By Scott Wright

AFTER two years hugely interrupted by the pandemic, business is once more in full swing at Mercat Tours.

The company, which through guided walking tours brings Edinburgh’s fascinating, ghostly and gruesome history to life, is growing its team and welcoming visitors from near and far.

The return to near-normality is naturally a big relief to Kat Brogan, managing director of the family-owned business. But what gives her enormous satisfaction is the response tourists are showing to a major charitable initiative recently launched by the firm.

People buying tickets for Mercat tours can now make a donation to the Grassmarket Community Project, a long-standing charity partner of the company that supports some of the most vulnerable people in society.

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But it is not a straight cash donation. The contributions are used to purchase tickets, at cost price, for Mercat walking tours for members of the Grassmarket project, which Ms Brogan says will have the effect of helping people re-engage with their city and community.

Ms Brogan had been plotting the initiative, which is designed to help people affected by issues such as addiction, homelessness and unemployment, for the last five to six years, and was finally able to bring it to life after securing a grant under the Scottish Government tourism recovery fund. “A crucial element of why they (Grassmarket Community Project members) feel isolated and vulnerable is that they are not confident in Edinburgh, they do not feel it is their city, and that’s what we do,” she said. “We give you a warm welcome, and we connect people through stories with the city.

“Visitors are paying, at cost price, for the Grassmarket Community members to have a five-star tour of Edinburgh, the castle, museum, the palace, free of charge, to build their confidence, to reconnect them with their city, their stories, and to help them heal and take ownership of their town, their stories. It creates a bond between visitors, the city and the Grassmarket Community members, and that is a very human connection through story-telling.”

She added: “It is the value of cultural experiences that we all missed out on over the last two years because of Covid. It is so important to who we are.”

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Ms Brogan has been taken aback by the response to the initiative, which launched on April 28. She revealed that enough money has so far been raised to deliver five tours lasting four hours for 15 people. “I’m absolutely thrilled,” Ms Brogan said.

“The Mercat team, who are delivering the tours, are really excited, because it is what they love doing. Story telling is what they love doing. They know the value of what they are going to be doing is even greater for the Grassmarket members… it is just another level to be helping the local, vulnerable community.”

The charitable project, which is clearly close to Ms Brogan’s heart, comes at a good time for Mercat, as Edinburgh enjoys a growing influx of foreign tourists following two disrupted years.

Ms Brogan said the business is actively building its team back up again, after it contracted during the most difficult periods of the pandemic. A team of around 80 was reduced in the first year of the pandemic as members of staff returned home to countries such as Germany, France, Spain, Austria and Australia. There are currently just over 50 people on the payroll and the company is actively recruiting once again.

“We are live with adverts now,” Ms Brogan said. “Back in February we did a recruitment campaign for five different roles across four different departments in the business, and it was absolutely astonishing – we had both quality and quantity of applications that meant we took on 22 people. And they have been incredible – such a high quality intake. We basically doubled our team overnight.”

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Ms Brogan acknowledged the skills shortage across the tourism and hospitality industry, which has resulted in tens of thousands of job vacancies, and as yet is unsure how her firm’s current recruitment drive will be received. But she said Mercat is doing all it can to promote itself as an attractive place to work.

“We are a Living Wage team; we offer flexible hours and permanent contracts, which is quite unusual,” she said. “When you come into the team you are here, that’s it. We commit to you, you commit to us. That is often a very attractive factor for those joining us: flexibility with security, and also the Living Wage. Fingers crossed.”

So far, the cost-of-living crisis, which saw inflation increase to nine per cent in April, has still to affect sales, with Ms Brogan highlighting strong demand for tours and the willingness of tourists to donate to the Grassmarket Community initiative. She noted that the company, which operates from an office on Royal Mile, had in March increased pay for staff to higher than the Living Wage; Mercat’s storytellers now earn more than £13 per hour.

“The city is busy, we have tours coming in, we have demand – without a shadow of a doubt,” Ms Brogan said. “We have groups, families looking for private tours, we have got international business coming in, as well as our domestic market.”

However, Ms Brogan noted booking lead-times are shorter than before the pandemic, pointing to last-minute changes to air schedules and a “hesitancy” among travellers to book too far ahead. “Forecasting is a bit tricky,” she said. “That said, we are selling out, albeit at fairly short notice. We can meet the demand coming in.”

Asked to sum up current sentiment across the wider tourism industry in Edinburgh, Ms Brogan replied: “I think there are strains when it comes to staffing. It is well documented that right across tourism and hospitality the biggest barrier just now is the lack of staff.

“However, in a way that is a happy complaint, because it shows that there is demand that you are trying to meet by having staff.”

Six Questions

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?
I find the north of Italy very restful and love the culture of taking time to enjoy fresh air, great food and wine. I love it even more now as we have just returned from our mini-honeymoon in Lake Orta. An equal favourite is the island of Colonsay, a peaceful place to rest, relax, swim with seals and collect fresh seafood.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?
I wanted to be a forensic scientist. From early days of devouring Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, through to watching Taggart and Silent Witness I loved the idea of sleuthing, solving crimes and helping people – plus adventure.

What was your biggest break in business?
Becoming Living Wage accredited, awarded Green Tourism Business Gold and winning the Scottish Thistle Award for Skills and Training all at the same time in 2014.  It celebrated our values and the teams’ great work.
What was your worst moment in business?
March 17, 2020 – when we chose to close down the business due to Covid. More broadly, the pandemic provided the darkest days I’ve known in business. Being unable to protect the team and Mercat was intensely upsetting, it will take a while to recover from the shock.

Who do you most admire and why?
Monty Don for his voice and belief in gardening for wellbeing; author Simon Sinek for his unwavering positivity and work ethic; and my brother Mike Brogan – the most gentle, supportive, wise and loyal friend you could have.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?
Britain’s Trees: A Treasury Of Traditions, Superstitions, Remedies And Literature. I am listening to the Housemartins.