Over recent years, more and more visitors have chosen to experience the North Highlands outwith the summer season. Drawn by the offer of quieter roads, wild weather, peaceful wide-open spaces and mesmerising dark skies, visits to the region are no longer purely concentrated in the summer months, with many now choosing to travel in spring and late autumn.
This is welcome news to many tourism and hospitality businesses across Caithness and Sutherland who have traditionally chosen to operate either seasonally or at a reduced capacity when out of season in response to visitor demand.
The seasonality of tourism and tourism businesses in the North Highlands affects more than simply the vistiors coming to Caithness and Sutherland. The higher numbers of visitors within the peak season months, although having its benefits, creates several direct and indirect issues on infrastructure, employment, visitor experience, and more widely the local businesses and communities.
In promoting Caithness and Sutherland as a sustainable tourism destination, working to extend the tourism season has emerged as a key ambition for the region. As part of this, Venture North hopes to not only inspire tourists to take a trip in the off season but incite visitors to consider how when they travel affects the local communities they visit.
To hear their views on the issue of seasonality, we reached out to businesses across our region of Caithness and Sutherland speaking to; Vikki Brightman, Owner of the Ferryview Campsite, Scott Morrison, Managing Director of Dunrobin Castle and Simon Cottam, a Company Director at John O’Groats Brewery.
Described as the “invisible barrier”, Scott Morrison spoke of the mindset of many in Caithness and Sutherland who choose to close their businesses during the off season:
“There’s like an invisible barrier at the Inverness Bridge that everything North of that everybody’s like ‘Nobody’s going to come, it’s the middle of winter and we shut down’. If anything, you look at the likes of Aviemore it picks up in the winter.”
For many businesses the decision to stay open year-round offers opportunities for both them and their visitors. Speaking to Vikki Brightman, owner of Ferryview Campsite, she explained how those visiting during the winter tended to book, leaving with “a lot less firefighting to do”.
Interestingly, the more organised and slower pace of business in the shoulder months was recognised by Vikki as a benefit to tourists themselves:
“You’ve got more time to spend with them. A lot of people like to talk to us as the owners because they like to know what they can see in the area, what there is, bit of history about the area and you can actually spend a lot more time with people so I actually think the tourists themselves benefit because they get a more authentic experience”
Nevertheless, for many the sheer decrease in the number of tourists in the area in the shoulder season makes it financially impossible to stay open. A problem shared by the Chief Executive of Dunrobin Castle, Scott Morrison, he explained the potential negative impact opening year round could have on visitor experience during the summer season:
“A big part of us shutting in winter is that it allows us to do these major maintenance things as well and then there’s no disruption to visitors when they come in summer. They’re not seeing scaffolding half way round the building, it’s not spoiling their pictures”
With a high percentage of tourism and hospitality jobs in Caithness and Sutherland, seasonal employment is very common in the region. Concentrated visitor numbers during peak season mean businesses are worked to capacity, with some areas experiencing ‘over-tourism’. As with Dunrobin Castle, many businesses then use the quieter months to recoup and prepare for the season ahead, contributing to the trend in seasonal employment.
Despite recognising the importance of staff welfare and the need to provide staff with sufficient time off in between seasons, Scott also discussed the problem of staff retention in choosing to close during the winter months:
“One of my biggest worries is normally when we do shut is that they go off and find jobs elsewhere and they can’t come back, and that happens a lot, because they’re looking for full time employment. But, I would be the same”
Understanding that every business operates differently with a unique set of issues, Simon Cottam from John O’Groats Brewery addressed the importance for their business in offering year-round employment and remaining open:
“We are trying to take on salaried staff because we don’t want to lose them or go through a recruitment process next year. It’s not the same for everyone and there's a challenge there I recognize that. We had discussions about closing but [we] think there’s a huge benefit to people just knowing if they turn up you’re going to be open. A lot of people have to travel to get to us and there's nothing worse than driving out in the middle of winter and places just being shut”
Despite this, there are strains felt by businesses who choose to stay open, sometimes the positive benefits to communities and visitors can be at a detrimental expense. Simon discussed some of the pressures for them in staying open in the off-season:
“There’s been many days over the last 3 months where we know we’re only going to get 4 or 5 customers, you’re not going to make any money, we’ve tried very hard to stay open... The off season is always a case of having to build up a pot during the season to squirrel away in the winter months.”
Although there are certain pressures to operating all year for tourism and hospitality businesses, those who do remain open, enable a tourism offer for not only for the visitor trade, but for the local communities to continue to enjoy in the off season.
Simon echoed the sentiment of many around the region that the season is extending and there is a more positive future when it comes to seasonality in the North Highlands:
“The season is definitely getting longer. It’s the NC500, more staycations, people avoiding peak times. Before the season was maybe 6 months, it’s more around 8 months now. We’re expecting [it to] pick up in March and then be pretty busy in April and that will run all the way through to October. It’s definitely gone in the right direction [and] that makes a huge difference to us.”
As the DMO for Caithness and Sutherland ongoing, Venture North are working to both continue the conversation around seasonality and where possible, work to spread the tourism season across the year.
In speaking to Vikki Brightman, who also recognised the increasing number of visitors to the area during the off season in recent years, she believes providing direct evidence of this and the benefits of opening year round would be an effective strategy to encourage more businesses to stay open year round.
Simon Cottam addressed that tourism businesses face different challenges, and currently it is still difficult to operate in the off-season despite the benefits it brings to visitors and locals alike.
Responding to the calls Dunrobin Castle has received to remain open all year round, Scott discussed the need for a collaborative approach between businesses across all sectors for the tourist season to be extended:
“It’s the bigger picture – People can come to the area but they need somewhere to stay, somewhere to eat…It needs a collaboration across the board to do these things”
So in planning your next visit to Caithness and Sutherland, take time to consider how you can do your bit to support the communities you are visiting. With so much on offer during the off season and trip to Caithness and Sutherland during the winter months can offer a truly unique experience.
Looking for inspiration for a winter getaway?
Check out the video below and look out for our #breathingspace to plan your next trip this winter.