“The Most Precious Heritage of Mankind”

“My father used to say that stories are part of the most precious heritage of mankind.” –Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams

Robin Worsnop
Robin Worsnop

Much of my career has been engaged in marketing and developing sustainable heritage experiences. I recently presented a case study at an international tourism conference in Zagreb: the theme was Heritage Tourism: How is it Adapting to the New World? and was based in part on an interview I conducted with Robin Worsnop, the founder and CEO of Rabbie’s Small Group Tours and chairman of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group.

The interview explored Robin’s perspective as a tour operator, and as one of the leaders responsible for developing Edinburgh’s visitor economy. It was a fascinating interview and instructive for any tourism or heritage professional. I reproduce it in full here:

SS: Robin, you are the founder and Chief Executive of Rabbie’s Small Group Tours – could you tell me what Rabbie’s is all about?

RW: Rabbie’s offers small group tours enabling people to share memorable experiences and develop rich, lasting connections with other people, local places and their culture through travel. We currently offer a full range of small group experiences covering the whole of the UK and Ireland and a tour to Champagne and Normandy from our operating bases of London, Dublin, Edinburgh and Glasgow. These experiences range from city tours, half day and full day excursions through to 6 day tours across the British Isles. These experiences are inter-connected so that our customers can join many of these together to spend up to two months exploring further and getting off the beaten track covering Lands End to Orkney, Champagne to the Ring of Kerry.

SS: And could you describe your role within Rabbie’s – i.e. what are your key activities?

Rabbie's Small Group Tours
Image: Malcolm Cochrane Photography

RW: I am the founder and Chief Executive of Rabbie’s responsible for the strategic development and growth of our business with overall responsibility for Rabbie’s being recognized worldwide for exceptional experiences, ensuring the investment and supporting the infrastructure for my people to thrive and be the best at what they do, day in and day out. Rabbie’s has a 5 year vision to provide a network of these experiences across the UK and Ireland from any place where there is a railway station so that people can leave their cars at home and explore any part of these islands with a local guide and meet other people and share cultural experiences. Our long term vision is to develop this network across the world and develop our sustainable and ethical touring model so that people can explore further everywhere they go.

SS: You’re also chairman of ETAG – briefly, what is ETAG, how long has it existed and what does it do?

RW: The Edinburgh Tourism Action Group is the strategic leadership group responsible for developing Edinburgh as a competitive international tourism destination. We are made up of all the public and private sector bodies that have an impact on the visitor economy and our role is to bring together the wide range of businesses which make up Edinburgh’s tourism sector, including transport and accommodation providers, attractions, venues, theatres, shops, bars, restaurants, conferences, events and festivals to that aim.

SS: ETAG recently published the Edinburgh 2020 Tourism Strategy – what are the key planks of that strategy?

RW: Our strategy is to put the visitor or tourist economy at the heart of the economic development of the city of Edinburgh, contributing growth and jobs to benefit all the citizens of Edinburgh. The key objectives of our strategy, launched in January 2012, are to:

  • Increase the number of visits and visitors by one third by 2020, from 3.27 million toEdinburgh 4.39 million visitors per annum, generating an additional 4.15 million visitor nights. This equates to an increase of 3% per annum;
  • Generate an extra £485 million per annum by 2020, taking the total visitor spending from £1.015bn to £1.5bn in 2010 prices. Included in this target is to increase the average visitor spend by 10% in real terms through increasing the quality of the experiences across the city;
  • Improve seasonality across the sector and achieve 50% of additional visits during the months of October to March and reduce the current 40:60 split in visitors to 43:57 between October to March and April to September.

SS: What were the main drivers – economic, political, social and/or technological – that influenced the strategy development?

RW: At the time we were developing the strategy Edinburgh’s tourism sector was showing great resilience in the city whilst Edinburgh’s strong financial sector was recovering from the worldwide shocks of 2008. There were significant economic and social pressures on the city, with significant growth in youth unemployment and a slowdown of investment in other sectors of the economy. Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland, famed for its Festivals celebrated throughout the year, and a thriving visitor economy is essential for the ongoing success of not just Edinburgh and its strong cultural offering, but as the gateway for international visitors to the whole of Scotland. There was a sense that tourism was considered a Cinderella industry and the strategy development helped to underline our importance to both local politicians and the citizens of Edinburgh as a whole. What’s good for the visitors tends to be good for the locals as well.

