John McLellan: Price of making us feel brand new

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We’re well into the school holiday and all appears calm at Edinburgh Airport; no traffic queues, no lines of worried passengers snaking down the escalators, no congestion at the check-in desks.

The mayhem of a fortnight ago is still fresh in the mind of communications director Gordon Robertson but sitting in the Starbucks he has the air of a man relieved a crisis has been averted who can afford some time to talk about the big picture of how the whole city, not just the airport, survives in an increasingly competitive world.

We met up just after Chancellor George Osborne sat down having delivered his ground-breaking budget, which contained more encouragement for Edinburgh’s closest and most aggressive competitor, Manchester.

As chair of Marketing Edinburgh, the alliance of public and private sectors charged with selling the city, it’s his role to ensure the message that Edinburgh is very much open for business is heard where it matters most.

And with a turnover of only £2.5 million a year – £1m from the city council and the rest through subscription from business – compared with the £7m available to its Glasgow counterpart, Marketing Edinburgh has got to be smart to make its voice heard.

“We are far more underfunded that our competitors in Europe, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, but we have a great relationship with the council and always try to be pragmatic,” he says.

Pragmatism must indeed be the name of the game since the problems which beset its beginnings five years ago and the subsequent launch of its much-derided £300,000 Incredinburgh campaign. Slammed by then deputy council leader Steve Cardownie as “appalling”, the campaign was followed in late 2012 by the resignation of chief executive Lucy Bird.

And so it is with some trepidation that Robertson says one of the priorities for the city is a new brand to replace the Inspiring Capital slogan unveiled in 2005, again to much derision.

“The current brand was great and a lot of work underpinning it was very valid at the time before the banking crash, but I don’t think it reflects where we are now,” he says.

He concedes finding a brand behind which everyone in the city can unite is not easy and that Edinburgh has never found an effective message like Glasgow’s Miles Better or I love New York.

“We have suffered from not feeling that we needed to invest, whereas Glasgow and Manchester have always had to work that bit harder,” he says. “Maybe Edinburgh’s view was that this kind of thing was all a bit crass, but there is no doubt we need a coherent brand.”

Marketing Edinburgh’s answer so far has been the launch of the This is Edinburgh campaign, a web-based service which provides recommendations for places to eat, drink, shop and play, aimed at us locals but with an eye on the tourism markets.

Bright and easy to navigate, it’s easy to see why This is Edinburgh could grow in popularity with a bit more awareness, and that’s the plan. “If we can get it right in our own catchment area then that will give us the confidence to package it up and punt it abroad,” Robertson explains.

The “punting it abroad” aspect is where, with limited resources, creativity and persuasiveness are essential tools and Robertson points to a couple of recent examples.

Edinburgh Airport got up the nose of its Glasgow counterpart this week by launching a bid to attract direct flights from China, something Glasgow had been chasing.

It all stemmed from the international air routes conference last month in Aberdeen. Robertson and his team chartered a private jet to fly airline executives down to Edinburgh, whisked the party up to the Castle to see the Honours and then dined them in the Castle restaurant. Similarly, during the referendum, Marketing Edinburgh called on the Castle to make sure it was well-lit all night so it would be used as a backdrop by the international press corps broadcasting round the clock from the media centre on the Apex Hotel’s top floor.

So with a coherent brand, a creative approach, a spirit of collaboration and support from the corporate community, what else is on Robertson’s wish-list in the two years he has left in the chair?

Not surprisingly the answer is more money, ideally through some sort of tourist levy. He seems to favour a broad charge on all services used primarily by tourists and so would include restaurants as well as hotels to counter complaints from hotel operators that a bed tax unfairly singles them out.

But then locals would be paying as well which would not be popular if the proceeds were to go on marketing to attract more visitors, as he would like.

Whatever the system, it would still need the support of the Scottish Government and Tourism Minister Fergus Ewing has made it clear he believes a bed tax would damage competitiveness.

To make the case, Robertson is keenly aware Marketing Edinburgh needs to construct a new vision with measurable goals, particularly the income and jobs extra funds would create for the whole city.

