As Director of Commercial Development at Fáilte Ireland former Diageo man Paul Keeley finds himself responsible for many of its divisions including business tourism, leisure product sales and distribution, the organisation’s four Regional Development teams (Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland’s Ancient East, Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands and Dublin) and the Enterprise & Hospitality Supports team.
“Our work covers a broad range of activities,” he explains, “We work on the ground to shape the product development agenda with local stakeholders, deliver new product for sale internationally, secure distribution and business leads for Irish industry and finally, at the level of the firm, it’s about identifying the issues challenging businesses in regard to costs and revenue-generation and looking to put appropriate supports together to tackle these.”
Food & beverages is a particular focus here.
“We also use our National Quality Assurance Framework to support the development of high quality accommodation sectors and to foster innovation in line with changing consumer preferences.”
Irish pub, food & drink & the tourism drive
Fáilte Ireland has no figures specific to the licensed trade in all this, “… but I think we’re certainly spending a lot of time with the VFI and LVA on it as it’s a relationship we want to strengthen. We hope to get better supply-side data out of it too.
“Preliminary figures for ’18 suggest we’re looking at 36% of the overall tourist spend going on food & drink; that’s a significant chunk of spend and it’s the one thing that the visitor has to do three or four times a day so food & drink has to be a significant opportunity,” he believes.
“We also know that when visitors come here and we ask them questions about the activities they intend to engage in, 80% intend visiting an Irish pub so I think the pub is invariably tied back into our nation’s brand – as in Guinness, for example, but also closely on its heels is having a Guinness in an Irish pub.
“One of the big trends in global tourism is the search for authenticity and there the pub has a very important role to play.
“If we fast-forward we can see that there’s an opportunity here for many pubs to re-imagine their offering and we believe that food & drink could play a role here.
“If I’m in Killarney I don’t have to tell publicans there the value of bed-nights but in other areas, where 80% of our visitors don’t tend to stay, there’s an opportunity for local businesses to offer a strong value-for-money food offering and in the setting of a pub this can be a uniquely Irish experience which, from a visitors’ perspective, becomes the highlight of their holiday; so the ambition of working with the VFI and LVA will be to make sure that in time we really strengthen the pub’s involvement in the wider tourist network around the county and more specifically strengthening that food offer.”
Indeed the whole night-time economy should involve the pub in having somewhere to go to have dinner, have a drink or hear music.
“We’re talking to publicans in various parts of the country about unlocking the night-time economy etc so that we can point overseas buyers at this aspect of our tourism,” he states.
In the past publicans have asked why our tourist board has been so reticent to use the pub as part of its promotional campaign. Surely pubs sublimate that differentiating factor for tourists contemplating coming to Ireland?
“I think one of the things we’ve done in this area is a lot of media and buyer familiarisation trips where the pub almost invariably features in those itineraries and to that extent the pub has always been part of what we do,” he explains, “The pub also features on Ireland stands at overseas buyers shows.
“Where the pub may have felt left out is in our mainstream marketing communications.
“Looking at the key appeals now of landscape, traditional heritage and culture etc whilst people have an intention to visit the Irish pub while here, it’s not the primary driver.”
He continues his train of thought, “It has probably not featured in the mainstream communication space as it’s not a primary motivator for travel”.
Nevertheless, our tourism drive may also be guilty of some silent giving which publicans may not have noticed.
“Almost year-on-year, tourism numbers into this country have grown, of which pubs have been one beneficiary,” he points out,
“We’ve funded of the order of 240 festivals around the county and so to say that they’ve been of no benefit to pubs would probably be untrue.
“The quality of our engagement with vintners’ organisations is better than it ever has been in the past and I’m much more interested in the future we can shape together,” he says.
‘Grow Your Own Food Reputation’
Reaction from pubs to last year’s VFI/Fáilte Ireland ‘Grow Your Own Food Reputation’ roadshow has been encouraging.
Between September and the start of December about 260 pubs enrolled for the programme.
“In discussions again with the VFI/LVA about our roll-on from that, the ‘Taste the Island’ promotion should ensure that pubs are fully stitched into it,” he explains, “We want over 1,000 businesses to become involved in it from year one and the pub can play a key role in this,” he says, calling the pub out for specific action on our food & drink offering.
“What we’ve signed-off on with our own Board here is a three-year programme – with the ambition to be there in perpetuity – to evolve the concept which will strengthen from year-to-year.”
Fáilte Ireland wants to use food as a platform to encourage overseas (and domestic) visitors to explore Ireland during the slacker “shoulder season” (those weeks beginning in September running to mid-November).
“We envisage everything from food trails and whiskey trails to themed promotions run by pubs and hotels,” he says, “We really want to create that sense that over that eight- or nine-week window we’ll see a real celebration of all that’s great about Irish food.”
“We’ve underplayed our hand on food with expectations being low but when visitors leave, their experience of Irish food is dramatically enhanced and it has become a real success story for us.
“Chefs have been wowing the consumer and we’ve not made enough of that.”
He wants that growth to sustain people during this shoulder period and is looking at factoring in the business tourism dimension over time via food conferences etc in partnership with Bord Bia.
Diminishing the Dublin-centric
One of the biggest issues remains that most tourist action appears to be Dublin-centric. The challenge is to spread tourism both geographically and over the year.
“If a pub chooses to be more active in the tourism game then we’ll meet ‘energy’ with ‘energy’,” he says, “There’s no reason why, as we roll out our tourism networks, publicans can’t become aware — we believe in businesses cross-promoting and cross-selling in an area. In that sense we’d be encouraging publicans to get active in the tourism family and we’re happy to bring whatever supports we have in that area to strengthen the publican’s offering in food and entertainment to visitors.”
The Tourism Strategy’s next steps therefore involve the development of a programme to include pubs, restaurants, cafés, festivals, tours, tasting experiences etc.
“Fáilte Ireland intends working with representative bodies and sectoral bodies on partnership initiatives which will materialise in the form of industry workshops this May and June,” he says, “We’ve a good bit of product in the mix with a number of workshops set to take place to look at great food ideas that can be factored into the 2019 program.”
Domestic marketing activity around this should switch on in August for September.
One early win here was ‘Meitheal’, Fáilte Ireland’s biggest b2b sales platform at the start of April, which showcased ‘The Island of Ireland’. It also published a Buyers’ Guide containing 160 businesses.
“The buyers were delighted, incredibly positive and responsive to what they saw here with trails through to food offerings.”
He sums up, “If I were trying to strike a note of optimism here I believe that tourism can be an engine for growth around the country and publicans can be a part of that”.
The UN World Travel Organisation forecasts that global tourism will grow by 50% between here and 2030.
“So the long-term trend for tourism is very good. Our ambition is that Ireland will grow year-on-year and our intention is to spread that benefit right around the country and from season to season. The search for new products and experiences will be core to this.”