Round table discussion: Enabling the growth of tourism

Enabling the growth of tourism

Tourism NI hosted a round table discussion with key stakeholders within the sector to analyse tourism performance and explore the various opportunities to grow the sector’s economic contribution. 

What are the highlights of the Tourism NI Visitor Attitude Survey?

John McGrillen
The purpose of the Tourism NI Visitor Attitude Survey is to take a relatively large sample of visitors to Northern Ireland and get a sense of why they are here, how they found the place and where they spent their time. It helps us, from a strategic and operational point of view, to identify trends and to verify our understanding of the marketplace. The sample is large enough to let us disaggregate the data to see things at a more local level. That allows us to determine, with local authorities, what needs to be done to drive visitor spend in those areas. 

The feedback for the most part has been extremely positive. It reinforces our view that our USP [unique selling proposition] is the quality of our landscape, our built heritage and the warmth of the welcome. The evidence shows that the real stand out element is the warmth of the welcome and the friendliness of the people here.

Looking back to The Open, the quality of our landscape and the quality of our golf courses was broadcast across the world and the warmth of the welcome for the golfers and visitors was very much on brand.

Paul Mac Flynn
The visitor survey is a wealth of data. One area that might be added is benchmarking the data to compare visitor experience here against that elsewhere. It is useful to see trends and see how Northern Ireland as a region is performing compared to other regions. Who is doing better than us? And can we set targets on a few key metrics to close any gaps? Connectivity is an issue highlighted in the survey, with over 50 per cent of tourists coming into Northern Ireland from the RoI, Brexit may have an impact on that. WiFi and mobile are issues that keep coming up and both need to be invested in.

John Hood
A key issue highlighted in the survey is the geographic spread of visitors. Our role in Invest NI is to focus on tourism accommodation outside Belfast. Although we don’t support investment within a 10 mile radius of Belfast City Centre, which has been successful without government support. We need to replicate that across the region to ensure we have an infrastructure that can support visitors throughout Northern Ireland. We recently supported the opening of two new hotels; one in north Antrim and one in south Armagh. That shows that people are now prepared to invest outside Belfast. If we are to continue the positive feedback from the visitor survey, we need to ensure that infrastructure investment is spread across the region.

John McGrillen, Tourism NI.

Joanne Stuart
The Visitor Attitude Survey provides some good information, particularly the Net Promoter Score (NPS) – those who would recommend Northern Ireland. Our score of 67 is great, as anything over 70 is world class. It shows that once we get people here, they love it and we exceed their expectations. How do we attract more people? Familiarisation (FAM) trips with tour operators are important but we also need to get to the increasingly important independent traveller. Overnight trips by people from RoI is a small part of our market and there is potential for growth. Tourism is a growing market in Northern Ireland. We have seen 35 per cent growth in the last five years and in terms of relative size compared to the rest of the UK and RoI, we have plenty of opportunity for growth and we have made great strides with the investment in attractions and accommodation.

Katy Best
The success of The Open will help boost the visitor numbers from RoI. We enticed so many visitors from the South who wouldn’t have come up North if it wasn’t for a hook like The Open. Those hooks are key and need a clear brand and call to action to come. RoI accounts for only 12 per cent of our visitors and GB only 21 per cent. These are our near, high-volume markets and represent a fantastic growth opportunity for us. From our perspective we would like to see more people coming into Northern Ireland via Belfast. For aviation, tourism is only part of the story and economic development is the other pillar. Better connectivity, with key touch points across Europe, will facilitate economic activity and growth.

Shane Clarke
Tourism Ireland operates in the global tourism marketplace, which is a trillion-dollar industry. We strive to ensure that those people choose to come here instead of somewhere else. What stands out in the Attitude Survey is the NPS score. When we go to the marketplace we make a promise; come and see Titanic Belfast, the Giant’s Causeway… and then we talk about the friendliness of the people – that’s difficult to communicate but what is really important is that once people come here they experience that and they communicate that to friends and family once they go home. There is still great potential for tourism in Northern Ireland. I come from Dublin, it’s a big market just down the road. I was joking with someone during the weekend of The Open that there was an invasion of white registration number plates all of whom had a fantastic time in Portrush and would be back.

