Working in the tourism industry: Insights from a CEO

VisitAberdeenshire CEO Chris Foy answered our questions to find out more about his career and the endless possibilities that the tourism industry offers.

Can you tell us about your own career path?

So, my first job in tourism was pulling pints and flipping burgers in a pool-side bar in Portugal when I was 18. I doubled up as a lifeguard so people were advised against getting into trouble in the water when I was getting the onions ready on the grill.

I got a toe hold into inbound and domestic tourism when I joined Historic Royal Palaces in their sales team to promote places like Hampton Court and Tower of London to the travel trade. Although I grew up in London and was aware of tourist attractions and planes landing at Heathrow every few minutes, until that point it hadn’t really occurred to me what a huge industry we had on our doorstep.

This was a great job to understand the nuts and bolts of the sector, meeting coach operators at their depots, and going further afield to secure business in Europe and Asia. It was a good grounding for my next steps with Visit London where my roles included engagement with hundreds of members from large hotel chains to small cafes. I also learned that all that glitters isn’t necessarily gold…

In the run up to the year 2000, there were great plans to rebrand London as the ‘Millennium City’. A great idea up to a point. Alas, the visiting public were less interested in the associated merchandise and it fell to me to sell off a few thousand hoodies and t-shirts to a couple of South London street traders. I felt like I’d entered an episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’!

Most of my career was then spent in various roles at VisitBritain, the UK’s national tourism agency. Roles ranged from managing relationships with regional and national agencies like VisitScotland, through to leading a lot of our work around the 2012 Olympics, seeing through high value funded programmes, leading the overseas office network and finally heading up a new Business Events team.

Two great things about VisitBritain at the time were a) the opportunity to travel and be part of a global team, and b) the opportunities for secondment. I spend time away from HQ twice. Firstly at the London Development Agency as we got ready to welcome visitors for the Olympics, and then after the Games, I went to work at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to promote other aspects of Britain including innovation, culture and STEM. This role involved weekly trips across the road to 10 Downing Street and the surreal experience of walking through one of the most famous front doors in the world.

Why did you choose Aberdeen?

Aberdeen came into my life at just the right time. I had seen colleagues at VisitBritain move on to run regional tourism marketing agencies and that was always my intention at one point in my career. Despite being 500 miles and a nine-hour drive away, it has never felt far from London or the wider world. That might be because of the international community we have in the North-east.

From a professional perspective, I relish the opportunity to promote and help develop tourism in an area that has so much potential.

Why do you think tourism is such a great career choice?

There are so many aspects to the tourism sector. The front line of the hospitality sector is its people. It’s the people you see at hotels, attractions, restaurants, events, on tour buses and at golf courses (and lifeguards of course). It’s the people that you don’t always see but know are in the background creating a great experience, like chefs for example. But tourism also needs accountants, lawyers, web designers, data analysts, marketeers, salespeople, and HR professionals, just like any sector.

What kind of jobs are available in tourism?

Technology is always improving how the tourism sector operates, but people are at its heart.  Look around and think broadly. What do visitors do, and where do they go? Think about the visitor journey from the first glimmer of inspiration in an advert or magazine, through planning and booking all the way through to the touch points here in the North-east during an actual visit. At each point in that journey, there is a person.

Why is this such an exciting time for tourism graduates?

It’s not just now. It can always be an exciting time. While the fundamentals of why people choose to travel don’t radically change, there are always new trends to respond to – some positive, and some negative.

The pandemic was awful for the sector and those who work within it, but from it sparked creative thinking to keep the industry ticking over for some. For example, here at VisitAberdeenshire we launched a campaign targeting locals when visitors couldn’t travel.

BTW, the only thing new about ‘staycations’ is the word itself. Domestic tourism has always dominated in the North-east. But how people choose to enjoy their time, and who those people are, are always changing.

Where do you see the tourism industry in the next 5/10 years?

As I said in the previous answer, the fundamentals of why people choose to travel don’t radically change – the need to travel-eat-sleep-enjoy. But the ‘how’ does change and invariably it will continue to do so.

In my view, the biggest single cause of change in the sector in my lifetime was the advent of the internet in the early ‘90s, coupled with deregulation of air travel in Europe around the same time. Both empowered the customer, and the industry had to respond to compete and thrive.

What is the big ‘how’ for the 2020s? AI has great potential to play a part in influencing demand and finding efficiencies in supply, but it won’t be the only factor. ‘Where’ is of course a perennial too. If the goose that lays its golden eggs is killed through over-crowding in places like Amsterdam and Edinburgh, then other destinations might well become more attractive, both for leisure visits and for conferences. Our convention bureau often hears that clients are looking for smaller cities where their event will not be lost in the crowd.

One unknown is the impact of climate change on destination choice. We’ve seen record heat in Europe this summer but visitors continue flock to these hottest of hot spots. Demographic change will definitely be a consideration. More and more people over 65, potentially with more disposable income, but also with more specific requirements. An agile destination will respond to those needs.

Finally, can you tell us your favourite thing about living and working in Aberdeen?

From mountain to city to sea, this really is the best of Scotland. And we don’t have midges.

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