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The challenge of promoting the islands as a place to ‘live, work, study, visit and invest’

NB Communication managing director David Nicol. Photo: Shetland News/Neil Riddell.

NB COMMUNICATION managing director David Nicol says he is “excited” by the challenge of trying to help attract hundreds of people to live and work in the islands as part of the new Promote Shetland contract over the next four years.

His Lerwick-based company was awarded the four-and-a-half year contract in September after Shetland Islands Council concluded that two bids from the previous contract holder, Shetland Amenity Trust, did not meet the local authority’s aspirations.

Expanding on how the new contract will differ from the previous operation, Nicol said there would be a wider focus on making the islands “a good place to live, work, study, visit and invest” in.

He stressed that, while the council was looking for something different, “that’s not to say that what was done before was in any way the wrong thing to do then”.

In September the council unveiled an ambitious 10-year plan to create 700 new private sector jobs, grow the student population by 20 per cent and raise the proportion of people aged 16-29 living in the islands.

Nicol emphasised it was not NB Communication’s job to do that alone, but “if we can do stuff that contributes… that’s what it’s all about”.

He talks of a desire for “much greater collaboration” between the various trusts, trade associations, industry bodies, commercial businesses and public sector organisations already contributing to community life and work.

“It’s a new approach, and it’s really exciting. We’ve had really good feedback from everyone we’ve spoken to so far,” Nicol told Shetland News.

Douglas Henshall as detective Jimmy Perez.

“If we can successfully work together to encourage folk to stay in Shetland, or move to Shetland, or come back to Shetland, help businesses and the public sector to fill difficult-to-fill vacancies, and solve some of those bigger problems, that’s going to be really positive.”

To take an example, December’s broadcasting run of the Island Medics programme on BBC One attracted substantial national interest.

A page dedicated to the programme was created on shetland.org featuring information about the show, BBC iPlayer links, behind-the-scenes interviews, “did-you-know” facts and snippets about what it is like to live and work in Shetland as a medical professional.

Identifying that many people who may have been attracted to the idea of moving here would not necessarily be able to up sticks immediately due to career and family circumstances, Nicol said that building up a mailing list would allow NB Communication to “keep in touch” and “we might be able to convince them to think of Shetland as an option in the future.”

In addition to NHS Shetland’s well-documented recruitment difficulties, Nicol sees scope for helping employers in the public and private sector fill vacancies in social care, engineering and hospitality, while he noted there could be “potential headaches” for the seafood industry post-Brexit given their reliance on EU workers.

NB Communication has also been asking people which businesses they would like to see in the islands, which has thrown up “a whole range of things”. One perhaps surprising suggestion is that of a private doctor’s service, while a boutique hotel was another idea.

The islands boast a seafood sector worth hundreds of millions of pounds, but “there is probably a relative lack of outlets that would provide that as a final product to the end consumer, so there may well be opportunities for things like seafood restaurants or different types of hospitality businesses”.

Nicol is intrigued to see how plans for a space centre in Unst develop, while a nascent renewables industry may be “dominated by a handful of big wind projects”, but there could also be scope for more wave and tidal energy once those technologies mature.

In the nearer future, Nicol said plans were in place to capitalise on the latest season of BBC crime drama Shetland.

“It’s kind of ironic that a murder mystery is attracting people to one of the safest places in the UK, but it’s great,” he said. “I think there is huge potential to capitalise on that. We’ll certainly be doing stuff to try and capture the attention of people watching the show, various campaigns online.

“I think there’s huge potential to set up different services that are based around interest in the show. You already see people walking past what’s meant to be Jimmy Perez’s house at the south end, but there’s a lot more we can do.

“There’s definitely potential to get more people to come to Shetland, spend a bit of time in Lerwick, but more importantly go out to Sumburgh Head and all the different places – Eshaness, Fair Isle – that have been included in the shows.

NHS Shetland is striving to capitalise on the popularity of daytime TV show Island Medics as it seeks to fill key health vacancies.

“It could be huge, especially given the show’s global appeal – it’s on Netflix, it’s on nationwide network TV in Australia, it’s everywhere – a really powerful thing.”

Flybe’s foray into challenging Loganair led to a short-lived era of cheaper air fares which fell outwith the main tourist season.

“I think if a new operator was going to come in and look at the route afresh, choose to do an experiment, I would suspect that the first choice of season would be summertime.

“I understand and accept that they [Flybe] assessed it wasn’t viable based on the model they were using. I’m not sure if that means a two-airline model is completely unviable full stop, or it just means that model didn’t work in that situation.”

Nicol acknowledged that Loganair needed to be able to operate commercially, but said he hoped that increasing demand to enable the airline to fly fuller planes might be the best hope of achieving that.

Nicol founded NB Communication in 2002 and the company has been involved in “destination marketing” for many years, working with Shetland Isles Tourism, Visit Shetland, providing digital support to Promote Shetland and getting involved in one-off events such as the Tall Ships Races and the Hamefarin’.

It has also worked on energy and tourism projects in Orkney, Nicol said, explaining the company “didn’t come in from a position of naivety”.

He said the first six months of the contract were primarily about “ensuring a smooth transition”. The start of April will mark the start of a “four-year period of focused activity”.

The 39 year old grew up in Lerwick and speaks of how he was afforded a “brilliant quality of life throughout my childhood”, reeling off plus points including a high quality primary education at Sound School, birthday parties at the brand new Clickimin Leisure Centre and enjoying the opportunity of a Japanese exchange trip through the AHS.

When he returned to the islands after university, he was able to take advantage of Shetland Business Innovation and support from economic development agencies to build his business, which now employs 11 people.

NB Communication has a track record of working with Promote Shetland under the previous contract holder, Shetland Amenity Trust, including on its website.

Up to five of those staff can be involved in Promote Shetland-related activity on any given day, with the contract taking up the time of roughly 2.5 full-time staff members.

That is broadly similar to its previous incarnation under Andy Steven, and while NB Communication can do digital work in-house, Nicol has developed a “very flexible model” that makes us of “lots of different partners and freelancers”.

He was heartened by the response from council members to a presentation earlier this month and feels “everybody is pulling in the same direction”.

On top of the facilities Nicol enjoyed as a child, he points out that Shetland now has a wider network of leisure centres, arts centre Mareel, a high-standard road network, extensive ferry service, strong education system and a brand new high school and hostel in Lerwick.

His key message is that, while it is not guaranteed, the majority of people can enjoy a very good quality of life. Vibrant sporting and cultural scenes and a strong sense of community make it the kind of place that people can “contribute and participate in”.

Nicol added: “Shetland has a huge amount to offer and I like to think we can offer the same opportunity to the next several generations.”