Tourism NI Chief Executive John McGrillen outlines the aims and objectives for Northern Ireland’s Year of Food and Drink initiative. It was very pleasing to see the Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink 2016 get off to a sizzling start this January.
The magnificent New Year Banquet at the Ulster Hall, which was attended by over 230 media and stakeholders from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, reflected the quality and range of our special local ingredients and indeed payed homage to our talented chefs and burgeoning food and drink industry.
January also brought a massive boost to the Year of Food and Drink with the announcement that the BBC Good Food Shows will be coming to the expanded Belfast Waterfront in October. This starts a three-year engagement with the BBC, putting Belfast on a par with London, Birmingham and even the international destination of Dubai, which have all hosted this event. This exciting new event for Northern Ireland will be an excellent showcase for our local produce.
The Year of Food and Drink got a further helping of good news in January with Tesco Northern Ireland’s announcement of a £500,000 programme that will provide a platform for the local food and drinks industry. It will include in-store food fairs, multi-store sampling, radio and press advertising, PR and media support as well as the highly anticipated annual Taste Northern Ireland Festival, set to be the biggest and best yet.
It was also great to see National Geographic heap yet more praise on Belfast’s vibrant food scene in January, and it was encouraging to witness the way tourism businesses of all descriptions embraced the month’s breakfast theme.
This fantastic start to the initiative was very welcome, but I am determined to ensure that we keep the momentum going for the remaining 11 months of the year and the 11 themes that lie ahead.
Food and drink experiences give Northern Ireland a great way to differentiate and celebrate our indigenous produce and dishes. Few of us would now doubt that our local fare has become very important to the tourism industry.
Our food and drink offerings provide an excellent vehicle for helping visitors to learn about our heritage, landscape and culture and to engage with our people. Every food festival, each Ulster Fry, meal out, food tour or cookery school place bought and paid for generates money into the economy and accounts for a significant proportion of the total visitor spend. This means there are huge opportunities surrounding the Year of Food and Drink for tourism, for the wider economy and to the local businesses that can reap benefits, publicity and profits from getting involved.
Let’s not miss, however, the fact that we are finally celebrating our own local produce in a meaningful way.
In the past our indigenous produce was served up without much fuss. But thankfully this has changed quite quickly and substantially, and now Northern Ireland is starting to get a real reputation as a place of excellence for food and drink.
The fantastic array of fresh ingredients, wide range of eateries and food events, talented chefs, artisan producers and indeed a flourishing foodie culture is really hitting its stride in Northern Ireland. As well as a tasty menu of core produce, such as fresh seafood, premium meats, and our wonderful griddle breads, we are experiencing an explosion of artisan food and drink that is boosting our international reputation.
While our food producers shine on the world stage, with hundreds of Great Taste Award winners like Hannan Meats, Mash Direct, Dale Farm and Punjana Tea, the strength of our local produce has made an impact on the experience visitors can expect in our restaurants, hotels, visitor attractions, cafés, pubs and cookery schools. We are now getting unprecedented interest from leading chefs, food critics and opinion-forming journalists who are lauding the quality and range of our offerings. It’s an exciting time for food and drink in Northern Ireland, and it has come into the spotlight as never before.
The celebration of Northern Ireland food and drink in 2016 is aimed at integrating our unique local offerings into all levels of the tourism experience. The main targets for the year are to increase food-related visitor satisfaction by 5 per cent, generate £10 million of positive PR, and support the increase of export sales to £30 million – and I have no doubt these will be achieved.
With Tourism NI taking the lead, in partnership with Food NI, Invest NI, local authorities and government departments, the approach is not on one big splash event but on a series of events that will take place over the course of the year.
From St George’s Market in Belfast to the LegenDerry Food Festival to the Armagh County Agricultural Show to the Hans Sloane Chocolate and Fine Food Festival in Killyleagh, we are working across the board and with every local authority to look at how we can either uplift and enhance existing events, or create new ones to take advantage of the opportunity that the Year of Food and Drink presents.
There is a really interesting calendar developing. We’ll be telling our local food and drink stories, holding media events and providing consumer competitions all through the year and around each monthly theme and other seasonal opportunities such as Shrove Tuesday, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
Tourism NI is supporting the initiative with a new and dedicated Year of Food and Drink 2016 events fund, as well industry toolkits, brand guidelines, roadshows and an integrated marketing and communications plan. Indeed our annual Tourism Conference in 2016 will explore the importance of food and drink at events, and across attractions and accommodation.
As the message about the quality of our local produce spreads out domestically and internationally in 2016, I am convinced we will make new inroads with visitors curious to discover – and taste – our delicious food and drink.
More and more people are choosing Northern Ireland as a destination, and while official full-year data is not yet available, last year is showing all the signs of being the best ever for our tourism industry.
Tourism NI is determined to maintain the positive momentum in 2016 and to keep on target for becoming a £1 billion industry by 2020. The Year of Food and Drink has a major part to play in feeding that momentum.
While there are many attractions beyond our local produce to attract visitors, food and drink certainly adds greatly to the Northern Ireland proposition. As it unfolds, I trust the initiative will continue to be embraced right across the tourism landscape, and that the appetite will remain strong for making the most of the year ahead.
For more information about how to get involved in Year of Food and Drink 2016 go to www.tourismni.com. For consumer and visitor information visit www.discovernorthernireland.com and for food specific information go to www.nigoodfood.com