SS: How does Edinburgh’s World Heritage Status affect and feature in the strategy?

_MG_8822RW: What came through the consultation with the stakeholders was that visitors looked upon the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh as the theatre in which life was played out. Edinburgh has the largest World Heritage site in the world and the beauty of its skyline and architecture are essential parts of the reasons why people come to visit. The consistent priority that came through the strategy was the necessity to invest and maintain the city’s heritage through world class city management. These infrastructure issues are part and parcel of the whole city’s agenda and the tourism sector is one of the catalysts for the investment to take place in keeping this as the top of the city’s priorities.

SS: Do you feel that tourism development poses any significant threat to the heritage, and if so, how should that threat be managed?

RW: One of the key areas for action that was identified in the strategy was the need toEdinburgh Tram extend the visitors footprint beyond the world heritage hotspots of the Old Town as overcrowding was impacting on both the visitor experience and the heritage infrastructure. The completion of the Tram and other public transport improvements are helping with this, but more needs to be done in the areas of wayfinding signs for visitors and improved walking and cycling networks for visitors to get around the city.

SS: Has Edinburgh’s relationship with Glasgow been addressed as an opportunity in the strategy?

RW: Although Edinburgh’s relationship with Glasgow was not addressed in the strategy there is a wide recognition that Glasgow has a different and very complimentary offer to Edinburgh and visitors often will enjoy the attractions of both whilst in Scotland. Again this is part of the capital city’s role as gateway to Scotland for international visitors and there are many instances of visitors who arrive in Glasgow who also enjoy visiting Edinburgh. The train connection between the 2 cities is better than much connectivity across a city like London. City centre to city centre takes 50 minutes by train and the service is every 15 minutes.

SS: Considering Edinburgh’s global status as a city of heritage and culture, what lessons can Edinburgh offer to heritage tourism development elsewhere?

RW: There is a growing demand for authentic experiences when people travel. People are looking for personalized service and an opportunity to meet locals and enjoy local customs. The cultural and heritage offer of Edinburgh is locally developed and inspired and is true to its roots as a city. Any advice I would have is to root heritage development elsewhere in local traditions and culture to provide authentic experiences to visitors.

SS: Strategy is, of course, only as good as the implementation! What are the key factors necessary to ensure a concerted drive to deliver the strategy?

RW: Alignment of all the stakeholders around a common purpose and vision is the essential ingredient to the delivery of a tourism strategy. Investment is the biggest challenge and hard choices need to be made so identifying the key priorities which will make the biggest difference are critical to its success. Underlying all of this it cannot be forgotten that tourism is probably the most competitive industry in the world as visitors can choose to go pretty much anywhere they wish. So it is critical that the sector remains internationally competitive to enable it to thrive and invest in greater experiences all the time.

SS: Lastly, as a tour operator, what do you look for in a destination, i.e. to enable your business to operate successfully and add value to the visitor’s experience of that destination?

RW: I’ve learnt some hard lessons over the years and from those lessons I would say a business environment where you can operate on a level playing field is critical to any investment decisions I will make going forward. Bureaucracy and red tape, when applied with good reason and fairly, are necessities to protect consumers. However destinations that protect established local businesses unfairly will stifle innovation and the development of quality visitor experiences that will enhance the destination and offer greater choice to visitors. This drives demand and recommendations from visitors, which in turn will enhance the destination’s economy. Other than that I look for destinations that give customers great experiences that make them want to go back again and again.

SS: Amen! Thank you, Robin. hi_res_logo_2011 - 1mb


Stephen Spencer is a keynote speaker, business coach and consultant, helping organisations create better Customer Experiences to unlock team and profit potential. He has over 25 years’ experience as a leader, trainer and experience developer with some of the UK’s most prestigious Retail, Tourism and Hospitality brands. Sign up for Stephen’s POSITIVE Customer Experience newsletter here.

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