Mountains, Myths and Maritime: An immersive experience

Ambitions outlined in Newry, Mourne and Down District Council’s Tourism Strategy to become one of the premier tourist destinations on the island of Ireland are progressing through the creation, collaboration and support of visitor experiences.

Tourism is a critical economic driver for Newry, Mourne and Down and the District Council has made becoming one of the premier tourist destinations on the Island of Ireland a key corporate objective over the past five years.  Spending from overnight trips to Newry, Mourne and Down has grown by 44 per cent since 2015, evidence that the tourism industry has demonstrated strong growth. Looking forward to the next five years the continued growth and strengthening of the competitiveness of the District, and its tourism businesses, and the continued development of destination experiences will be the priority for the Council and its partners within the local tourism industry.     

Since launching their Tourism Strategy in 2017, the Council has been working with these partners across the region’s tourism industry and within government to create exciting visitor experiences under the Mountains, Myths and Maritime theme, which are unique, memorable and authentic. The tourism industry has embraced a new way of working and come together to collaborate and offer visitors new experiences which allows them to immerse themselves in the landscapes, stories and people of the region.

With a real opportunity for a further step change in the tourism offering, building upon the significant success already achieved in terms of growth and collaboration, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council are one of six local authority partners in the Belfast Region City Deal programme which are working to develop a series of new, world-class visitor attractions that will help to build the international competitiveness and stand-out of Northern Ireland on the global stage.

In Newry, Mourne and Down the game changing investment will be in the Gateway to the Mourne Mountains, which will see investment of £36 million in redefining the visitor destination experience associated with the Mourne Mountains and Coastline.

Building on its firm reputation as a district with a strong focus on further developing its focus on tourism, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council has firmly bought into the economic growth potential that exists within the tourism sector. With Northern Ireland’s giant ambition to generate tourism revenue of £2 billion and 25,000 jobs by 2030, agendaNi profiles some of the flourishing businesses being supported by the Council to continue growing tourism, meeting visitor demand and assisting Council to achieve its corporate objective of becoming a premier destination on the island of Ireland.

Ed Lindsay, Finnebrogue Woods.

Finnebrogue Woods

Located off the Killyleagh Road, Downpatrick, Finnebrogue Woods is establishing itself as one of the district’s most unique experiences. The home of the Lindsay family’s working farm from the 1960s, the family’s recent shift away from the motor industry has seen the rebuild of its Dexter cattle stock from around five to close to 100 currently.

Dexter cattle, the working farm and a farm to fork ethos are the basis for the family to develop the unique and idyllic settings, including a 30-acre private lake and lavish woodland, to incorporate Fodder farm shop and café. Opened in September 2018, Fodder sells and serves locally sourced produce, including Dexter beef. 

The farm and café are just two of the unique draws of Finnebrogue, which hosted its first wedding in its Scandinavian lakeside tipi in 2016. Ed Lindsay, founder of Ireland’s only Nordic tipi supplier, and his wife Rachael have combined their business experience to develop the Finnebrogue Estate and continue to explore the visitor potential for the site.

Discussing the attractiveness of Finnebrogue, Lindsay believes that the site’s ability to offer weddings, corporate events and now, through the café, an opportunity for the general public to step away from their busy lives and into the relaxed and beautiful setting, is very appealing.

“We’ve been very careful to remain close to our core values in terms of our locally sourced produce and offering that farm-to-fork experience through Fodder,” says Lindsay, who admits that he and his team remain open to developing their offering alongside customer-demand.

Development of trails throughout the forest and the integration of another business, Falcon Outdoors, which specialises in bushcraft training and experiences, has enhanced the Woods’ attractiveness, as will the addition of five glamping pods in the near future.

Lindsay is delighted with the early progress of Finnebrogue Woods and appreciates its role in the wider ambitions to enhance the tourism offering across the district. As a member of a recently formed cluster group of business around Strangford Lough, he believes that collaboration is key to ensuring awareness of the district’s various offerings.

“We’re in the early days of our journey but to date the feedback has been excellent. We’re aware of our appeal to people who want to switch off and relax, enjoy good food and appreciate their surroundings.

“Our visitors and guests have been largely local but we are seeing more and more that our loyal customers are bringing their international friends to the venue to boast the best of Northern Ireland and we’d like more people to experience this wonderful area.

