By Scott Wright

MARC Crothall recalls with a chuckle the occasion he informed his daughter he was going to jail.

The tourism industry veteran was not bracing himself for a custodial sentence, it should be emphasised. Rather, he was embarking on his first day as chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, which operates from an office in Stirling’s Old Town Jail.

“My young daughter at the time was four, and my previous job was working in the health and fitness industry, so coming to see daddy at work was the David Lloyd leisure club and my office there,” Mr Crothall told The Herald.

“She was quite distraught at the fact that I was going into an office space that was in a jail in Stirling! I had to send her a photograph to show her it was a real office.”

Mr Crothall was speaking on the day the STA had its tenth birthday. It is a milestone that offered the chance to look both back at how the organisation and industry has progressed in the last decade, and the challenges that lie ahead amid the continuing effects of Brexit, the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.

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Mr Crothall joined the STA following a long and varied career in the hospitality and leisure sector. It took in hotel roles in South Africa, London and Guernsey before he settled in Scotland in 1990, when he landed the job of heading the catering operations at the new Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow for Letheby & Christopher.

After Letheby & Christopher was acquired by Compass Group in 1992, he switched to become general manager of the Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre, a role that involved running outdoor events such as The Scottish Open Golf Championship. Among other roles that followed, Mr Crothall had two spells with David Lloyd, most recently as general manager for three clubs in the Glasgow area, and a stint running a hotel company in the Highlands.

“I have a very close empathy and understanding of what it is like as a business owner-operator to run a hotel in the Highlands in the depths of winter and major events like The Scottish Open Golf Championship,” he said. “It’s been a journey that I have thoroughly enjoyed, and it is an industry that, if you want to make something out of it, anybody, anyone from any background can enjoy it and get the most out of it.”

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When Mr Crothall joined the STA around the time of its formation, the organisation effectively succeeded the defunct Scottish Tourism Forum. In those early days, membership of the STA was dominated by public sector agencies, not tourism businesses, and Mr Crothall suggests that at the time there was “probably not a full appreciation and understanding in the ministerial world of just how tourism functioned”.

“There was a real need to educate and provide a greater understanding of how the sector operated in a fiscal sense; the type of policy environment that needed to exist to allow tourism to flourish, but also the scale of the contribution the sector made,” he said. “Trying to pinpoint that figure was actually quite difficult back in 2012, when the previous tourism strategy, Tourism 2020, was launched.”

Mr Crothall added: “My very first meeting, 10 years ago today, was sitting in the Bruntsfield Hotel [in Edinburgh] with the tourism leadership group trying to land a figure on the baseline figure on the sector’s value and by how much we should aspire to grow it by.”

Industry watchers would agree that the profile of tourism and recognition of its importance to the Scottish economy has grown immeasurably since. Mr Crothall, who since day one has enjoyed a fruitful working relationship with “exemplary” chairman Stephen Leckie, highlights the close links that have been developed with agencies such as Scottish Enterprise and Highlands & Islands Enterprise. He also cites the attendance figures at STA conference that have grown from 300 in the cinema at the Glasgow Science Centre in 2013 to 1,000 when it was held at the city’s SEC in 2019, and the growth and diversity of its membership as evidence of the sector’s growing influence.

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Mr Crothall said efforts must still be made to promote the sector as a career choice, and to lobby government to reduce the level of value-added tax applied to it, which the industry says puts the UK at a competitive disadvantage to other European nations. But there can be little doubt the STA has been a strong voice as it stood up for the industry during the most-difficult times of the pandemic, when lockdowns threatened the survival of thousands of businesses.

Asked to recall how he responded when the gravity of Covid-19 was becoming clear, Mr Crothall said: “In a surreal way, I am somebody who responds best in a crisis, and thrives on it. My doctor might not want to hear that. If ever there was a time to say why you should be a member [of a trade body] it is obviously when a crisis comes about.

“But also if ever there was ever a time for you to shine and really step up to the plate and do what you say on the tin it is when that happens.

“I knew in my head, having been an operator and understanding balance sheets and what businesses were facing, and also having built up so many close friendships over these times, that I had to do this. I was 100 per cent committed to it and I wasn’t going to shy away. I was going to be there for everyone as best as I possibly could.”

Mr Crothall added: “The best thing about this industry is the people that work in it. What makes this industry function and thrive are people. It is all about people.”

And those people are once more having to dig deep into their reserves of energy and ingenuity as the industry is faced with a barrage of rising costs, sparked initially by the supply-chain fall-out from the pandemic and more recently by war in Ukraine.

That surge in costs has come as consumers are being gripped by soaring inflation, while the Scottish tourism industry finds itself competing against the lure of foreign holidays once again.

There remains an ongoing shortage of skills, as the effects of Brexit continue to be felt, which means businesses “right across the country” are operating at less than full capacity, and an ongoing “confidence” issue, with some people still reticent about travelling with the pandemic still with us.

For all that, Mr Crothall remains as up for the fight as ever as the STA moves into its second decade. “This industry, it is in your blood,” he said.

“I came into it at a young age. I am only 59 years young and I have young children who are not off the payroll yet!”

Six Questions

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

In my early years I lived and went to school in Miami Florida, before moving with my parents to Stockholm, in Sweden, Fribourg in Switzerland, and then Annecy in France. In 1980 I headed to Cape Town South Africa on my own to work for nine months and returned five years later to London, where I worked for a couple of years, then moved to St Peter Port, Guernsey, before settling in Scotland in 1990. As a family we have enjoyed many happy holidays in Scotland, but we are drawn to the Turquoise Coast of Turkey and Lanzarote.

What was your biggest break in business?

I am a great believer in fate and, having been made redundant on three occasions, each time a new door opened that took me into different roles.

What was your worst moment in business?

When Covid hit and we were locked down, watching an industry I care so much come to an abrupt stop. Turning a bad situation into a positive one was something I was determined to do and together with the great team I have  at the STA I believe and hope we have managed to do this.

Who do you most admire and why?

My wife Adele, who has put up with me for 28 years, 20 years married this year. She has come with me and supported me throughout the good times and bad. There is also my STA chairman Stephen Leckie, who has done the same and believed in me.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

I have just finished Sir Billy Connolly’s autobiography Windswept & Interesting. He is another person I admire, coming from tough beginnings, always believing in himself, and not being afraid to be silly or different.

I like most music and fall asleep listening to the radio most nights, often to a bit of soul and Motown.