or X agent has booked rooms at all these providers thanks to Expo. It isn't that simple to quantify though as the return on this investment must be looked at over a long time scale. A tour operator that visits the stand this year might not be able to schedule a tour in until 2016 and an agent who might be sending customers to Shetland for years to come is under no obligation to report back.
The way in which Expo operates with the pre-booked meetings and targeted buyers does offer us some insight into the success of the show though. We know the Shetland stand will have around 60 - 100+ pre-booked meetings, statistics for the whole show indicate that 81% of the international buyers will feature a place they visited in future programmes, 90% of UK and 88% of international buyers intend to add new suppliers to their current programmes and 81% of exhibitors conduct business with other stand holders.
There has also been such significant advanced interest from buyers this year that VisitScotland is providing a familiarisation trip for 10 buyers to Shetland directly following Expo, these buyers will be receiving a very packed 3 day tour with an STA member to better understand the products they will be selling to their customers.
So we can't say what as an individual member you will benefit from our investment, but the return on the investment to the tourism industry and Shetland's economy will be felt for years to come through new business generation and repeat visits which are very likely to touch on every member business at some point in the future.