It also requires a sense of realism and not frittering away resources on projects that will never be realised. So the big international expos are off limits because the infrastructure doesn’t exist, but not smaller “boutique” events such as the EICC’s medical conferences.

Finding the Easter and autumn equivalent of the festival season and Hogmanay are also high on the list but creating viable mass visitor events will not happen overnight and bold experiments like moving the Film Festival out of August have almost proved fatal. Only this year has a sense of excitement and glamour returned to the movie jamboree seven years after the switch to June.

So if anyone has an idea for a multi-million pound, mass audience, hotel-filling, restaurant-cramming bash for April or October, Gordon Robertson is desperate to hear from you. I’ll keep thinking.

Gordon Robertson CV

Education: Grangemouth High and Abertay University.

Work history: Account director FMS PR, 1998-2001; Consultant, Media House, 2001-10; Head of communications, Edinburgh Airport, 2010-present; Board director from 2013; Board member, Marketing Edinburgh, from 2012, appointed chair in 2014

House breaking petition

Housebreaking in Edinburgh is not an issue going away for Police Scotland, with new analysis showing the level is more than double than Glasgow.

Perhaps it’s a reflection of relative affluence, but it is still astonishing that in the 12 months till April, there were 102 break-ins per 10,000 people in Edinburgh compared with 46 in Glasgow.

Police have been keen to tell people to take responsibility for security, with better locks and windows and such like, but it is still a remarkable difference.

So I am indebted to Mr Nevil Hopley, website co-ordinator of the Merchiston & Polwarth neighbourhood watch, for reporting the situation on the ground.

In an “informal” conversation with two officers investigating a spate of thefts, they revealed that restoring community beat officers is “no longer a priority”.

The boys in blue advised complaints should be sent to Police Scotland, which Mr Hopley is now inviting locals to do, pointing out that the council pays £2.6m for community policing.

Sir Stephen House should expect a healthy mailbag.

LOTS MORE TROUBLE IN STORE

The apparent threat by John Lewis to pull out of the new St James Centre will have been the talk of the staff canteen, especially as John Lewis doesn’t technically have staff but partners, 850 of them at the flagship Edinburgh store.

Presumably the partners will have something to say about the threat to their livelihoods being used as a bargaining chip in an increasingly bitter negotiation about the cost of fitting out the new store in the redeveloped complex.

Given some of the space occupied by the store will be the subject of a compulsory purchase order so the demolition of the rest of the shopping mall can go ahead, John Lewis will want to avoid the independent market valuation a stalemate will lead to because there will be no negotiating that figure.

The store is far more likely to get a better deal reaching agreement, but if it does walk away, the new centre would make an ideal home for Selfridges. Or a better site for Debenhams?

Object lesson in planning issues

Following hard on the heels of the Scottish Government decision to approve housing plans in South-east Edinburgh, another developer is going for an extension to its scheme near the Royal Infirmary.

Sheratan Ltd’s bid to add 680 homes to the 510 for which it already has permission at Edmonstone Farm on The Wisp is a natural consequence of the go-ahead for the McTaggart & Mickel estate at nearby Gilmerton and throws up the same issues.

Quite openly, Sheratan says it was encouraged by the lack of local objection to the original plan. And it will also have noted that objection to housing development was not a feature of the general election campaign in Edinburgh East.

Yet improvements to the road network to deal with a new estate of 1200 homes look minimal and anyone who has driven near the junction of The Wisp and Niddrie Mains Road will testify how busy it can be, not just at rush hour but at the weekend when Kinnaird Park is at its busiest.

Doubtless the developer will argue that traffic impact has been taken into consideration, but as big an issue will be school places.

Similar to McTaggart & Mickel, Sheratan is offering to build a new primary school for £7 million, which is fine, but where children of high school age go is another matter.

At Gilmerton, the council has been left

to fund a £7m expansion of Liberton High and presumably the go-ahead for this new Wisp plan will produce the same situation at Castlebrae High.

An influx of new pupils might just be what’s needed at what has been Edinburgh’s most troubled school for many years, but where the money comes from is anyone’s guess.