The best places in the Highlands and Islands to eat, drink, stay and enjoy the area’s wildlife, culture and scenery have been rewarded in the annual tourism ‘Oscars’.
The winners of this year’s Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards (HITA) range from a seafood stall to a shark spotting experience and from the UK’s first crowdfunded bar to a centre showcasing traditional skills.
In all, winners were announced in 14 categories which had attracted entries and nominations from 163 businesses and individuals.
HITA chairman Craig Ewan said: “Many congratulations to all our winners and those who were shortlisted for awards. It has been another highly successful year for tourism in the Highlands and Islands and this is reflected in the quality of entries and nominations we received.
“The standard rises year on year which shows the strength and confidence of the industry and the level of service provided to visitors.”
For the first time the ceremony was held without a professional host. Instead, Annie Bonney and Fraser Szymborski-Welsh, who are studying BA (Hons) Drama and Performance at Inverness College UHI, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, jointly anchored the event after winning a competition held during the Year of Young People.
The awards finale, held in front of 300 industry representatives at the Kingsmills Hotel, Inverness, was addressed by Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs.
She said: “I’d like to offer my congratulations to the finalists and winners of the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards (HITA) for their fantastic work in encouraging people to visit the area by providing high quality visitor experiences. It’s no wonder Lonely Planet recently named the Highlands and Islands as one of the top regions in the world for travellers in 2019.
“I was particularly pleased to see the awards pay tribute to Scotland’s Year of Young People with the impressive young presenters and recognition for young marketing talent. I look forward to working with the industry to build on this tremendous success.
“I also hope the news that hotels across Scotland will benefit from a cap to their business rates until 2022 will be welcomed and will help create a more secure, sustainable future for Scotland’s hospitality sector.”
Inverness and Argyll and the islands enjoyed the most success with five trophy winners, while others went to Ross-shire, Moray, Strathspey and Sutherland.
HITA, which was held in association with SSE for a sixth successive year, is recognised as one of the premier industry hospitality awards programmes in Scotland.
Mike Seaton, SSE’s Director of Development, said: “SSE is now in its sixth year of sponsoring the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards and the quality and calibre of the winners and nominees this year have once again demonstrated that business, talent and innovation are thriving in this region.
“Energy and tourism are two of the most important sectors for the Highland economy. By working together we are able to create a lasting legacy for Highlands and Islands through projects like the South Loch Ness Trail and events like the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards.”
HITA winners (with the exception of the Highland Rising Star and Highland Ambassador) go on to compete at the glittering Scottish Thistle Awards next year.
Rebecca Brooks, Chair of the Scottish Thistle Awards industry panel, said: “On behalf of the panel, I would like to congratulate all the winners of the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards.
“It is fantastic to see businesses and individuals have their commitment and dedication to tourism in the local region recognised at these prestigious awards, especially coming just a week after the Highlands & Islands was named in the top 10 Best in Travel destinations for 2019 by Lonely Planet.
“I’d like to wish all the HITA winners, the very best for the national final.”
HITA board director Elizabeth Mackintosh, who has made an outstanding contribution to tourism in the north of Scotland for more than five decades was named the 2019 Highland Ambassador.
The owner of Achmony Holidays, which provides self-catering accommodation at Drumnadrochit, Loch Ness, was a pioneer in the self-catering sector and a founding member of the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers. She was a member of the board of Inverness and Nairn area Tourist Board and also of the Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board.
She was the inaugural chairperson of HITA, a post she held for five years, and was also on the steering group to set up VisitInvernessLochNess (VILN) Tourism BID.
Presenting the award, Craig Ewan, the HITA chair, said: “Elizabeth has been a driving force in collaborative thinking and in getting destinations to work together in Highland Tourism for more than 50 years.
“In that time, she has been a guide and a mentor for those setting up a tourism business for the first time, a ‘go-to’ person for advice and someone who is totally passionate about promotion of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland”.
MacGregor’s Bar, in Inverness, which has been operating for only a year and was set up by crowdfunding, took the title for Best Bar/Pub. Judges said: “Appealing to all ages, the history-focused Scottish bar has a great beer garden in the city centre, a menu bursting with unique food and drink combinations and a team dedicated to ensuring that customer satisfaction is at an all-time high”.
The Best Visitor Attraction award went to Cruise Loch Ness, which has taken more than 1.5 million passengers onto the famous waterway since 1968. Judges said: “The continuous re-investment in the business has allowed it to thrive in recent years. Whilst it has certainly made the most of digital opportunities, other highlights include the commitment to staff training and effective collaboration with others”.