“Going forward, our aim is to find a fine balance between our wonderful setting but also meeting the changing desires of visitors. Our ambition is to continue to build a sustainable business, incorporating our values within our produce.”

Bernard Sloan, Whitewater Brewery.

Whitewater Brewery

Established in 1996 on the family farm close to County Down’s Whitewater River, Whitewater Brewery’s two decades of growth and success has seen it outgrow its original location and move to a new purpose-built site in Castlewellan in 2016.

Now Northern Ireland’s largest microbrewery, Whitewater’s progress can be mapped through its switch from an original 800 litre brew size to now almost 7,000 litres. Owners Bernard and Kerry Sloan have taken their experience from working in the brewing industry abroad to build and grow the business, which now has the capacity to cask, bottle and can its range of various beers.

The move to the bigger site also aided a niggling ambition to explore the business’s tourism potential. Such was the interest in production, the Sloan’s recognised the value of inviting visitors to not only taste their produce but also see how it was made and to try their hand at making their own.

Sloan explains that some 10 per cent of the new site has been dedicated to a visitor centre. In addition to this, Whitewater now operate an online booking system for tours and for ‘We Brew Together’, an experience where guests create their own brew in a mini-replica of the brewery.

Employing around 10 full and part-time staff, Sloan says that footfall to the brewery has been well above predicted levels since opening up to visitors around a year ago. “Our first visitors were some 20 Swiss home brewers on tour and our second was a coach from England of some 40 people who were part of a campaign for real ale. We have also recognised an increase in visitors coming from the Republic of Ireland. We had no idea that this type of demand existed and that desire to raise our profile in the domestic and international market has been a major focus for us.”

Whitewater’s most popular brand of beer is that of ‘Maggies Leap’, which to some extent is a reflection of both Whitewater’s success and potential. As well as being well stocked locally, the brand has a lengthy export reach to the likes of Russia, Japan, the UAE, Italy, France and Canada.

Sloan outlines ambitions to develop both the business and the tourism offering further. However, he is grateful for the support received to date. “We recognised the potential in engaging with the various tourism bodies and the support offered to businesses. I think there exists a feeling whereby some businesses are hesitant to engage for various reasons but we felt that the process was rewarding.”

He is also positive about business collaboration within the district: “A lot of local businesses have supported us in either stocking our beers or raising awareness of our offering. To the same end, we seek to promote surrounding businesses to our guests. I think there is a challenge to encourage this collaboration further. There are barriers that exist that need to be broken down and a greater understanding is needed that through working in partnership the prospects for the whole area can be risen.”

Turning to the future, Sloan is open to new avenues in maximising visitor experience including the further integration of technology.

“Going forward we want to build on the greater awareness of who, what and where we are that has occurred in recent years. We would like to see a greater interest locally but also increase our potential to export. Amidst these ambitions we hope to navigate the various challenges ahead such as those potentially of Brexit and the push for parity of licencing laws for microbreweries in Northern Ireland to equate to those in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.”

Jason Foody, Killeavy Castle Estate.

Killeavy Castle Estate

Situated in 350 acres of mixed working farm and woodland at the eastern base of County Armagh’s Slieve Gullion, the newly opened Killeavy Castle Estate is a welcome addition in efforts to expand the tourism offering within the local area.

Using the Grade A listed historical building, originally designed in 1836, as its centrepiece, the regeneration of the site has seen the addition of a 220 people event space and a 4* boutique hotel accommodation with an ethos of wellness and sustainability running throughout.

The renovation was undertaken by a developer, now based in Australia but born in the local area, who noted the sale of the then site of disrepair on a visit home and who did not wish to see it overdeveloped.

Outlining how the project has set about enhancing the local tourism market, Killeavy’s General Manager Jason Foody says: “Historically this area in south Armagh hasn’t had that reputation as a destination for longer stays and instead tended to attract day-trippers. Part of the reason for this, we believe, was that there was a shortage of suitable accommodation meeting the demand of the modern market. As well as this, Slieve Gullion and the beautiful estate is in itself an experience attraction and we wanted to tie in with that and expand on the offering.”

