Talking Tourism

The Brexit effect and the need for linked promotions between the tourism industry in the north and south of the country were among the topics discussed at the National Tourism Forum in Killarney on November 25th and 26th.

Chaired by broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan, the forum also explored the future of tourism in Ireland, international trends, tourism policy and the development of rural tourism. Organised by the Kerry branch of the Irish Hotels Federation, SKAL Republic of Ireland, and Killarney Chamber of Tourism and Commerce, events on the 25th were based in the Muckross Park Hotel in Killarney where in excess of 20 guest speakers contributed to the debate. They included Trinity College Professor of Finance, Brian Lucey, Dalata Hotel Group Chief Pat McCann, Irish Hotels’ Federation President, Joe Dolan, Irish Tourist Industry Confederation boss Eoghan O’Mara Walsh, MEP Sean Kelly, Kerry TDs Michael Healy-Rae and Brendan Griffin, and Chief Executive of the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation, Eoghan O’Mara Walsh.

False Vote Based on Mistruths

Ireland South MEP, Sean Kelly, told delegates that he had a feeling Brexit might not happen but that there was certainly a hardening of attitudes towards the UK in Europe. “Brexit was a false vote, based on emotion and mistruths,” he said. “There had been 20 years of falsehoods from the British tabloids and they were never contradicted. The decision to exit was also based on keeping migrants out.” The Fine Gael MEP said it was becoming clear that the attitude in Britain had changed, with the latest poll showing that 56% would now vote to remain in Europe with the ‘vast majority’ of young people against Brexit. Mr Kelly said he believes British Prime Minister, Theresa May, might call a General Election next June or July and everything could change after that. But, in the meantime, the MEP warned that the return of a hard border would impact enormously on the peace process.

Fáilte Ireland’s Director of Business Development, Paul Keeley said there was no need for panic over Brexit as the average British tourist stays in Ireland for a shorter period and spends less than holidaymakers from other markets. He said that the focus must be on markets that can be controlled in a better way and that the important thing for Ireland is to concentrate on providing good value for money and quality service. Dr Howard Hastings, Chairman of Visit Belfast and Managing Director of Hastings Hotels, said that, contrary to forecasts from ‘doom mongers,’ the tourism economy has powered ahead since Britain voted to leave the EU. “In July to September this year, in the aftermath of the Brexit result, there were three million arrivals to the island of Ireland,” he said. “That is up 10% on last year. September itself was 10% up, so the rate of growth has not slowed and growth has been from every region.” Dr Hastings said that, even if a slowdown from Britain is feared, the momentum from other markets is undiminished, with Benelux up 27%, Spain and Italy both up 12%, and France increasing by seven per cent.

Joined-Up Thinking

The pressing need for joined up thinking and linked promotions between the tourism industry in the north and south of the country was emphasised at the forum. Dr Hastings said it doesn’t make sense for a county the same size as Scotland to expect international buyers in the industry to attend two separate promotional events – Meithal in the Republic and Meet The Buyer in Northern Ireland – and that steps must be taken to organise just one show which rotates around the country. “Some of our tourism hubs, like Westport and Kinsale, who have led the way on joined-up tourism at a local level, will confirm that there are no quick fixes,” he said. “However, if we can replicate on an all-island scale a little of what they have produced for their regions, a sizeable prize awaits us.” He said themed trips are a good idea going forward and that food and drink tourism was a big attraction.

What possesses Fáilte Ireland, together with industry, to launch what amounted to a ‘go it alone’ campaign in Britain last year, where the creative was devised outside the Tourism Ireland branch architecture, and where the call to action was to a separate website?…In a world of joined-up tourism, we must do better than that.

The influential hotelier wondered when Dublin stopped becoming a destination and was redesignated as a product? “What possesses Fáilte Ireland, together with industry, to launch what amounted to a ‘go it alone’ campaign in Britain last year, where the creative was devised outside the Tourism Ireland branch architecture, and where the call to action was to a separate website?” he asked. “To me, this is like aiming at a target with a double barrelled shotgun where the two bores are not aligned. In a world of joined-up tourism, we must do better than that. Joined-up tourism makes it easy for the customer to try and buy the product. There still seems to be a reluctance on the part of central government to invest as much as the industry would wish in overseas markets, so hoteliers must ensure that every penny counts. We have an established brand and we have agreed that brand building and destination marketing are down to Tourism Ireland, and that product development and the promotion of products, like golf and business tourism, should be down to the two domestic boards. The segmentation of the best prospects in the market and the brand architecture best suited to capturing these prospects has been painstakingly researched and developed, and delivered cohesively by Tourism Ireland.”


Training & Development

Dr Hastings said the industry needs to significantly step up to the mark in terms of staff training and development to prepare for changing markets. “In 2008 and 2009 the first thing we did was cut people development and now we’re seeing the consequences of that,” he said. “We will always have a recruitment problem unless we have development and training.” Killarney-based hotel consultant Conor Hennigan, of Hennigan Hospitality Services, said that every hotel needs a clear training and development programme and that there is “a body of work” to be done in that respect.

“There is not enough funding being put into this sector,” he said. “It needs to be addressed by the government. If we want it to grow, it needs finance. We need to get people into the regions and we need focus and marketing assistance to achieve that.” Stephen Hanley, General Manager of the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, said that when it comes to recruitment and choosing between skills and personality, it is personality that wins ‘seven days a week’. “You can get somebody that is robotic with great skills but you need personality,” he said. The Shelbourne Hotel employs 550 people and there are always 50 jobs available. “It doesn’t matter whether they are from Caherciveen or Warsaw, it’s personality we want to recruit,” he stressed.

Super Solution

The provision of a super train travelling between the airports in Shannon and Dublin, with an estimated journey time of just 45 minutes, would be a sure-fire solution to the problems of access and regionality that are impacting on the industry. That’s according to Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae, who told delegates that it would open up the west of Ireland and provide a great boost for the entire western seaboard. “It would be a shame and a scandal and a disgrace if one more euro was spent on improving Dublin Airport,” he said. “We need to break this Red Cow barrier and this proposal makes perfect sense.” He said the new line could be provided immediately over the existing rail line between Limerick and Dublin and that would eliminate any need to acquire land or enforce compulsory purchase orders. Deputy Healy-Rae also urged the government to sanction 22m to safeguard the future of the Valentia Ferry.

#Poor Access

IHF President Joe Dolan said that poor regional access is the biggest single problem facing the Irish tourism industry. “Despite that, the country is doing very well and people are arriving in droves and are spending a  lot of money,” he said. But he expressed concerns about what he described as the inequitable distribution of tourism, with 80% of revenue generated in five counties – Dublin, Kerry, Cork, Clare and Galway. “The more remote you are, the more seasonal you tend to be,” he said. Mr Dolan said bad weather, seasonal closures and the unavailability of product in the off-season weren’t helping the regions and that the availability and cost of car hire was a major impediment.