John Hood, Invest NI.

Judith Owens
The Attitude Survey shows that attractions were the main reason for visiting Northern Ireland. That underlines the importance of not just developing new attractions but also investing and enhancing existing ones. We need to continue to benchmark our attractions and ensure they have international standout. The main attractions in Northern Ireland do benchmark globally and are part of a UK wide benchmarking scheme. Historically, Northern Ireland does extremely well in terms of NPS score compared to other UK regions. We need to tailor our products and experiences to the individuals coming into Northern Ireland. There is a new model that goes beyond NPS and that is Visitor Intensity modelling that looks at not just the warmth of welcome but at the site content and the emotional impact of the attraction.

How important is connectivity — physical, digital and infrastructure — for the tourism sector in Northern Ireland?

John McGrillen
Connectivity is an area for improvement highlighted in the Attitude Survey; how you get to Northern Ireland, how you get around Northern Ireland, including public transport provision; and digital connectivity. Tourism is an industry that is becoming more digital by the day and visitors are increasingly using their mobile phones to access information. We have to address digital connectivity, particularly in rural areas where we want to drive some of the tourism spend.

Paul Mac Flynn
Public transport is important. It’s fine getting to Belfast from RoI but trying to get anywhere else is a challenge. We had a conference in May at Magee University in Derry and a colleague was travelling to another conference in Galway the following day. It took four of us on smart phones to work out how he could get from Derry to Galway using public transport. An obvious opportunity is to extend the Wild Atlantic Way right around the coast to the North. The connectivity will be a challenge to make that happen. The lack of connectivity will also hinder the integration of the Northern Ireland attractions outside Belfast into the RoI tourist experience.

Judith Owens, TBL International Ltd.

Katy Best
That was an issue when we did the GB visitor strategy review with Tourism Ireland. The concept of the ‘final mile’ kept coming up. You can get from Belfast to Derry by train but how do you get to the Seamus Heaney Homeplace. It’s a challenge right across the UK and Ireland but because of our size we probably have an opportunity to solve that. Tourists want something different, but it must be easy. At the moment it’s not as easy as it should be. There is an opportunity here for a commercial operator to fill this gap. 

Joanne Stuart
There is a strong private coach operator sector but it’s hard for them to integrate into the whole infrastructure. Connectivity is also about connectivity across departments and between government and industry. We need a holistic approach to the economy and to view all our investments through a tourism lens. When we have events such as The Open, everyone works together well. We have got to find a way of doing that on a daily basis. Over 50 per cent of our visitors come through Dublin and we need to ensure there is seamless travel to Northern Ireland and that no obstacles are in place that could deter tourists coming to Northern Ireland as a result of Brexit.

John McGrillen
Co-ordination is important and the example of The Open only happened after a huge amount of work right across agencies and departments. In the Republic there is a tourism cross-departmental steering group chaired by the minister and that’s something we need here.

Part of the challenge here is de-risking some of the transport routes. We do have services in the Mournes and the Causeway Coast but without the volumes to make them sustainable. We need to work to make these sustainable by driving up the visitor numbers. Another disconcerting issue is the loss of 40 per cent of taxis. It’s often a challenge to get a taxi at a bus or train station in Northern Ireland. Local government has a role to play in addressing these connectivity issues.

Shane Clarke
We are an island and we have over 520,000 plane seats each week and 15 per cent of visitors come by sea. If you want people to come to Northern Ireland, you need a favourable climate for airlines to put on routes. Dublin is a huge gateway and this should be fully exploited by focusing on getting visitors on leaving the airport to turn left and come north. It is also important to make it easy for people to get around when they get here. For example, buses from Belfast International to Enniskillen go into Belfast first and then out. The biggest bus terminal in Ireland is in Dublin airport and if you want to get to Enniskillen as a visitor it might be easier going via Dublin and that doesn’t feel right.

Paul Mac Flynn, NERI.