Situated an hour from Belfast and Dublin, just off the M1, the estate has already proved a popular wedding destination with close to 100 events booked since opening in April. A relaxation experience and an escape from the busy modern world is another selling point of the venue.

“Our working farm and our farm to fork ethos throughout the estate has been well received. From the outset we have ensured a strong focus on sustainability has run throughout our planning and design and we have sought to take a balanced approach to sustainability,” explains Foody.

“A good example of this is not only our integration with local suppliers to supplement the produce not grown on the farm but our protection of the various listed buildings and sustainable re-planting, for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Looking to the future, Foody explains that the estate’s ongoing challenge will be raising of awareness of the offering and the surrounding attractions. He is grateful for the assistance provided by key partners within Northern Ireland such as Tourism NI, Invest NI and Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and is pleased at the level of international visitors that have already attended, coming from the like of New Zealand, America and Asia. However, much like Northern Ireland tourism’s ambitions as a whole, Foody sees greater potential within the domestic and Republic of Ireland market for growth.

Keith Reilly, Montalto Estate.

Montalto Estate

Significant redevelopment and restoration work at the 400-acre Montalto Estate in Ballynahinch, County Down saw it open up to the public for the first time in September 2018.

The site, bought by the Wilson family in 1995 and in need of significant repair and conservation, was originally planned as a family home but recognised for its commercial potential.

The estate with the Georgian Montalto House at its heart, has been developed to incorporate commercial and private venue hire, agricultural leasing and as a prominent tourist destination, hosting trails, gardens, a natural play area, café and retail spaces.

The early success of the venue can be recognised in that, soon, the estate will surpass 100,000 visitors, less than a year after opening. Operations Director Keith Reilly believes that this early success is only the beginning of Montalto’s journey to becoming one of Northern Ireland’s most memorable visitor attractions.

“From the outset the ambition of the owners has always been to allow others to experience this unique and beautiful area. In doing so, there was considerable work required to restore many of its features but also to enhance the experience for visitors and attract them to return over and over again.

“There is a recognition that we are all only caretakers of Montalto, in that it will be around for a lot longer than us. So, in developing the estate we have been focussed in not only protecting the land but also enabling it to generate enough income to remain sustainable for future generations. The fantastic thing is that the local community and visitors can not only enjoy the estate but in visiting they are also enabling it to be enjoyed by future generations.”

Reilly believes that Montalto has a huge role to play in a push within tourism to ensure a greater dispersion of visitors across the region.

“We wanted to develop an experience for visitors that was unique and that didn’t mimic other offerings elsewhere. To that end, we believe we are enhancing the attractiveness of Northern Ireland’s tourism offering as a whole,” says Reilly. “Tourism in Northern Ireland is increasing and I think that as providers we all have a responsibility to enhance the overall experience for visitors. We’re at an early stage but we have been and are keen to engage with the tourism bodies and businesses across County Down to put together packages and form cluster groups.”

Reilly highlights recent tourism figures which show that in 2018 just 14 per cent of visitors to the island of Ireland came north. “Our original focus has been on the domestic market and we realise that so much of the Northern Ireland market remains untapped. However, we also see ourselves as a showcase of Northern Ireland, where our customers will bring their guests to show off the best features of their community. Going forward we will be working to raise our profile within Northern Ireland but we also want to build on work to lift awareness in the Republic of Ireland and further afield, drawing people into Northern Ireland’s fantastic offerings.”

Added to the beautiful surroundings, Reilly and his team have also set about integrating a number of experiences within Montalto such as workshops and tours with the aim of developing these further through customer feedback.

“The great thing is that as an independent tourism provider, with an agile business model, is that there are many opportunities available to us to grow and adapt the business quickly. A real key to that has been, and will continue to be, our people. We now have over 70 staff throughout the estate, who have bought in to what we are doing. We have a good catchment area for staff attraction and have worked to ensure a high retention level. Our staff and the experience they offer customers are as valuable to the future of the estate as its many beautiful features.

“Our staff are as much to do with the good customer feedback we have received as the estate itself.

“Montalto is an ongoing development and this is just the start. We’re looking forward to enabling our visitors to make memories through fantastic experiences.”

Michelle Boyle, Head of Tourism Development and Visitor Experience

T: 028 3031 6661

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