Inverness Taxis picked up the Innovation in Tourism award. Judges said the company, which has a fully-computerised system, GPS tracking, free booking app, baggage drop-off service and rucksack and bike forwarding, is a “great example of a company seeking new and innovative ways to benefit the business and the customer”.
The Working Together for Tourism category was won by Mull Eagle Watch, which started in 2000 at Loch Frisa to allow people to get great views of sea eagles without disturbing them. It is now a credited 5-star VisitScotland attraction and works in partnership with a local golf club. Judges said: “The collaboration shows how two very different companies can come together and offer a superb tourism experience.”
Another wildlife company, Basking Shark Scotland, took the Best Outdoor/Adventure Experience title.Based in Oban, it runs boat tours from April to October. Judges said their focus on the wider environment inspires guests who come on their trips to follow their lead in keeping the local area clean: “An active science programme culminated in them having their first scientific paper published in ground-breaking basking shark research. They also found the time to organise a successful beach clean after discovering a remote beach on the Isle of Mull covered in plastic”.
Oban Live, formed in 2016 and the biggest live music event in Argyll & Bute, won the Best Cultural Event or Festival crown. HITA judges said: “The professional team who run the event have demonstrated dedication and commitment, as well as injecting an economic boost of £1.4 million to the area.”
The Purvai Festival, in Stornoway, which celebrates Asian arts and culture, received a commendation in this category.
Emma Clark, from Glenegedale House in Islay, was named Tourism and Hospitality Hero. Judges said Emma builds up a rapport with each guest long before they set foot over the threshold of the hotel: “This personal touch, from the initial enquiry to the moment they arrive, ensures that all guests feel at home the minute they enter Glenegedale House”.
The Seafood Shack, set up in Ullapool by two local women, won the award for Best Eating Experience. Judges said the team “work hard to ensure customer satisfaction is key with sustainability and provenance at the core of their offering. With passion, care and enthusiasm, they produce fresh, locally sourced, award winning food every day”.
Also in Wester Ross, Pool House, at Achnasheen, won the title of Most Hospitable B&B/Guest House. Judges said “a truly wonderful experience” awaits guests at Pool House. “A historic house dating back 300 years which provides a truly unique stay for their guests”.
Links House at Royal Dornoch was crowned Most Hospitable Hotel, with judges praising the 15-bedroom luxury hotel’s “bespoke customer experience”.
The Best Self Catering/Alternative Accommodation Experience accolade went to self-catering business Where Stags Roar, in Newtonmore, with judges enthusing: “The level of attention to detail, customer satisfaction and repeat business is exemplary and has helped grow this impressive self-catering experience”.
The Speyside Cooperage Visitor Centre, in Craigellachie, the only working cooperage in the UK where visitors can experience the ancient art of coopering, won the Best Heritage Tourism Experience award. The five-star credited VisitScotland attraction welcomes people from over 70 counties and the judges said it appeals to a mass of ages due to its unique blend of traditional rituals and modern-day technology.
During the Year of Young People, three winners were chosen for the Highland Rising Star award – Brian Sharp, from tour company Scottish Routes; John McNulty, from the Etive Restaurant in Oban; and Euan Walker, from Achnagairn Estate Kirkhill, near Inverness.
The HITA judges said: “We were delighted with the calibre, and emerging talent, of the young people who applied for the Rising Star award. They showed true commitment and passion, striving to make the Highlands and Islands a world class destination. The three nominees were all so deserving that the unanimous decision was made to award all three as Highland Rising Stars 2018.”
Awards were also presented to students from Inverness College UHI, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, who won competitions organised in partnership with HITA.
As well as Annie Bonney and Fraser Szymborski-Welsh, who presented the awards, Leanne Munro, a 3rd year BA (Hons) Visual Communication and Design student at Inverness College UHI won a separate competition to create a marketing campaign aimed at attracting the next generation of visitors to the Highlands and Islands. Her design was on display at the awards ceremony.
