Inverness hospitality operators enjoy a bumper summer season

Visitor numbers to Inverness have exploded this year, operators told SLTN. The city proves popular with tourists.

While there are certain issues that tie operators around Scotland together – think VAT, rates, and staffing – Scotland in many ways isn’t one market at all; it’s a collection of smaller markets, each with their own opportunities and challenges.

In tourism terms, Edinburgh may grab a lot of the headlines, with the city’s festivals and wealth of history attracting visitors from across the globe every year. But Edinburgh is far from Scotland’s only tourism hotspot.

In the north of the country, Inverness has been quietly enjoying a bumper year in 2023 as visitor numbers explode.

On a recent trip to the city, sponsored by Whyte & Mackay – which has its Invergordon Distillery nearby – SLTN caught up with operators to find out how hospitality in Inverness has fared in 2023.

“The visitors to Inverness – domestic and international – have definitely lifted,” Tina MacDonald, manager of city institution Johnny Foxes and The Den told SLTN.

“Our sales and our numbers are through the roof. “In 2022 to 2023 I think we did 34,000 covers of food. We’ve just done 62,000 in the same period.

“The last two months have been the best in the pub’s history. In 25 years. It’s incredible.”
That was echoed by Bruce Macgregor and Jo de Silva, co-owners of Inverness bar Macgregor’s, who said they thought tourism numbers in 2023 were around twice what they were in 2019.

Business has boomed at Macgregor’s, with American tourists in particular visiting the venue.

Americans, in particular, have descended on the city – and the wider Highland region – in record numbers.

“I’ve spoken to a few American folks when they’ve been here and they’ve said that, last year, they were still a little bit reticent about travel,” said Jo.

“Were things going to be cancelled, like they had been previously? And this year seems to have been the year of getting out of America and travelling again.”

Getting the offer just right is still essential, though, and Bruce said he and Jo have worked hard to ensure the venue is welcoming to the locals as well as visitors from overseas.

“When we started the bar we realised tourism was going to be a big part of it,” he said.

“But it’s all about being authentically Scottish and not being just for tourists. It’s got to be a place that locals love to come to, and that’s why tourists love to come to it.

“Because they know when they’re walking into a tartan shortbread tin. They can absolutely tell.

“So we’ve stayed way away from that kind of thing. There are no hairy cows with red noses on about the place.”

And the offer is continually tweaked. In addition to introducing a line of Macgregor’s merchandise – including t-shirts and fridge magnets – the venue has extended its food offer till ten o’clock at night in a city where many of the other outlets stop serving around half past eight.

“There’s all these tour buses coming back from Skye and they don’t get back till half past eight, ten o’clock,” Bruce told SLTN.

“So we thought there was no point in fighting for the crowded market, let’s go for the bit that’s empty. That’s worked really well.”

Food is also a huge part of the business for Cru Holdings, which operates half a dozen venues in Inverness and Nairn.

Johnny Foxes and The Den enjoys strong daytime and late-night trade.

Managing director Scott Murray told SLTN the company added 10% to its prices ahead of the summer season, in response to rising business costs, but tempered that with strong value offers to appeal to the local market.

“Promotion-wise, it is just about making sure we’re on point in terms of value,” said Scott.

“So it’s giving people reasons to come out during the week and things like that. We’ll continue to do that. We did that through the summer as well so that our regulars still had a value proposition. We wanted to make sure we weren’t excluding our regulars over the summer.”

In addition to tweaking the menus across its estate, this year also saw Cru revamp one of its city centre units, transforming the former Bar One into sports bar The Imperial, a change Scott said has proved very popular with Inverness locals.

As with any tourist market, of course, there is a concern about what might happen once the tourism season is over.

Although all of the operators were confident that tourists will continue to visit the city through October, trade over the winter months could be impacted by the ongoing cost of living crisis.

At Johnny Foxes, Tina said the venue’s food offer will be ‘the saving grace’ for the venue’s midweek trade, while at Macgregor’s Bruce and Jo are making sure there’s a solid season of events to lure locals into the venue over the winter.

“Our music programme will bring people in,” said Bruce.

“We did a thing called Island Fling last winter where we focused on one of our islands, like Orkney or Skye, and we did a weekend promotion of some of their best musicians plus food from those islands and guest brewers and distillers. It worked

“You’ve got to keep thinking. People might think they’re not going out, but if you put something on every weekend or every couple of weekends it gives them a reason. It’s just constant promotion of new things to capture people’s imagination. It’s hard work.”

And, as with every other area in Scotland, some help from government would be more than welcome.

Jo said: “A VAT reduction of some sort would make a huge difference to business right across the sector. It would affect everybody in a really positive way, and that’s exactly what we need right now – some sort of good news coming from the government because up until now it has been doom and gloom.

And Scott at Cru Holdings called on ministers at Holyrood and Westminster to acknowledge the importance of hospitality to the nation’s high streets and wider economy.

“Without getting too political I think there should be a recognition that the hospitality industry is a huge part of the Scottish economy, and don’t leave us out to dry – which is exactly what they’ve been doing,” he said.

“Whether it be alcohol advertising, DRS, not passing on the rates relief from Westminster. We’re just not really a focus.

“I’m not saying we’re the only industry in the country that supports the economy, but it’s a huge employer. And if they don’t look after it, they’re going to have more unemployment.

“If this place shuts today that’s another unit not paying rates, staff out of a job who are then having to claim benefits. There’s a knock-on effect.

“Then, as places shut down, property prices fall, crime rates increase.

“When you think how many premises hospitality occupies in Scotland there just should be more of a concerted effort to try and help it survive.”