WOW Scotland helps spearhead support for struggling tour sector

WOW spearheads support for struggling sector

By Kay Pearson on 3rd March 2021

Gordon from WOW Scotland has been instrumental in the recent formation of the Scottish Independent Tour Operator Association (SITOA). This group has managed to secure over £3 million of grant funding for small tour operators, many of whom are facing a second year of zero revenue.

The background

As the world went into lockdown in March 2020 cancellations flooded in from our customers and, in order to refund over £75,000, we were forced to bail out the company with our personal savings.  Thankfully, in May 2020, we were finally able to access loan funding, which helped us to voluntarily furlough seasonal staff, keep our vehicles on the road and pay operating costs.

Although we were able to operate for a two month window from July 2020, this was extremely challenging, due to the lack of international travellers, social distancing restrictions etc.   Consequently WOW Scotland made a disastrous six figure loss in the year 2019/20.

A glimmer of hope, extinguished

Despite some initial optimism, in January 2021 it became apparent that, even with the vaccine programme showing signs of success, a return to international (and even domestic) travel was still a distant dream.  2021 was looking extremely bleak as bookings were non-existent, we were forced to cancel all March and April tours due to the continuation of lockdown in the UK, and loan repayments were looming from May 2021.

Formation of SITOA

In late 2020 new tour operator grant funding was announced and we hoped that this would help us cover our costs until we could start generating revenue again.   However, it then became apparent in January that the criteria effectively excluded all small operators.  This prompted Gordon Pearson (WOW Scotland), David Hope (Heartland Travel) and Ian Byers (Stravaigin Scotland) to work together to lobby for support, which was seriously lacking for tour operators; one of the country’s worst hit sectors.  

After setting up the group and researching the industry the three founders were astounded when membership quickly grew to around 120 tour companies in the first three weeks.  Most of these were small companies, often owner-operated and many in dire financial situations. Most had not had any access to Government support to date, nearly a year after the pandemic had started, and were facing another year of virtually no revenue.  The situation was extremely bleak for many, as they contemplated selling assets well below value, and even losing their homes. 

Gordon, David and Ian worked tirelessly over the coming weeks to compile an accurate picture of their industry (number of companies, type of companies, support received to date, losses incurred etc etc) in order to inform their lobbying of the Scottish Government.

Action

Fast forward one month and the picture is looking more hopeful for Scottish tour operators.  After entering into discussions with the Scottish Tourism Alliance and Visit Scotland, both of whom were extremely supportive, the group managed to achieve the following;

  1. Creation of the “Scotland Day Tour Operators – COVID-19 Business Support and Continuity Fund”.  This is the first fund to apply to “businesses that operate day tours operating in Scotland who promote and sell day tour excursions to domestic and international markets.
  2. Allocation of £3 million of new grant funding to the above fund (in addition to the £12 million already allocated to other sub-groups in the tour operator sector) 

The fund opened for applications from 4th March 2021 (and closes 11th March 2021).   With domestic tourism now unable to re-start until late May at the earliest, and no indicative date being given for the restart of international tourism, this funding will be crucial in the survival of many small tour companies in Scotland. 

The future of tourism in Scotland

Here at WOW, we are desperate to return to what we do best; providing our guests with world-class tour experiences.  We have worked tirelessly to make our business a success for the last 11 years so, to be reliant on personal borrowing and the hope of Government funding just to survive, is incredibly stressful.  However, we are determined to keep offering excellent customer service and to keep innovating, in order that we can come back stronger! 

In the meantime, Gordon is proud to have helped create SITOA, in order to help the many other struggling tour companies in our industry.  If we can all bounce back then our wonderful international guests’ experience of Scotland will be greatly enhanced.

What the press are saying

As the chairman of SITOA Gordon has been quoted in the Scottish Press as follows;

“COVID-19 cash lifelines for tour firms unveiled” in the Northern Scot, 28/02/21
“Funding support for Scotland’s tour operators” in The Orkney News, 22/02/21 
“£15m fund to help tour operators” in the Ross-shire Journal, 22/02/21
“£15m funding announced for tourism industry” in Grampian Online, 21/02/21

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