Wednesday the 20th of March saw the first Assynt tourist forum under the guidance of the new Discover Assynt/Assynt Development Trust set up take place at the Kylesku Hotel.
Approximately forty folk, representing tourist related businesses and services drove through the the most stunning scenery to enjoy a lunch of soup and sandwiches, provided by Vicky and team at the Kylesku and listen to a series of speakers give presentations on the Highland tourism economy and how the shiny new Discover Assynt website can help improve the economy by better informing visitors and getting them to slow down and enjoy all that we have to offer, opposed to seeing us a bonny backdrop for selfie pit stops as they hurtle around the NC 500. Willie Jack, chair of Assynt Development Trust was our genial host for the day and introduced our speakers, wangled the obligatory technical difficulties that comes when combining a laptop, projector with the at best sketchy wifi. Willie also carefully explained the charitable Gift Aid means of funding the Discover Assynt website to the former subscribers and now donors. The first speaker was Jo Page the hospitality coordinator from Highland Campervans based near Inverness. Highland campervans have grown from a one person, one campervan outfit to employing 16 people and operating a fleet of luxury campervans. Jo was slightly reticent due to the somewhat hostile online commentary on the growth of campervans across the Highlands. However, the audience put away their clubs and patiently listened to what Jo had to say about how Highland campervans have seized the initiative and created an association for campervan rental companies, that ensures members stick to a strict code of best practise. The Campervan and Motorhome Professional Association (CaMPA) http://www.campa.org.uk/ plan is to ensure that visitors are given the best information on how best to enjoy their visit to the Highlands and that they are given advice on driving on single track roads, avoiding convoys, know to pull over on single track roads and the recommended places where they can empty their chemical toilets.
Answering the charge that campervans only ever fill up at Tescos and spend nothing on the local economy, Jo undertook a survey of her clients during summer 2018 wanting to find a rough estimate of just how much ten campervans contributed to those economies on the North Coast 500. The figures are surprising, particularly when we consider the cost of the campervan rental in addition to the clients holiday spending.
Obviously this is the result of just one company and other campervan rental operators may differ in their survey results and of course many private owners will be taking a more cost effective approach to touring the North Highlands, however, as anyone who has ever used a motorhome will tell you, nobody wants to spend every night eating at a small table in a campervan. Part of the joy of travel is not having to cook and wash up dishes, particularly when you're on holiday.
The next speaker was Boyd Alexander of Coigach and Assynt Living Landscape Partnership with an analysis of the tourist survey carried out last summer throughout Assynt. The survey for the amateur psephologists among you can be read in greater detail here - https://coigach-assynt.org/2019/03/tourism-survey-of-coigach-assynt/ The survey ran from 30 July 2018 until 10 October 2018, with 417 completed surveys coming from visitors to accommodation providers and tourist services across Assynt and Coigach. Boyd told the captive audience (we'd locked them in) that the survey had provided sound evidence from which to understand what information visitors are wanting from local tourism providers, and how to provide it. The survey suggests there is an overwhelming desire for visitors once they have arrived in Assynt or Coigach, is the need for printed materials, maps, guide books, flyers etcetera and the importance of being able to talk to locals who can provide them with local knowledge, tips and favourite places to visit.
Our final speaker was Jane from JP Design, who has been commissioned by Assynt Development Trust to rebuild the old Discover Assynt website into the shiny new mobile and tablet friendly one that you're now hopefully perusing on a regular basis. Jane's task has been particularly onerous as much of the information was needing renewed and the resulting snagging list quite long. This will no doubt continue for some time as new sections helping visitors and locals are added to the site. For the technically astute and web savvy among you, Jane spoke in great detail about search engine optimism and the importance of meta titles, where people searching online for things Assynt related they should now be directed to this site and be able to find heaps of information and beautiful images of our amazing land and seascape.
The tourist forum was a great success with attendees making new friends and finding common causes. We have plans to make this an annual event and hopefully host it in different parts of Assynt. The event was ideal from a networking perspective and welcoming new businesses. Saying that, here's a big hello to the lovely Jo Wright, a former artisan baker and now proprietor of the rather beautiful Ardmore House B&B at Torbreck. With the results of the tourism survey pointing out that visitors enjoy visiting an actual visitor information centre and being given individual advice, booklets, maps etcetera. We are delighted that Kelly Standlick and the board of the Assynt Leisure Centre have agreed to host the former tourist information desk that operated in the an Cala foyer in 2017-18, in the leisure centre. A team of over a dozen plucky volunteers turned up to help shift all the material, display cases, maps etcetera from an Cala to its new home in the leisure centre. On behalf of ADT staff, board, family members and friends we thank everyone who gave of their time to help make the move. Special thanks go to Steve and Amanda from Polcraig B&B, Irma of the Green Cruachan B&B, Liz Burns from Comraich in Clachtoll and our chief volunteer from last year, Greg Allen. The move to the leisure centre alongside the cludgie project for motorhomes, should increase visitors to the centre and a part of Lochinver which is often overlooked. Kelly anticipates the new visitor centre will be properly ready in a couple of weeks, just in time for the season. As always the call goes out for volunteers to try and support this community owned and operated endeavour. If you're interested in helping out, whether it's promoting your own business of just Assynt for the love of it, please get in touch with Kelly who can arrange a schedule to staff the venue.