John Hood
We have got to be smarter with our connectivity and identify small wins rather than trying to change everything. Our size is our strength but can also be a weakness. The Wild Atlantic Way has been a very clever way of linking together small places that on their own people wouldn’t visit but when packaged together is much more appealing. There is a role for the local councils working together this way to package various destinations together.   

How can we build an effective experience brand for Northern Ireland?

John McGrillen
There are three key elements to building an experience brand. The first is around how we communicate the Northern Ireland brand in a way that ensures that everyone can buy in to it and feel part of it. The second is how we build experiences and itineraries that will transform those day-trippers into longer stays. I think collectively we must take a more hands on role in packaging our experiences to better sell them. To this end we are working through an experience development framework, identifying customer demands and working with industry to package those tailored desires. We plan to launch a new experience brand in November and having those packages that ourselves, Tourism Ireland and the industry can sell will be critical. The third element is culture and making sure that when we make our promises to the world about what Northern Ireland is, that we deliver. The Net Promoter Score (NPS) suggests that we are exceeding the expectation of visitors but we have to continue to work with industry to make sure that there is a consistency of experience.

Judith Owens
That culture experience mustn’t start and stop at the large attractions. It’s important that the tourism product is bought into by all, be it at Titanic Belfast, the Giants Causeway or a roadway petrol station offering visitor information. The creation of that Northern Ireland-wide brand also lends itself to commercial opportunity and investment. Another element is that of sustainability and ensuring that when creating these experiences we are providing support to the smaller industry products so that they can sustain standards and continue to develop.

Shane Clarke, Tourism Ireland.

Joanne Stuart
Tourism is everyone’s business. It is important that we ourselves are aware of the experiences and tourism product which is key to information being passed on to visitors and sustaining our domestic tourism. There is also a critical role in developing an experience brand for the digital sphere. How people book and organise their trips is changing and industry are working with Tourism NI to investigate how we can better use digital platforms to raise visitor awareness of our various experiences. At a local level, development of the Northern Ireland tourism brand, which everyone can be proud of, has been significant in allowing councils to support and feel part of that wider vision. However, there is more work to be done in encompassing everyone in to the same vision which will benefit all.

Paul Mac Flynn
Integration of the commercial sector has great potential. Taking transport as an example, where there is a mix of transport providers between Translink and the private sector. If, through technology, we can bring those together under one usable application then we can dramatically enhance the visitor offering and improve that connectivity with experiences dispersed through Northern Ireland. However, I think there needs to be recognition that if we want to disperse visitors across Northern Ireland then there is going to have to be an initial investment in necessary infrastructure.    

Katy Best
I think it’s easy to forget just how much of a significant challenge creating an experience brand can be, particularly because in the Wild Atlantic Way we have one of the most successful examples on our doorstep. Tourism in Northern Ireland has been an incredibly fragmented sector, however, if you look at the strides made and the momentum gathered, Northern Ireland is ready for this. Substantial investment is going to be required to ensure that it becomes the meaningful proposition that it should be. Something with a broad appeal, which everyone can be a part of, will be fundamental to longevity. 

Judith Owens
We need to be careful around where our current large attractions sit within any new brand, appreciating that they are the major attractors to Northern Ireland for visitors. There are great opportunities in creating bespoke experiences tailored to expanding on the offering we currently have.

Katy Best, George Best Belfast City Airport.

Shane Clark
Ensuring the sector embraces the brand is crucial. If you look at the Wild Atlantic Way there is high praise for the marketing and the branding but the real success lies in the fact that the communities along the coast embraced the brand and fell under the same umbrella. We need that buy-in for Northern Ireland and when we have that, the job to sell Northern Ireland is made easier. A full map of Ireland’s experiences will encourage greater fluidity across the island. However, in creating that map it will be incumbent on us to ensure that those various experiences work together. Greater synergy will bring benefit for all.   

What impact can the Belfast City Region Deal and the Tourism Sector Deal have on tourism for Northern Ireland?

