Time to get real about tourism – and rebrand
Dublin has fallen a long way from the summit among Europe's tourist cities but here's one marketing man who says proper branding will put it back on the map. By Mark Keenan
'SCOTLAND is eating our dinner – never mind our lunch," fumes marketing supremo Maurice Pratt, who is ensconced at lunchtime in the Westbury Hotel's dining and coffee lounge to talk about Dublin's wasted tourism potential.
The selling prowess is intact – he's so convincing on the poaching powers of resurgent Scottish tourism that there's a temptation to scour behind the plush Westbury wingbacks for concealed tartan reivers who might spring out at any minute and make off with one of the hotel's Kindle-clutching Americans.
He's just been talking about the 'Scotland Might Surprise You' TV marketing campaign, currently running across Europe.
It completely out-failtes Ireland with greener greenery, mistier mountains and more derringly done diddley-eye dirges. It's a Bord Failte spectacular of old, packed with eyewatering scenery and stirring sentiment, but with a shock ending – "Visit Scotland".
He hasn't gone away, you know. Maurice Pratt was summoned last year by the ITIC (Irish Tourist Industry Confederation) to lead a steering group to find ways of reinvigorating Dublin's rapidly falling tourist numbers – these efforts culminated in the summer-launched report entitled 'Capitalising on Dublin's Potential'.
With research by Tourism Development International, the report's findings are a rallying call to businesses in the capital, which has been haemorrhaging visitor numbers since the downturn began.
Dublin's tourism trough is being cleaned out by other clued-in European capitals and, in particular, the newly branded-up Glasgow and Edinburgh marketing machines are now showing us Bannockburn when it comes to hoovering up the shekels of the short-stop Sassanach.
British tourists to Dublin fell by 40pc between 2005 and 2010.
Mr Pratt asserts that Dublin has to be branded – like Quakers Oats, Boyne Valley Honey or Erin Soup – to give the capital a crystal-clear consumer identity that overseas consumers can identify with and one that Dublin business can rally behind.
He claims such a strategy could double tourist earnings to €1.8bn within seven years and without spending much more on marketing.
It's like this, he surmises: just as the Government disbanded Dublin Tourism late last year, other European cities were stepping up to reinforce their singular identities, to create and promote strong city brands with which they have been successfully reaping the fast-growing short breaks market.
"This is what Dublin should be doing."
He runs through the list of cities which have successfully branded up in recent years: Glasgow, and its 'Scotland – With Style' campaign – which has helped leverage it into the top 10 of European conference locations. Recently, it was joined by the 'Incredinburgh' and 'Winter in Edinburgh' campaigns – the Scottish capital is now the UK's second-biggest tourist city.
It has less than half of Dublin's populace but now commands more than twice its tourism earnings. Further afield there's 'Open – Copenhagen', – today taken as a textbook case study in how to sell an apparently lacklustre city. There's 'Only in London', and 'I Am-sterstam'... and so on he goes.
"What is Dublin saying?" he asks.
Nothing. With central funding for tourism down by 20pc since 2007 and likely to fall further as austerity bites harder, he believes vested private interests in the capital need to step up fast alongside the capital's local authorities and Failte Ireland.
"Post-crash Ireland survives, thrives and dies based on the SME sector and tourism is something which is vital in every single parish in the country.
"However, over the years the focus of attention has shifted to foreign multinationals – even though so much depends on our core industries – which are agriculture, food and, of course, tourism.
"Tourism is the classic Cinderella industry. It's ultimately more important economically than agriculture but this is Ireland – so can you imagine tourism being resourced as much as agriculture?
"Although various agencies and businesses actually spend €15m a year marketing Dublin, there's absolutely no cohesion to it. Therefore, much of the impact is lost.
"Dublin already has what it takes, if it was branded and marketed properly just as a business would market a product, then a board would sit down regularly representing the city's private business and public interests.
"That board would have a designated budget and a strategy. Its members would be able to say, 'Here are our partners, here's our research showing what Dublin needs, here's our research stating what the market wants, here's where we have to aim, here's our target, and this is our schedule of everything we will do each day – from day-one of the year right through to day 365'.