The full list of winners is
Best Self-Catering/Alternative Accommodation Experience
Where Stags Roar, Newtonmore
Best Cultural Event or Festival
Commended -Purvai Festival, Stornoway
Best Heritage Tourism Experience
Speyside Cooperage Visitor Centre, Craigellachie
Best Eating Experience
The Seafood Shack, Ullapool
Best Outdoor/Adventure Experience
Basking Shark Scotland, Oban
MacGregor’s Bar, Inverness
Best Visitor Attraction
Cruise Loch Ness, Inverness
Innovation in Tourism
Most Hospitable B&B / Guest House
Pool House, Achnasheen, Wester Ross
Most Hospitable Hotel
Links House at Royal Dornoch, Sutherland
Working Together for Tourism
Mull Eagle Watch
Highland Rising Star
John McNulty, Etive Restaurant in Oban
Euan Walker, Achnagairn Estate, Kirkhill, Inverness
Brian Sharp, Scottish Routes
Tourism and Hospitality Hero
Emma Clark, Glenegedale House, Islay
Charlotte Davies, Sommelier & Assistant Restaurant Manager at The Three Chimneys, Isle of Skye, and winner of HITA’s 2017 Rising Star Award
During the Year of Young People 2018, it is really important that more of my contemporaries are given the recognition they deserve and opportunities to advance their careers, across all sectors.
We are the new generation that will be setting the bar even higher for standards and innovative new ideas to ensure that Scotland as a whole continues to thrive.
It is also a time to demonstrate that the tourism and hospitality sector is no longer a ‘stepping stone’ job that you do just to earn a bit of pocket money (although that is fine too if that’s your reason for doing it). It’s a career with incredibly fulfilling job prospects that can take you anywhere in the world if you work hard enough.
There are so many qualifications and apprenticeships that you can take now if you like to learn in a college setting or if, like me, you can dive straight in and learn on the job with the right mentoring and practical skills.
There has been a gradual shift over the past few years, but I’m really hoping that, with schemes like HITA, the general attitude and assumptions about hospitality will be seen in a completely new light.
I love my role in hospitality and working with wine (and other beverages!) and I love that every day is different and comes with new challenges.
Hospitality is a career for people who are innately caring and want to create an impeccable experience for their guests. Hospitality is a career for those who want to help make incredible memories.
I hope that more young people will see tourism and hospitality as a career choice and also more will be recognised for the important role they play in the sector.
Winning the prestigious HITA Rising Star award last year was a major achievement for me and has given me the extra motivation to pursue new challenges and goals.
I recently entered the Gold Service Scholarship 2018, the UK’s most prestigious Front of House award. Like HITA, it was a great experience and provided a fantastic opportunity to network with like-minded colleagues within the sector. It was also amazing to represent the whole of the country as the only Scottish finalist.
As well as representing Scotland, I have been given access to incredible opportunities that, without these types of awards, I would never get the chance to experience. For example, this year I will be visiting the famous sweet wine area of Tokaji in Hungary, visiting Mosel in Germany and get to enjoy a chocolate master class.
The HITA honour also gave me the incentive to pursue my next level of wine qualification, the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced. It will be a tall order to achieve but, having a few people around you that believe in your capabilities, can make all the difference.
The Three Chimneys, and particularly General Manager Paul Hughes, have been incredibly supportive of my involvement in all of these competitions and helping to train and prepare me for them.
There has been a lot of hard work and travelling involved, but it has been worth every minute of the extra time and all the miles.”
I would encourage any young person working in the sector to enter for HITA – and also businesses to nominate members of their young workforce. It could be a milestone in an incredible career journey.
Rebecca Brooks, VisitScotland Board Member and Chair of the Scottish Thistle Awards Industry Panel.
To win a Highlands and Islands Tourism Award is something to be proud of. Not only are you the best in the region but you have the honour of representing the area at the glittering national final.
The 2017/18 Scottish Thistle Awards National Final, which marked the competition’s silver anniversary, was a time to reflect on those individuals, events and businesses who have shown leadership in the sector.
To have four HITA winners pick up national Thistle Awards was a fantastic achievement for the individua businesses and for the region. My congratulations to Eilean Donan Castle, the Hebridean Celtic Festival, the Fort William UCI Mountain Bike World Cup and Portavadie for their success, and to all those who won through to the national final.
The Scottish tourism industry and hospitality sector prides itself on delivering a rewarding experience for visitors.
Our reputation as a world-class destination relies on continued investment and innovation and for the past 25 years the Scottish Thistle Awards has shone a spotlight on the success, innovation and excellence that our Scottish tourism industry delivers.
We need to think bigger about Scotland as a tourism destination to ensure we fulfil our potential – every visitor must get a quality experience every single time.
The Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards (HITA) is an important part of that drive for excellence and last year’s winners reflected the strength and depth at both a regional and national level.
This year is the 2018 Year of Young People. Over the 12 months Scotland will offer inspiration through its young people by celebrating their achievements, valuing their contributions to communities and creating new opportunities for them to shine on a local and global stage.
As well as providing opportunities for the industry to engage with families and younger visitors through a year-long programme of events, it is also a time to celebrate the young talented individuals within Scottish tourism. For they are our aspiring Scottish Thistle Award winners of the future.