Katy Best
The Tourism Sector Deal is part of the UK’s Industrial Strategy and is one of only 10 sector deals to date. There is an opportunity for everywhere in Northern Ireland to benefit from the deal. One of the big objectives of the tourism sector in seeking the deal was the recognition that it would place an emphasis on all government departments to move tourism up the agenda. For us in Northern Ireland, an industrial strategy has to include a reference to tourism and it has to include responsibility across all of the Executive and the Northern Ireland Civil Service to take tourism to the next stage.

Joanne Stuart
This is an area where we have really missed not having a local Executive and having little or no representation at a UK level. The Tourism Sector Deal is very England-centric, however, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) is now looking at how the sector deal could apply to the devolved nations and I’m delighted to have been put forward as the Northern Ireland representative on the Tourism Industry Council, as it is so important Northern Ireland’s voice is heard. Decisions taken at a UK level could have a significant negative impact on our industry but I think there is a real opportunity for industry and government coming together to develop a Tourism Sector Deal for Northern Ireland.

Paul Mac Flynn
What I found interesting about the deal was that because it is part of the Industrial Strategy, it goes further than the usual capital expenditure programmes we tend to see for Northern Ireland and it focusses on areas such as productivity, skills and people. The tourism sector from a career perspective often represents low wages and little career path progression but the deal appears to facilitate that push towards offering areas for development and for skill acquisition. It offers the opportunity to say that tourism, as an industry, is going to be a key plank of Northern Ireland’s industrial strategy going forward. That’s going to require a cross-departmental approach but it feeds in to that ambition to ensure that the tourism experience across Northern Ireland is held to a high standard across all attractions.

Joanne Stuart
The Belfast City Region Deal is also important on bringing in investment to develop our product, however, it’s critical that industry is involved in developing the propositions and establishing how exciting major developments, such as that of the Belfast story, can integrate with what we already have. We all know that we need another world-class attraction but we need to map out how it connects with the rest of the tourism offering and how these projects coming forward link up.

John Hood
City deals are a great opportunity but we must do it in a coherent and collaborative way. The approach must be to identify projects for the benefit of the entire region, rather than for a particular council area. Even with public sector spending input there will always be a need for private sector investment, whether that be in the early stages or in sustaining a project. Previously our size has been a challenge, as we’re often too small to maintain a series of public-sector led investments over a longer period. We can’t sustain a Titanic Belfast in every council area but the project is a really good example of how private and public partnership can bring benefits to the whole region, through collaboration.

Judith Owens
The growth achieved must be additional growth and must not displace what we already are achieving. The major attractions in Northern Ireland are the hooks that are bringing people in to the city and while they can work to signpost visitors to other experiences it must be recognised that the international standout venue will attract people globally.

Joanne Stuart, NI Tourism Alliance.

John McGrillen
It’s critical that these projects have a consumer focus. If a project doesn’t pass the consumer test, then someone is going to carry a very expensive legacy for the next 25 years. There is also a challenge in that a lot of the proposed investment in the City Deal is focussed in the Greater Belfast area and that could be counterproductive to the things we are trying to achieve in regard to regional distribution. My fear is that this is seen as the capital programme for tourism in Northern Ireland for the next decade and I think that it has to be much more than city deals. In the past we had too many visitor attractions done on a whim or because one individual believed it would be a good idea and we are living with the consequences.

Shane Clarke
The deal has to be one for Northern Ireland in its entirety and not biased to an urban area. The overall ambition with tourism is to drive up its economic contribution and we want to ensure that ultimately it facilitates people to live and work where they want to, enabling economic improvement.

Identify one key area a future tourism strategy should focus on

Judith Owens
We need to ensure that business tourism is not just a niche but a core focus as part of any tourism strategy over the next 10 years. Not least because of the investment in the ICC Belfast and our hotels but also because of the incentives for the local economy associated with the MICE market.

Shane Clarke
I think it is sustainability, in the business sense, and not just the amount of visitors from overseas but making sure that when they come they are well-spread, that Northern Ireland isn’t dependent on one source market and that there is a year-round interest in visiting

Katy Best
Joined-up product development is key but possibly even more important is that it is underpinned by technology. Unless we are making tourism easy to buy, we will get left behind.