"That's how a business would do it. Instead, we have a lot of disparate groups doing their own thing.
"While Dublin businesses would have to contribute financially – in exchange they'd know exactly where that money was being spent and exactly what benefits they were getting back from it.
"Barcelona, for example, has a massive involvement from its gastro-restaurant sector in the promotion of that city and the restaurants are in a position to know what is being spent and where the return comes in."
Mr Pratt's campaign to brand Dublin is now on something of a solo run – his involvement with ITIC concluded with the delivery of the report in June. But he fears there's a danger that the impetus generated by the report will fizzle out.
"What we need now is for the city's business, the local authority and the tourist board to keep driving.
"Like any report, it's only useful if it's acted upon. And as it is, the 2013 season has already been lost."
Although the Uniphar chairman is not so widely known for his tourism smarts, Mr Pratt's involvement in the sector began in 2008, the year he left C&C.
He was contacted by then Tourism Minister Martin Cullen and asked to become involved in a costings strategy for marketing Ireland abroad. Later, he was asked to review the British market for Tourism Ireland and was put on the board.
"At the end of 2011, when my remit finished, ITIC asked me to come on board when Dublin Tourism disappeared and the industry began to express concern at the loss of the capital's voice in the sector."
While he might currently be something of a cause without rebels on the "branding Dublin" front, we shouldn't underestimate the marketing man's mustering powers and the scope of his business contacts (he's been heavily involved with IBEC for many years) which may just give him what it takes to get this particular ball rolling.
Remember this is the guy who, as marketing manager for Quinnsworth (then only in his 20s), succeeded in personalising the chain for the masses through the resoundingly successful "real value" TV campaign.
By his mid-30s, he was MD and was kept as CEO by Tesco, for whom he succeeded in detoxing the British brand for Irish consumption.
During his controversial stint as CEO of C&C he transformed the idea of cider from a crime headline prefix more usually married to the term "crazed youths" – to that of a homely olde-worlde brew quaffed by cultured traditionalists. That's what Maurice the marketing man can do.
Of course he's fallen hard in other fields, particularly with C&C where his aggressive UK expansion famously came off the rails.
He cites the biggest mistake of his career as investing the proceeds of subsidiary sell-offs back into C&C shares – its falling price whittled the cash away.
"We did succeed, however, in launching an entirely new product (over-ice cider) into a new market – the UK – and that product is still going strong there today. We also invested in the production facilities which continue to make that possible."
Since then, he has followed the new movement popular among corporation-weary workers – instead of concentrating on one full-time position he has customised his own career drawing on many diverse segments. Today, he sits on multiple boards – "becoming plural" is how he describes it.
His current roles include a mix of chairman and non-executive director seats, with his main concern being Uniphar, but he also sits on the boards of Brown Thomas, Boyne Valley, Kick Communications, Barretstown, the children's cancer charity and an Irish European group.
"When you're working full-time in the same role every day, it's easy to become so focused on the organisation that you become closed off from what's happening outside the company.
"I've found that firms can appreciate the input of someone who has expertise but is not directly involved on a day-to- day basis. It brings a fresh approach to the table."
Uniphar, the wholesale company owned by Irish pharmacists, has commenced expanding again, having just announced the €50m acquisition of Cahill May Roberts. Last year, it returned to profit after a rigorous debt restructuring regime.
Boyne Valley has been buying back former Irish-owned brands like Chivers, Erinsoup, Gateaux and McDonnells – for just over €40m.
"After so many years of seeing great Irish brands sold off abroad, it's great to see some of the best ones coming home again."
But it is his recent involvement with tourism that sees Mr Pratt returning to his originally favoured career path.
"When I left school, I wanted to work in tourism and running Board Failte would have been the dream job for me.
"I ended up in retail by accident because I worked with an advertising agency (Des O'Meara's) where I was handling the Quinnsworth account."
Marketing Mayor of Dublin? Watch this space.