It’s hard to believe, but 19 October this year marks the 20th anniversary of The Royal Yacht Britannia first opening its doors as a visitor attraction in Edinburgh.
The former Royal residence, berthed alongside Ocean Terminal in Leith, has been building up to its double decade birthday celebrations in commanding style. As well as retaining their illustrious position as Scotland’s Best Visitor Attraction (VisitScotland) for a record 12th year in a row they also feature in TripAdvisor’s top five UK attractions.
As if that wasn’t quite enough to be going on with, visitor numbers for 2017 of 390,482 are the highest ever recorded.
The man at the helm is chief executive Bob Downie. Head-hunted from Scottish Enterprise to set up the self-funded charity that now owns The Royal Yacht Britannia, he’s been expertly steering a course for tourism success for the past 20 years.
Things didn’t start off in such ship-shape fashion, however. A mere 14 weeks before opening, he remembers frantically trying to source a postcode for his half-built visitor centre situated on a road that had still to be named!
Bob may not have known exactly where he was back in 1998, but he certainly knew where he was going.
He admitted: ‘From day one, it’s been our mission to make Britannia a destination of first choice for a high quality, value-for-money and memorable experience, delivered by skilled and passionate people.
‘Our objective has always been to be the best we could be and along the way we’ve received these awards because of the consistent quality we offer.’
Britannia’s audio guide – available in 30 languages – is one of the world’s most translated tours. More than just an interesting fact, it exemplifies the company philosophy. Attention to detail and a strong focus on the customer experience is key to their success.
Bob continued: ‘Putting your customers expectations at the heart of your decision-making process isn’t a difficult, time-consuming or expensive process, but it does involve a leap of faith away from the, “this is the way it’s always been done” mentality.
‘This commitment has to come from the top. If I don’t put the customer first, why should anyone else? We try to give our visitors what they want before they even know they want it.
‘We have the piano in The Royal Deck Tearoom tuned every month for example, just in case any of our customers fancy tinkling the ivories, whilst ordering their cream tea or glass of champagne.’
Visitors also took precedence over the producers of Netflix’s award-winning series, ‘The Crown’.
Bob said: ‘We couldn’t give them permission to film on board as requested because it would have meant closing for months. It would have been unthinkable to disappoint our customers in this way.
‘Instead, researchers from the series visited the Yacht and photographed the State Drawing Room. When I saw the press images of the set, I couldn’t believe how realistic they were. In fact, I had to ensure our Trustees that they hadn’t managed to sneak in and film on board! The attention to detail was breathtaking. They’d made exact replicas of the sofas and furniture. No expense had been spared. They did an excellent job.’
Praise indeed from a man who knows all about setting high standards in the workplace and who is committed to improving quality standards in Scottish tourism.
In 2003 he founded what went on to become the UK Customer Experience Conference, attracting top business leaders and professional speakers to the Edinburgh International Conference Centre for this popular event. More recently he persuaded Visit Scotland and the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions (ASVA) to adopt the Exceeding Visitor Expectations training programme that is now being rolled out across the country.
The Queen regarded the week she and her family spent aboard Britannia as her only true holiday of the year. From the surprisingly simplicity of the Royal bedrooms through to the grandeur of the State Dining Room, visitors can really see the heart and soul of this much-loved former Royal residence.
Bob added: ‘There are 170 members of staff with one common aim – to preserve and maintain Britannia for future generations.’
Launched 65 years ago in Clydebank, Britannia travelled more than one million nautical miles in Royal service before being decommissioned in 1997. Her journey since berthing in Leith has been no less impressive. Being permanently moored definitely doesn’t mean standing still.
This five-star visitor attraction continues to set new standards in hospitality. Bespoke business is booming with the expansion of their exclusive private dining and corporate events packages. The company’s most recent venture is the biggest and boldest to date. Fingal, the city’s first five-star floating hotel is scheduled to open before the end of the year. Moored just a hop, skip and a hornpipe from Britannia, the former Northern Lighthouse Board ship has been transformed with a £5 million development to provide 23-luxury cabins, first-class facilities and even a spectacular ballroom.
Bob concluded: ‘Creating an excellent customer experience is a never-ending process. There’s always room for improvement, always room for new ideas as we strive to provide value for time. We are in the recommendations business. In the old days it was word of mouth and today with the internet it’s world of mouth.
‘We work really hard to ensure everyone has a good time so they recommend us to others to spend their time and money here.’
The best piece of business advice Bob ever heard came from an ice cream van owner in Largs: ‘I was listening to the radio and they were interviewing this man who had just won UK ice cream salesman of the year. He said, “Look after your customers and they will look after you.” In reality, it’s as simple as that.’ It certainly seems to have worked – Britannia is set to break the 6 million visitor mark later this year.