Joanne Stuart
Engagement with industry to ensure that policy decisions consider the needs of tourism. That leads directly into the conversation around skills and the important role industry has in driving a skills agenda in collaboration with government and the education sector.

John Hood
Community engagement. All tourism in a region such as Northern Ireland is local and the key decision makers and influencers on the future of tourism are not only within communities but they are the young people. We need to assess how we engage at a very early level to make community involvement in tourism a way of life, like in many other tourism developed countries.

Paul Mac Flynn
I think the productivity piece is crucial. With a future growth strategy there are dangers in trying to do too much, too quickly and spreading resources too thinly, which would damage the reputation that has been slowly built up. Let’s be ambitious but let’s be realistic and properly invest at a sustainable pace.

John McGrillen
I think there is a huge opportunity to link the Tourism Sector Deal with the tourism strategy. To have government outline their investment plans and for the private sector to come in on the back of that. True partnership can deliver mutual benefits. In terms of a strategy focus I identify sustainability as a huge issue. There is a focus on the environmental impact of travel, with people switching to more sustainable modes of transport and that’s a significant issue for us as an island economy. Sustainability also relates to productivity and the recognition that if we improve productivity around seasonality and better use of our existing assets then we enable more sustainable businesses and communities. That sustainability from an environmental, economic and social point of view is the bedrock we need to build upon.

 


The Participants

Katy Best
Katy Best is the Commercial Director at Belfast City Airport. Katy has over 15 years’ experience within tourism-related businesses in Belfast, London and Sydney. Katy currently sits on the Visit Britain Board and has recently co-chaired the GB Review for Tourism Ireland. Previous non-executive roles include Tourism NI, The Mac and Tall Ships 2015 Ltd. In addition to this, Katy has served as a council member of NI Chamber of Commerce.

Shane Clarke
Shane Clarke is the Director of Corporate Services, Policy and Northern Ireland at Tourism Ireland. He previously worked with Maguire & Paterson Sales & Marketing Limited as Managing Director.  Prior to that, he was Chief Financial Officer at ConocoPhillips Ireland.  He also held a number of senior Commercial and Financial roles during his 15 years at Diageo. Shane has an extensive background in policy, tourism, and corporate governance with experience in both public and private sectors.

John Hood
John Hood is Director of the Food; Drink & Tourism Division in Invest NI, responsible for 37 staff working with around 200 food and drink processing businesses, as well as a number of hotel accommodation providers. He is also responsible for a dedicated Food & Drink Business Development Team covering Great Britain; the Republic of Ireland; Europe and the Middle East/Asia, and a new Consumer Insight Team helping companies identify market and product trends and opportunities.

Paul Mac Flynn
Paul Mac Flynn is a senior economist at the Nevin Economic Research Institute in Belfast. His research interests include labour market transitions, regional economic development and productivity.  Since taking up his position in the NERI Paul has carried out work examining the implications of automation technologies for the future of the workforce, the persistence of low skilled employment in Northern Ireland, and the economic impact of Brexit.

John McGrillen
CEO of Tourism NI since 2015, John has previously served as Director of Development at Belfast City Council and Chief Executive of Down District Council.  In his early career John worked for Short Brothers and the Industrial Development Board before being appointed Chief Executive of NI-CO. John is a graduate of Mechanical Engineering from Queen’s University Belfast and also holds an MSc in Engineering Computation and an MBA in International Business.

Judith Owens
Judith Owens is CEO at TBL International Ltd, parent company to the Titanic Belfast, SS Nomadic and the Titanic Exhibition Centre.  With experience spanning nearly three decades, Judith is one of UK’s the most experienced and established operations management professionals. Judith currently serves as a board member of Visit Belfast, the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, and the Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance.

Joanne Stuart
Joanne Stuart is the CEO of the NI Tourism Alliance which is the single representative body for the tourism and hospitality industry in Northern Ireland, providing a unified and independent voice of the industry. NITA engages at all levels of government and beyond to raise awareness of and contributing to the solution of major strategic issues affecting the industry.

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