Tourism conference calls for collaboration


Tourism NI CEO John McGrillen reflects on the sixth annual tourism conference held in Derry~Londonderry for the first time on 26 May.

The recently released annual tourism statistics show that 2015 was a record year for visitors to Northern Ireland, a great achievement I am sure everyone in the industry now wants to build on.

So for the Tourism NI’s annual conference it was time to look forward, time to look at how we drive tourism in Northern Ireland through partnership. We are now competing on a global stage and future growth is dependent upon on us all working collectively to compete in that international marketplace.

That is why we chose the theme of ‘Collaborating Locally, Competing Globally’, and our speakers brought vast international experience, giving those present excellent perspectives on the latest tourism trends, what we need to do to compete and how we can do it through working together for our collective benefit.

Tourism has been absolutely critical to the transformation that has taken place in Northern Ireland. In the past decade it has delivered stronger growth than any other sector of the Northern Ireland economy. In 2011 we were set a target of doubling tourism revenue to £1 billion by 2020. I am pleased to say that we are well on the way to achieving that target.

However, we have yet to reach our destination and that target continues to drive me and my team. With Simon Hamilton as the new Minister for the Economy we look forward to continuing the work to deliver economic growth and prosperity for the people who live here.

260516LD1--047New tourism strategy

By September we hope to have a new strategy for Northern Ireland tourism which will set out our ambition and direction of travel for the next decade. During the consultation process the industry was very clear that we needed to develop our own version of the Wild Atlantic Way, something which linked the key tourism areas in Northern Ireland, something which allows us to stand out from the crowd.

We are working on a new marketing proposition that will create a sense of intrigue, imagination, mystery and magic for this part of the world, an experience people will not want to miss. It is currently being tested with consumers in our core markets and once complete we will of course be telling the industry all about it. The objective of this project is quite simple: to attract more visitors, to have them stay longer and to spend more when they are here.

The conference emphasised the need to differentiate the Northern Ireland experience from those to be had elsewhere. This will be dependent upon ensuring we have an appealing and growing number of visitor attractions, or the ‘tourism hardware’, and developing and delivering compelling content propositions and unique experiences, what might be called the ‘tourism software’.

Among the ways we are tackling the hardware needs, Tourism NI is developing the policy framework for a new Tourism Development Scheme to support a number of new leisure products and the rejuvenation of existing products and experiences which align with our core market segments.

Developing the software however is about the industry deepening its understanding of customers’ needs, and offering a different and quality experience which is about greater perceived value that commands a premium price.

Our visitors tell us time and again that what makes Northern Ireland stand out from the crowd is our commitment to go the ‘extra mile’. So we need to promise and deliver more. If people go the extra mile to come here, we need to go the extra mile to make it special for them when they do.

Focus on industry

Ultimately Northern Ireland tourism can only grow if tourism businesses grow. To that end I believe that we in Tourism NI need to be focused on the needs of the industry.

For me it is clear that our customers are the 7,000 tourism businesses in Northern Ireland and our most important role must be to help those businesses become more innovative, productive and more profitable.

Going forward I want to see Tourism NI helping to build management capacity, encouraging innovation, supporting the use of new technology, enhancing service capability and working with the new Department to provide a pro business regulatory framework.

I am also keen that rather than telling the private sector what it should do, that we listen to what the private sector would like us to do. Basically I want to see Tourism NI develop into an organisation of missionaries as opposed to group of preachers from a pulpit.

Our conference also discussed the seismic shift going on in travel and tourism, involving the move from traditional marketing mediums to digital and social media platforms. Clearly this is the new international tourism marketplace; it’s where the whole industry needs to be if it is to grow.

The initial focus of Tourism NI’s business support programme is therefore going to be on developing the digital capability of businesses, understanding and utilising digital technology and getting businesses to a point where they are bookable online.

The industry has identified that it needs to sharpen its selling skills if it is to exploit sales platforms created by Tourism Ireland and Tourism NI, so we will also focus on this area along with the development of digital skills.

Share the ambition

My message to the conference was that Tourism NI wants the industry to share in our ambition.

It’s a case of ‘you help us, we help you’. I want to see businesses commit to working collaboratively with us and with other parts of the industry to create experiences that the visitor wants to purchase. I want businesses to work with us and Tourism Ireland to generate more sales and increase the size of the cake as opposed to competing for a bigger slice of the cake.

Neither Tourism NI nor Tourism Ireland sells products or services, so I am inviting the industry to come with us into the marketplace to sell their products. That means selling on both online platforms and on the sales platforms we offer in the marketplace, and it will require an investment both by businesses as well as us. No business can expect to grow if it is not selling successfully in the marketplace.

I would like to see tourism businesses ask what the visitor wants as opposed to simply selling their offering to the visitor. In return Tourism NI will provide the market intelligence to help businesses innovate so they meet customer needs and improve their bottom line.

Following our conference, the Northern Ireland Tourism Awards were also held in the Walled City for the first time. The ambition and calibre of the winners filled me with confidence for the future.

To make sure we’re all winners though, we must work together.

Let’s compete globally and let’s collaborate and deliver for businesses, communities and for local people.

To find out more about Tourism NI’s 2016 Tourism Conference please go to



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