Good luck to everyone who enters or is nominated for HITA recognition this year and we look forward to seeing you at the Thistles.
Freda Newton, chair of Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards judging panel
Another record-breaking year; another record-breaking challenge for the judges.
The Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards just keep getting bigger. This year we’ve received 232 nominations and entries – up 14 per cent on last year’s previous best-ever total, and an amazing 70 per cent rise since 2014.
This fantastic response demonstrates a confidence within the industry and highlights the growing number of high quality tourism establishments and services provided for our visitors.
HITA is one of the most well-respected award programmes and it is heartening to see so many businesses coming forward, or being nominated, to be open to scrutiny and ultimately try to be named as the best in the industry in this area.
As tourism is so vital to the Highlands and Islands, it is essential that we continue to improve standards and bring fresh ideas into the sector. HITA encourages and rewards good business practice, which provides visitors with high standards of service, and also innovation, which can elevate a business beyond the ever-increasing tourism expectations and demands.
For 2017 we have introduced a new category, Best Heritage Tourism Experience, as part of the themed Year of History Heritage and Archaeology, and to celebrate the extraordinary wealth of historic assets we have in the Highlands and Islands.
Demonstrating the region’s strength in this particular sector of tourism, we have received 15 entries in the new category. Other categories have also attracted large entries, including Best Accommodation Provider with more than 30.
Judging this amount of entries, particularly as the standard just keeps getting higher, is an enormous task for our 12 judges who are drawn from all parts of the Highlands and Islands and from all sections of the industry.
So, how do we choose the winners?
Over the coming weeks, we will examine all these entries and start forming opinions on who we think deserve to pick up the trophies. Each judge marks the entries independently online, and can use personal knowledge, reviews and information from industry contacts to support details provided with the entry or nomination.
When we meet up on 13th September we will compare notes, discuss and debate our choices and come to a consensus on who should make the shortlist for each category, and who in our combined opinions have gone that little bit further to be crowned winners.
From experience, some of these decisions are easier than others and a few intense conversations await as we narrow down our choices. All, or nearly all, will be revealed on 29 September when we announce the shortlists.
Thank you to everyone for giving us this onerous but highly rewarding task, and good luck.
Shirley Spear, owner and retired head chef of The Three Chimneys Restaurant with Rooms in Skye and former HITA Ambassador of the Year.
I greatly support the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards as the scheme encourages and rewards our best business operators. Awards help to push the quality bar higher by focusing on excellence at every level. HITA rewards success, but also inspires our industry to constantly seek business improvements, which in turn, benefit their employees and enhance the wider visitor experience.
How times have changed throughout my business lifetime. This year Eddie and I celebrate 32 years running a small business and exactly 18 years since we opened our luxury bedrooms in The House Over-By and were awarded a 5-Star grading by VisitScotland, one of the very first in the Highlands and Islands.
This was the beginning of a whole new era for the region; the beginning of a new approach towards creating a unique, high-quality destination, open all-year-round and an unmissable experience for visitors coming to Scotland.
Our tourism and hospitality industry had been more of a poor relation in the economic scheme of things prior to this change of heart. A whole new emphasis was placed upon the importance of small business in rural areas. A new drive to develop the standards of accommodation, customer service, food, drink and overall visitor experience everywhere, soon followed. Along with this we were encouraged to join new schemes and compete for awards, which all helped to drive forward our reputation.
In my opinion, this new emphasis was a great move and long overdue. I was delighted that tourism and hospitality was being treated on a much more serious scale, offering great employment and career development for young people and opportunities for those with entrepreneurial spirit to gain a step on the ladder to success.
Today, tourism in the Highlands and Islands remains a crucial element of the on-going Scottish success story, with a wealth of businesses of many kinds and many hundreds of people directly employed throughout our diverse sector. We play a very important role, supporting the nation’s economy and in many places, building micro-economies on a significant scale.
Accommodation at every level, food and drink service of all kinds, visitor attractions large and small, adventurous and explorative outdoor activities, all combine together to create a unique visitor experience.
We must never forget how dependent we are upon one another in business. The overall visitor experience is a combination of everything our customers and guests experience throughout their stay in the Highlands and Islands. It is so important that we all work hard together, collaborating with one another, to create the best visitor experience we can.
This is why it is also important for all of us to work at the top of our game in every way, in order to maintain the Highlands and Islands as a fantastic destination.
We should be proud to recognise and reward our best tourism operators and that is what schemes like the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards are all about. I hope everyone will feel encouraged to highlight their own success stories by entering an award category this year.
