Viewpoint: ‘Let’s seize the opportunities’

Frank Strang.

SAXA Vord Resort owner Frank Strang responds to former Busta House hotelier Joe Rocks’ Viewpoint article on the local accommodation sector.

Strang’s company Shetland FM operates the Sella Ness accommodation facility, while he is also a director of Shetland Space Centre.

The former owner of Busta Hotel, Joe Rocks, is gravely mistaken in his attempt to distinguish between “local” accommodation providers and the Sella Ness facility.

And his suggestion that the provision of beds in Shetland is somehow a zero-sum game – us or them – is, quite frankly, silly.

A bit of history. My wife Debbie and I took over the former RAF Saxa Vord site in Unst 14 years ago and, with tremendous support from all over the islands, have slowly turned it into the resort that it is today.

But as we know, tourism is not a high-volume business in Shetland. So when Petrofac got in touch in 2013 to ask whether we could house a small portion of their workforce in Unst, we were naturally delighted to oblige.

Very soon afterwards, we were urged to bid for the contract, due for renewal early in 2015, for the operation and administration of the Sella Ness facility.

We formed Shetland FM, submitted our tender documents and, to our surprise as well as everyone else’s, were chosen in preference to the existing operator, ESS Offshore, part of the Compass Group and a long-established player in the industry.

In other words, Sella Ness is operated by a Shetland company that employs local people and sources a whole range of supplies, from food to vehicles, from local firms that in turn employ local people.

And we, too, have endured the downturn, with occupancy levels at the facility having tapered off dramatically.

The nature of the Shetland economy – dependence on primary, extractive industries (fishing, oil) and the public sector – means that it is particularly prone to periods of boom and bust.

Fortunately, the oil price is recovering (over $80 a barrel as I write) and in time we will start to see investment come again.

But I believe firmly that diversification is urgently required to smooth the peaks and troughs. Which is why renewables will be a huge boon to Shetland. And which is why we are putting such a gargantuan effort into the Unst spaceport.

Folk need to realise just how much the deck is stacked in Shetland’s favour here: a report for the UK Space Agency, part-funded by HIE, identified Unst as the number one site in the UK for launching small satellites. Not one site among many, but THE absolute prime contender.

Why? Simple geography and physics.

The aforementioned report, called SCEPTRE, states: “Commercial launch is driven by two questions: which orbits are accessible, and what payload mass can be delivered to those orbits at an attractive price? The site offering the maximum payload mass to orbit is Saxa Vord in the Shetlands [sic], from where direct launch is possible to both SSO [Sun-Synchronous] and Polar orbits.”

By contrast, direct routes into these orbits from other sites under discussion would go directly over oil and gas installations, the Faroe Islands or Iceland. The alternative, to carry out dog-leg turns, would require more robust, more expensive rockets and restrict payload size.

This is before you look at the issues elsewhere with airspace. The re-routing of transatlantic flights would be expensive for airlines and environmentally damaging due to the extra fuel burn required.

And military exercises around the north of Scotland would significantly cut down the number of potential launch days for a site there.

Our natural advantages are right there for everyone to see.

Then there are Shetland’s many other attributes, including formidable logistics and supply chain expertise developed over almost 50 years as host to the oil and gas industry.

The latter includes, of course, accommodation. May I suggest that instead of talking about closing things down, we lift our eyes to the horizon and see and work towards the brighter future that is there if we do what the 70s generation did and seize the opportunities.

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