Michael Bremner (87-90) Founder Highland Experience Tour
Being a keen sportsman, it was a natural choice for my father to send all three of his sons to Merchiston. Being from Drumnadrochit, by Loch Ness, boarding was the only option; I was a little nervous initially, but having my older brother Robbie there really helped. David, our younger brother, joined a few years later.
I found the social side of Merchiston phenomenal: one of my favourite memories was from Pringle when a group of us went to the ‘Grand-Slam’. I had never been to an international rugby match before. It was great fun.
The School organised weekend trips away, which gave me my first taste of independence from my parents and it was great. Merchiston gave me confidence - you don’t necessarily know you have it when you leave, but it is there; it sets you apart and helps you in later life. I believe that boarding school can be hugely beneficial for some children and I would recommend parents to consider boarding as an option.
My best friends from Merchiston are still my best friends today: we all travelled to South Africa this year in October for a Merchistonian wedding: it was great for us all to get together and it was a brilliant celebration.
My time at Merchiston was not all easy; I had a different learning style which did not always fit in with the way things were taught. Back then, it was very different. I remember a housemaster who recognised that I had a different learning style and encouraged my creative side.
I have returned to the School recently, and having talked to the staff, I can see how much things have changed and adapted since I was there. Different styles and abilities can be harnessed and encouraged with the many different options on offer. I was particularly impressed by the Golf Academy. Having seen the School recently, I would definitely consider Merchiston for my two boys!
After School, I studied International Business Studies at the University of Northumbria. I very much enjoyed it but felt that the course could have been compressed into two years. I’m all about efficiency and would have liked to get out into industry faster. I graduated with an honours degree and got a job in banking in London. It went well and I enjoyed it, but again felt like I did not fit in the ‘box’, and in the end I did not want to be a number.
As my father was involved in tourism, I had a fair understanding of the sector and was certain that I wanted to make a move in that direction. Not being scared of risk, I received a bonus from my banking job, handed in my notice and moved back to Scotland to look at opportunities. Starting from the ground up, I got a job as a bus driver for what was then perceived as the number one tour company.
Tour guiding was not new to Scotland, but I knew it was not being done anywhere near as well as it could have been. My plan was to work for ‘the best’ tourism company to see what the gaps in the market were and how I could do things better!
For eight months, I carried out tours all over Scotland, which gave me a chance to carry out some vital research and build on my own knowledge. With help from my mother and brothers, I bought my own 10 year old transit mini bus and kitted it out. I installed a microphone through the radio: it wasn’t of great quality but it did the job! That bus was definitely positioned at the backpacking end because that was all I could afford, but it allowed me to get started.
On the day of my very first tour, I drove to Waverley Bridge and asked people if they would like to join me on a day trip to Loch Ness, and when the bus was full, off we went. I continued to do this five times a week, which today is stretching your driver hours, so I tried to sub-contract drivers when I physically couldn’t drive any more. I would come back from a day and use the profits to fill the bus up, and so on. That year I incorporated Highland Experience Tours.
Today, Highland Experience Tours have 37 different departure locations, with one to eight day tour options. Next year, we’ll have 36 buses, and they will range from 16 seats to 29 seats. I have spent the last six years travelling the world building working relationships and securing contracts with travel agents. Only 5% of business was online when I first set up a website; now it’s around 50%. I am very comfortable to say that Highland Experience Tours is now a leader in the Scottish Tours industry. I have programmers building a bespoke website which will be released for next season; we have gone from being a bus company to an internet-based company.
We now have over 50,000 passengers a year. Our largest market is from India. Bollywood films a lot in the north of Scotland and loves nature too. Large markets also come from the USA, and now we see more Europeans.
You meet amazing people in this industry; I had breakfast with Prince Edward and I travelled with the Scottish Commonwealth team to Delhi. It is all about networking: I have often had to travel abroad to carry out research and bring inbound business direct to my company.
I now have a business development manager, who will do most of the travel so that I can concentrate on looking ahead. I have 86 staff, but by March 2018, this will have increased to 120; we have already started recruiting.
My final words are, the more you enjoy something the more successful it is. If you walk into work every day and don’t enjoy it, go and find something that you love doing; it’s remarkable. Don’t go looking for the money; look for something that you enjoy because the money is a by-product of that.