Tourism, our largest indigenous industry, is responsible for over 4% of RoI’s GNP and employs about 286,000 across the island. In 2016, 10.3 million overseas visitors spent €5.3 billion while here.
Tourism Ireland therefore undertakes extensive marketing campaigns in 23 key source markets, prioritizing the US, Great Britain, Germany and France which together deliver almost three-quarters of all our overseas visitors. But promotions are also underway in 19 other global markets including North & South Europe, Australia/New Zealand, the UAE, China and India.
But it’s the appeal of the Irish pub and its relevance to this marketing drive that I’m here to discuss with Tourism Ireland’s Chief Executive Niall Gibbons at its Dublin base in Bishop’s Square, Redmond Hill.
Appointed Chief Executive of Tourism Ireland in June 2009, he’d been Tourism Ireland’s Director of Corporate Services & Policy.
A business graduate of Trinity College, Dublin and a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, he’s also Deputy Vice President of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, sits on the Export Trade Council for the Irish Government, is a member of Culture Ireland’s Expert Advisory Committee and a Fellow of the Irish Hospitality Institute.
He also believes that pubs play a central part in the appeal of Ireland to tourists.
“The pub is the cornerstone of Irish life and the overwhelming majority of international tourists want to experience one when here – anything from music in the pub to the pint itself,” he says.
“We’re always having international tour operators ask about this and the tourism media will always want to take in the pub experience.”
Some pubs get recurring mention overseas and the feedback Tourism Ireland gets is that the tourism experience is a very positive one, especially reviewing the Tripadvisor comments.
“But people aren’t just coming to experience a night in an Irish pub.”
Niall points out that the food experience in pubs has improved – a lot.
““I’d encourage pubs to keep up with that momentum and invest,” he says, “I read recently that food is the new currency in international tourism – it actually has an impact on destination choice.
“Tourists are not about just going in to a pub to buy a pint, they want to experience the warmth of the welcome, the quality of service, the friendly staff – and the more Irish it is the better.”
The tourists’ hygiene experience in the pub is important too – as is the music, he says.
Role of pub in Tourism Ireland’s marketing
So will Tourism Ireland make more of the role of the pub in its overseas marketing going forward?
He winces slightly.
“If I had a dollar for everybody who didn’t see themselves in our advertising…,” he trails off, before changing tack, “I think we’re doing quite well as it is. Some countries are more restrictive than others in what advertising they will allow,” he points out, citing France, for example, where Tourism Ireland is not allowed show drinks or convey that all-important pub atmosphere.
“The three things that stand out in the tourist’s psyche are the friendly experience, the culture and the scenery.
“The pub embodies part of the Irish experience and in that context gets its fair share of tourism.”
Marketing the pub to tourists has changed course over the last few years.
“The marketing game has changed a lot, even for us and the social media space is where you could really build your brand” he says, “but it takes time. There are certain pubs that could build their brand internationally, say through Tripadvisor, for example, by monitoring comments and uploading appealing imagery to convey the unique Irish ‘appeal’ – that’s an inexpensive form of international marketing.”
The influence of global TV can be found in Tourism Ireland’s celebrated ‘Doors of Thrones’ campaign.
This is the story of how two trees from a Storm Gertrude-battered tourist attraction (the Dark Hedges in NI’s Ballymoney) were turned into a new tourist attraction – and a wonderful celebration of Northern Ireland’s links to the most popular TV show of all time, ‘Game of Thrones’.
World-class illustrators and craftsmen were commissioned to interpret the GoT storylines for each new episode in Season Six, carving them into the historic timber cut from the fallen trees to create 10 bespoke intricately carved doors.
Each week a new door was installed at a pub or venue near a GoT filming location and these now form a brand new tour through Season Six – spanning the length and breadth of Northern Ireland.
The International Festival of Creativity in Cannes awarded this campaign Gold, Silver and Bronze.
“It’s given GoT fans a new reason to come to NI, it’s generated a whole conversation about NI and has been of benefit to the pubs there too,” he points out.
DIGI’s Tourism Report
DIGI launched its Tourism Report recently, highlighting the role of the drinks industry in our tourism offer.
“It throws up a number of things,” he observes, “Brexit is one consideration, one with a potential €70 million loss of earnings. We know that UK visitors are down 6% but the US and other markets are ahead, so overall we’re up about 3% and spend is up about 7% at the end of the first six months, but it’s obvious that the risks are out there. First is the exchange rate which has ranged from 0.83 to 0.95, but the British market will struggle to grow given the uncertainty.”
As Brexit rocks to and fro’, it’s really important to keep focus on how to win additional business in these choppy waters.
He’d be keen to keep an Unrestricted Travel Area and doesn’t see a hard border as being particularly likely.
“Tourism Ireland was set up some 20 years ago under the Good Friday Agreement,” he explains, “It’s inconceivable to me that a Hard Border could happen. In terms of tourism Northern Ireland has enjoyed a colossal increase in business, but almost 70% of all Mainland Europe and North American tourists to NI travel there through RoI, so free movement across the island is very important.”
As for calls by the industry to cut excise tax on alcohol, he explains that Tourism Ireland doesn’t have a role in advocating tax measures.
“As a State agency we must deal with the hand we were given,” he says.
While the 9% VAT rate has been a huge boost for the tourism industry, throwing them a lifeline at a very important time, again, he pleads the Fifth Amendment: “We don’t comment directly or advocate anything on taxation”.
He’d still expect to see a strong income from the US and other long-haul visitors as well as strong income from those in Europe in 2018. But challenges remain.
“That’s where competitiveness comes into it,” he adds, “People have to be very careful of pricing. We must offer value-for-money to customers.”
Of course he’s aware of the rising costs of running a business, “…. but we’re in a much more competitive market in tourism than ever before”.
So what would be Tourism Ireland’s strategy should the Dollar/€uro exchange rate continue to deteriorate or the €uro ever reach parity with Sterling?
“We’re always flexible in our marketing plans,” he answers, “Our current assessment, though, is that it’s not heading toward parity. If it goes even in that direction it means more expense for visitors and therefore threatens our appeal.”
But he points to North American business being up by almost 75% in the last six years – and growing.
“More airlines are flying into Ireland now, so overall I’d still be optimistic for 2018. The current forecast in relation to Sterling is that it may bounce back a little to under the 0.90 mark, but we keep that under review.”
Tourism Ireland will be launching its marketing plans in early December and Niall, just back from a board meeting in Donegal, is on the up.
“The feeling around the country is that it’s been a very strong year for tourism,” he concludes, “For 2018 we’re weighing all the risks up and we’re reasonably confident for Irish tourism as a result.”