We need to heighten the consciousness of Ireland as a truly global food destination
Tourism promotion must develop our reputation as a country that values really good food, writes Padraic Hayden
Tourism is again making a major contribution to economic and employment growth in Ireland. Statistics show that the first half of this year was the best such period to date for overseas visitors. Almost four million came here. Notably, growth was recorded in all target markets around the world - in an environment of intensive global competition.
To reinforce this growth, our strengths in attracting tourists need to be continuously reviewed. Tourism promotion strategies have also to be refined and refocused as the results of research and evaluation indicate.
The Wild Atlantic Way is the most recent innovation to be significantly resourced and successfully marketed. Its growing popularity demonstrates the benefits that such innovation can bring to businesses and communities.
Our State promotion agencies should now examine what they must do to realise similar success for food tourism. The vision of Failte Ireland is that "Ireland will be recognised by visitors for memorable food experiences, which invoke a unique sense of place, culture and hospitality".
There is universal interest in healthy eating and food quality. Our natural advantages allow us to fashion food menus that will attract visitors to come here, stay longer and spend more. The excellent reputation that drives demand for our food exports around the world should have an echo when visitors dine in Ireland. Instead, it is possible that they may find a disconnect between our national reputation for premium food products when they are back home and the sometimes indifferent quality of the fare that is actually served to them here.
Targeted and fresh initiatives on the part of Failte Ireland are essential. Haphazard and variable standards inevitably result from indiscriminate and all-encompassing approaches. They are not attuned to a singular objective of progressively moving towards the betterment of food quality and service standards. If we are serious about realising our potential for food tourism, informed strategies that relentlessly promote professionalism and the most advanced training and operational standards must take absolute precedence.
To begin with, we need better monitoring and evaluation systems to provide comprehensive and accurate baseline information. Such systems should underpin the regular evaluation of progress in all aspects of food and dining experiences and differentiate between venues that provide discrete services.
More than seven million overseas tourists visited Ireland last year. They spent about €1.2bn on food and drink. That supported 137,000 jobs - more than 7pc of total employment. Those statistics are nationally significant. They justify necessary investment and rigour in training systems that compare favourably with the best anywhere. They also justify concerted measures on the part of Failte Ireland to promote the positive aspects of working in hospitality. That would contribute to attracting young people who are disposed to learning, working hard and making progress in line with individual commitment and ability.
Social media are now at the centre of tourism promotion campaigns. They provide a marvellous platform for advertising the attractions that we have to offer. They give access to a global audience of millions of potential holidaymakers. Through the use of social media, positive holiday experiences are now instantaneously relayed to wide circles of family, friends and virtual acquaintances.
This is the most compelling and pervasive form of advertising. It should also be used to promote food tourism, with singular focus on the best that Ireland has to offer across the range of eateries. Despite the availability of a plethora of national and international guides, visitors would value contemporary and dependable information on where to eat well within budgeted spending. Research undertaken by Failte Ireland finds that the planning of holidays is an important part of the overall experience.
An official online guide to restaurants, hotels and other hospitality venues would make a valuable contribution to the planning of holidays in Ireland. The promotion of food venues by Failte Ireland in such a guide should be conditional on compliance with exacting and transparent criteria.
A renewed focus on food tourism also requires initiatives to more sharply profile and distinguish our food offerings on the international stage. Failte Ireland should objectively assess the range of benefits that could result from periodically organising a prestigious international hospitality convention.
An international convention of that kind could attract significant publicity and contribute much to our promotion of food tourism. It could involve all the distinctive elements of the hospitality sector. It could become a remarkable forum for information, learning and exchange.
It could also serve to heighten the consciousness of Ireland as a food destination, with ideal conditions for producing a diverse range of natural foods that compare well with holiday destinations anywhere in the world.
This international convention could pivot on conferring lifetime-achievement awards on individuals of international repute who have made stellar contributions to the hospitality sector. Recipients might have excelled in any of the many hospitality disciplines - hoteliers, restaurateurs, food writers and chefs.
The current diversity of national and international investors in our hospitality sector and the exceptional value that many of them have gained in return for their investments, justifies them supporting a national effort for food tourism. That should bode well for the comprehensive sponsorship of such an international convention and the significant awards that would be conferred there.
Padraic Hayden is the owner of two successful Dublin restaurants, opened in 2010 and 2013. They are the Michelin-recommended Camden Kitchen and the Frite-Haus on Camden Street.
Sunday Indo Business