Why man who sells Ireland turns rivals green with envy
We live in a wonderful land and have much to offer holidaymakers, Tourism Ireland CEO tells Sarah McCabe. Photo: Frank McGrath
'IMAGINE someone walked into the chief executive of Coca Cola's office and told him they could create a marketing package that would see the US president receive a symbolic Coke can in front of the world's media, cause cities around the world to come to a standstill in the company's honour, bathe buildings from the Pyramids to the Empire State and the London Eye in its corporate colours . . . what do you think that would be worth? It's priceless, isn't it? Well, that's what we have with St Patrick's Day. Priceless marketing."
It's a nice analogy and explains why one of the biggest marketing organisations in the country -- Tourism Ireland -- has a relatively easy job. "Ireland sells itself," says chief executive Niall Gibbons. "It is viewed as a dream destination, somewhere people have to visit before they die."
Still, it's not all leprechauns and pots of gold over at his office near Dublin's Stephen's Green. Tourism Ireland's budget has been cut by about 30pc since 2008 and is due to be slashed by another 12pc between now and 2016. It currently stands at €65m -- with €45m spent on marketing projects and €20m on payroll and operations. Born in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, it is funded 70/30 by the Irish Government and the Northern Irish executive -- both still under massive pressure to cut public expenditure. Staff numbers have been cut from 160 pre-recession to 148.
But it has still managed to pour €2m into its new website, which Dublin man Gibbons is particularly proud of. "We got rid of all the clutter -- it is focused on inspirational, aspirational images now," he says. The domain address was bought last year from 'The Irish Times', which for years claimed "Ireland.com" as its own.
It's all about digital marketing these days, says the 52 year old former accountant. The organisation is the most popular tourism board in the world on YouTube (no doubt boosted by videos led by comedian Andrew Maxwell), the second most popular on Facebook and the third on Twitter.
But modern media has negative consequences for Ireland's international image as well as positive. In many ways the country has had a great year; headlines around the world flagged the Irish presidency and our clean bailout exit. But in other ways, 2013 has been a PR disaster for the Irish. The Anglo Tapes invited scorn from China to Hawaii, with the country attracting particular ire from German media outlets -- even Angela Merkel herself -- over David Drumm's rendition of "Deutschland uber Alles".
And then there was Arthur's day. The previously successful Guinness marketing gimmick turned spectacularly sour this year. "Guinness faces backlash in Ireland amid binge-drinking concerns" read the FT headline, echoing others around the world. The merry image of the traditional "session" faded, replaced with a darker picture of drunken, vulnerable women and aggressive young men filling up A&Es around the country.
Gibbons shrugs this off. "It's amazing how different our image is here and abroad" he says. "Scandals happen all over the world. None of these stories have an impact overseas.
"Yes, we need to be mindful of not gaining a boozy image," he adds -- though one might argue that that ship has sailed -- "but the Irish pub has a reputation overseas and is part of our culture; there's nothing wrong with that". Still, the question lingers -- how can the Government indulge our international reputation as friendly drunks, while chastising us at home for that same behaviour?
2013 was also the year of The Gathering, which helped grow visitor numbers by 7pc this year and spending by 6pc, though the numbers are still not back at peak levels. Though The Gathering still had its detractors, with Gabriel Byrne controversially slamming it a "shakedown of the diaspora". "Everyone's entitled to their opinion," says Gibbons.
But Tourism Ireland will be decidedly less interested in the diaspora next year. Its new marketing plan focuses instead on "high-return" tourists in North America and mainland Europe. "We're particularly interested in western and southern USA," says Gibbons. "Texas is a huge market, but we still don't have a direct route between Houston and Dublin."
But the picture for US tourism looks bright next year. Seat capacity between the North America and Ireland will jump 25pc in 2014 thanks in part to new routes linking San Francisco and Toronto directly with Dublin. Gibbons is also keen to see a direct flight from Moscow, which Ryanair recently secured the rights to do.
Tourism Ireland's new marketing plan (they come in three-year cycles) also places a huge amount of emphasis on The Wild Atlantic Way, a driving route stretching 2500km from the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal to Kinsale in Co Cork. Though this isn't, as it first appears, a revolutionary new road plan for the windy West -- it's a series of signs on existing roads, which received €8m in funding in the latest budget. It seems to be having the right effect. "We launched our marketing video for The Wild Atlantic Way at a tourism show in Germany recently and it got a standing ovation," says Gibbons. Germany is a key source of tourism, as is France: Tourism Ireland spent €5m on French marketing initiatives this year.
But Gibbons' ambitions also stretch further afield. "Some 83 million Chinese people travel abroad every year; we need a bigger slice of the pie," says Gibbons. "The awareness of Ireland in China is nearly nil; lots of Chinese people don't even know where Ireland is."
In an effort to tackle this the organisation brought Chinese travel blogger Fan Yibo to Ireland earlier this year. Yibo has 77 million followers on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. He's just one of the 1,500 or so journalist who Tourism Ireland invites to visit every year.
Though he's very complimentary of the current Government, Gibbons concedes that there is still room for improvement when it comes to enabling tourism. "Visas are still a problem for long-haul markets," he says. "Someone visiting from China has to get three separate visas to visit the UK, Ireland and Northern Ireland. We recently agreed to recognise British visas, but the UK has yet to do the same for us."
Currency swings also have a very detrimental effect, though there's little that can be done about that. "£1 used to buy you €1.60 -- now it buys you €1.15," he points out. This is especially challenging given that the UK is still Ireland's biggest source of tourism. In 1999, exit surveys of UK tourists showed that just 3pc thought Ireland was poor value for money. By 2009 that figure had jumped to 40pc.
"But all in all, Ireland still enjoys an incredible reputation in the UK and internationally," says Gibbons. "You couldn't buy the type of publicity we get. After last year's St Patrick's Day celebrations, every major British newspaper carried pictures of the 'Greening project' [where famous buildings like the London Eye are lit up in green light] on their front page. NBC's 'Coast to Coast' programme broadcast a 30-second piece on the festival, which would have cost us about €2m if we were to try and do ourselves. The country sells itself."