Also, as it is the year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, there may be a particular business or person you wish to nominate for the role they have played over the years towards building the region’s profile as a special destination experience.
The Highlands and Islands is thriving in 2017 as a great destination experience and we should continue to work hard and raise our game towards a very positive future.
Be proud to play your part and enter this year’s awards!
Kirsten Gilmour owner & head chef of the Mountain café Aviemore.
Winning a HITA title was the icing on the cake for our business.
My main vision when opening the café was literally to make very sexy café food using Scottish ingredients adding a Kiwi twist. I was not a businesswoman; I was just a very young passionate chef, who was full of ego and a non-stop energy to please my customers.
I was 26 when I held the keys to the Mountain café for the first time, 12 years ago. I was a chef de partie, I had never run a kitchen, never been a boss and had no idea even what gross profit was. It was one very steep learning curve.
I never imagined the café would become the success it has grown into. I thought I was opening a small lifestyle café in the Highlands of Scotland. I dreamt I would have a small team that would be like a big family.
I now employ 21 people and we serve roughly of 70,000 people a year.
People ask me all the time how did I do it, how did I take a run down tearoom and turn it into an award winning café? Hard graft, determination and pure stubbornness!
I always take on board what our customers have to say, I use their comments and feedback all the time to find our where we need to change and adapt the café.
I am still learning everyday about my business and I am still working hard at improving the experience for our customers.
In 2014 we won our first award “Best Café in Scotland” at the Scottish baking awards. It was such an achievement for our team and for me; it made all those never-ending nights in the early days baking and refusing to buy bought in cakes worth it.
Then in 2015, I received a letter saying we had been nominated for Best Informal Eating Experience at the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards. I was so honoured and surprised to get as far as nomination.
I was in New Zealand at the time of the awards and we sent our manager Claire and sous chef Laura. I was half way up a hill on my bike when they phoned and I was completely stunned. I was standing in this incredible forest in the Marlborough sounds on the other side of the world, trying to take in we had won this huge award. They were so excited and screaming down the phone ‘we won, we won, we won’.
I was so proud and so chuffed they were getting this huge pat on the back. It was one of the proudest moments of my whole time at the café.
Going through the HITA process made us realise how many exceptional businesses there are around the Highlands and Islands. It was a really inspirational process for our team and it definitely inspired us to keep improving all aspects of the café.
It was great to sit around a table with a group of hard working individuals and have a night off celebrating the hard work, sweat and tears that we all put into our businesses.
We have had an incredible start to 2017 with The Mountain Café Cookbook hitting the shelves. I am very proud of the book, it was published in Scotland by a small independent publisher called Kitchen Press, our photographer is Aviemore-based and our Illustrator comes from Cromdale. The books were printed in Glasgow.
Again, it is everything I am staunch about – made locally, using local ingredients, Scottish artists and it heavily features recipes and stories from our team past and present.
I believe you can make anything in life happen if you believe in it enough. Winning a HITA award has inspired us to push for even greater success. It is an important part of our story and it could be part of yours too, so get those entries in.
By Rebecca Brooks, VisitScotland Board Member and Chair of the Scottish Thistle Awards Industry Panel.
After a hugely successful 2016/17 Scottish Thistle Awards, highlighting the fantastic work of the tourism and hospitality sector across the length and breadth of the country, we are now embracing the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.
The year will celebrate both our tangible and intangible heritage – everything from our buildings and archaeological sites to our diverse stories, traditions and culture – which will both involve and inspire the tourism sector.
In addition, this year’s theme will be reflected by the introduction of a Best Heritage Tourism Experience category.
It is appropriate that in the year which looks to Scotland’s past, the Scottish Thistle Awards marks its own historical milestone. For a quarter of a century, the excellence, innovation and tireless work that goes into creating a world class visitor experience in Scotland has been recognised by the tourism industry with the annual awards.
The Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards (HITA), now in their 13th year, play a crucial role within this historical movement by not only being a regional heat for the Scottish Thistle Awards National Final but also reflecting the importance of customer experience in the region.
To receive a HITA nomination is a huge honour and something that those select few should be proud of and share with visitors and the industry. Past recipients such as Scotland’s Best B&B, Mull Eagle Watch, Glenlivet Distillery Visitor Centre, Hebridean Celtic Festival and Eilean Donan Castle, reveal the real strength and depth of quality that the Highlands and Islands has to offer.
Each year, the awards continue to grow in strength, and we look forward to a bumper competition in 2017 following last year’s record-setting number of entries – and the chance for Highlands and Islands businesses to make their own history in the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.