Posted on Thursday 15 March 2012 by Ulster Business
“If you build it, they will come,” is the famous line in the film Field of Dreams.
Whether you’re talking about Titanic Belfast, the new Giant’s Causeway visitor centre, or the programme of events in ni2012, the tourism industry here has certainly “built it”.
Charged with making sure people come is Tourism Ireland, the all island body which promotes this part of the world through marketing activities in 22 countries.
On top of its normal funding for Tourism Ireland’s activities the Executive has stumped up an additional £4.7m this year to ensure 2012 does not disappoint.
The expected return on that investment means stretching targets to grow tourism to Northern Ireland by 10% in total visitors and 20% in holidaymakers.
Brian Ambrose, chief executive of Belfast City Airport and chairman of Tourism Ireland since the start of the year, knows that there is pressure to deliver.
“We are like anybody else, we have to be measured on results. All the talk is fine, but there is a huge amount of work behind the scenes to make sure we actually deliver and produce these results. This is the hard nosed edge of tourism, there is serious investment going in to make it work,” he told Ulster Business.
Tourism Ireland estimates that during 2012 up to 200 million consumers across the world will see its new advertising campaign – which includes TV ads with the tagline ‘Jump into Northern Ireland’ and features music by Snow Patrol.
It launched the campaign last month with an event at St James Palace in London and though Ambrose was blown away by the goodwill towards the campaign from local celebrities and business people, he realised we still have an image problem to overcome.
“The image in the advert is an image of Northern Ireland that people are not familiar with… At the launch at St James Palace we had about 50 British journalists there, and what I realised was that most people in Great Britain have an image of Northern Ireland that is 10 years out of date. So it is a challenge to get people here in the first place,” he said.
It is a challenge the organisation expects to overcome through promotional activity involving tourism industry partners, including a series of road shows this year in key access gateways such as London, Glasgow and Manchester.
Speaking just after an event launching a new £2m access partnership between airlines, ferry operators and airports designed to bring more overseas visitors to Northern Ireland, Mr Ambrose said there is a tangible buzz around the industry that 2012 will mark a turning point.
“The last few years have been tough…but we’re finding now there is an air of optimism, a bit of a buzz that I haven’t sensed in the four years I have been involved with Tourism Ireland. That’s what gives you confidence,” he says, noting that many businesses are already reporting growth in forward bookings compared to last year.
“Success breeds success. If you start to get hotels with more bookings, pubs and restaurants with numbers on the increase, airlines and sea ferries finding that their numbers are up, the private sector will back that. Hoteliers will invest more in their product, bars and restaurants will improve what they already have,” he adds.
Some 80% of Tourism Ireland’s budget is directed to the key target markets of Great Britain, Germany, France and the US. While Ambrose notes growing potential in emerging markets such as China, Brazil and India, the core markets allow it to be more specific in its marketing of Northern Ireland’s product.
“Its the smart thing for us. The industry has been through a tough few years so let’s get back to basics. GB is the main market, let’s make sure that we fully capitalise on the built up potential there to achieve results,” he said.
Northern Ireland is of course competing with other destinations within Great Britain which are easier to get to and don’t require a plane or boat trip.
“That’s why this year is a breakthrough. There has to be compelling reasons for people to come and Titanic Belfast is a big enough attraction that people will travel from England specifically to visit that attraction. People will come from Great Britain for the Irish Open,” he said.
“Other places have good scenery, other places are friendly. So you have to have enough to fill somebody’s diary for two or three days and increasingly that’s very do-able,” he adds.
“It is the first time Tourism Ireland have had such a focused Northern Ireland promotion, but we have to grab this opportunity while it is staring us in the face.”