Community Engagement - the 'Magic Wand' in Tourism Development!

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The magic wand crops up a lot in tourism development discussions, almost always in the context that there isn’t one. We can still dream up what we’d do with the town if there was one, though, and set about making some of it our reality.

It’s easy to look around us to see places like Skye, Orkney and Dornoch and feel like we’re lagging on tourism. But the fact that Thurso is currently extremely engaged on the topic, we’re assured, puts us ahead of the game in many respects.

How many 1,000s of people continue to stream around the NC500? Hard to be exactly sure, but 95% of them say they would return to a destination along the route, and 97% say they’ll recommend it to others – according to official NC500 statistics. That equates to a whole lot of opportunity – but we’re not entitled to their visit, or the visit of people en route to Orkney for that matter, we need to start earning it.

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Community-led tourism development is happening in Thurso.

Our Tourism Development project - now doing its thing under the Discover Thurso brand – has had hundreds of responses to two online surveys, another hundred interested locals engage our Localisation Workshop series, a 15-strong group passionately contribute to discussion at our consultation workshop, and dozens of others stop to share views at Thurso Community Market in June.

We’re all aware of the tourism opportunities around us – they’re glaring in this part of the world. Community-led development is the way to seize them, because who other than Thurso will do the work to make Thurso a better destination?

No one – which is a good thing, because the town is pretty well qualified to determine the sort of development that’s right for us.

‘Improve Thurso as a Destination’ Survey

We chose to run a survey comprised of a small number of very open questions, like: ‘What kind of activities, events or attractions would you like to see boost Thurso’s tourism offering?’. A closed, tick-a-few-boxes survey would have been easier for both you and ourselves to digest, but it was important not to limit options.

We were very much looking for ideas - positive suggestions, sparks that could become a plan that can become a new project in the town. We got plenty – more on that in a future post…

Thurso Community Market

We took a series of drop boxes to the Community Market in June, plopped them on a table alongside some comment cards and, for some reason, a horse-shoe, then we waited and enjoyed the healthy variety of stalls around us.

Sure enough, by closing time the boxes labelled Beach & Harbour, Riverside, Town Centre, Thurso East, Events & Activities, and Thurso Identity had a healthy smattering of comments within.

The beauty of community engagement lies in the variety of creative minds who involve themselves in the process. Comments ranged wonderfully from suggesting Thurso plops a bale of barley straw in the boating pond, to creating a skate park at the harbour – great stuff.

We chose those labels as this was one way of focussing on common themes in responses form consultation that TCDT and the Discover Thurso had already done. We don’t want to repeat ourselves – it’s key that every time we consult Thurso, we get closer and closer to the heart of the matter (that’s tourism development (also a Don Henley song)).

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Consultation Workshop

Two groups of eight people, a timer set to 15 minutes, one topic, and two facilitators per group frantically transcribing the energetic discussions that followed.

Each group covered the topics of Thurso Beach & Harbour, Town Centre, Riverside and Thurso East – sound familiar? We’re building a picture here, this was another channel for people to communicate their views on the Thurso areas relevant to tourism.

This was a resoundingly successful session. In the same way that a 1-minute phone can have better value than pinging text messages back-and-forth,, 60 minutes of group discussion is worth its weight in gold in determining priorities for the Thurso community.

Signage Walk & Talk

Walking around the town specifically to assess the current state of tourism-relevant signage is quite the eye-opener. That’s what Tourism Development Officer Scott, representatives from the John O’Groats Trail, North Highland Way and TCDT Board Member Magnus did a few weeks back on a particularly dreich afternoon.

Starting at the Train Station, they headed down the street, to the beach, around the harbour and then up the river and back to the station, stopping along the way to discuss existing signage, as well as locations in the town where we felt there was a lack of signage informing visitors exploring the town on-foot.

Signage is a basic way to A – let visitors know you care for their experience in the town, and B – get them to the sights, amenities and experiences that can enhance their perception of Thurso.

For now, we’re just glas the ‘Swimming Poo’ is no longer.

Visitor Survey

The odd one out of the bunch – as well as using a variety of methods to chat to Thurso, we’ve drawn up a survey to find out what our visitors think of the place. Does this fit in with ‘community-led’ development?! Who knows, but it’s important. It’s also tricky – Thurso folk are understandably glad to chip in and provide an opinion on town improvements, but it’s difficult convincing people who are on holiday to take time to share their thoughts.

Their insights could be golden. Our visitors know better than we do how Thurso performs as a tourist destination. As critical and thorough as we aspire to be, we can never arrive to Thurso with their outlook and truly see the town as it is.

Are we hospitable? Is Thurso easy to navigate? Where have our visitors come from and where are they going? There’s only one way to find out.

Getting a nice, scientific sample of responses is looking difficult at this point, but we’ll keep plugging away in trying to boost respondent numbers, because the potential usefulness of the information that’ll come back to us is huge.


More on the results of this community-led wave of the magic wand soon!

Photo Credit - Chris Sinclair

Photo Credit - Chris Sinclair

Scott McLeanComment