How Irish tourism marketers took a 40pc budget cut on the chin - and still boosted the numbers
Mark Henry tells John McGee how Tourism Ireland set out to win people's attention by talking to their interests
With the all-important summer season well under way for the country's tourism industry, the early indications point to a record-breaking year for Ireland's hoteliers, airlines and venue operators. Figures published by the CSO at the end of May show an overall growth of 16pc in the number of tourists visiting Ireland in the first four months of 2016, with visitors from the USA increasing by 20pc while the UK numbers showed an increase of 19pc. Mainland Europe, meanwhile, was up by 14pc.
On the back of a record year in 2015, when around 9.5m tourists visited these shores, this is good news for an industry that is worth around €7.3bn to the Irish economy, employs around 224,000 people and is worth nearly €2bn to the Irish exchequer every year.
Behind the scenes promoting Ireland in overseas markets and investing in its brand equity, however, is a slick and sophisticated 40-strong marketing department headed up by Mark Henry, Tourism Ireland's central marketing director.
First set up in 2002 to market the island of Ireland as a tourist destination, Tourism Ireland has 148 staff worldwide, servicing 22 different overseas markets. With offices in Coleraine in Northern Ireland and Dublin, approximately 71pc of its funding comes from the Dublin Government with the remainder coming from its counterpart in Northern Ireland.
Henry attributes the recent surge in the tourism industry to a number of things.
"One of the most important factors was when the Government took the decision a few years ago to suspend the air travel tax on the condition that the airlines would increase connectivity.
"Since then both Aer Lingus and Ryanair, and indeed other international airlines, have all increased their capacity very significantly. So, it's never been easier to come to Ireland and never more cost effective," says Henry.
"Currency exchange rates, particularly for visitors from the USA and Britain, have also made Ireland very competitive while the Government's decision to reduce the VAT rate on tourism services to 9pc few years ago coupled with our very low inflation rate in recent years has also played an important role," he says.
Investment in new product like the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland's Ancient East have also played a considerable part in luring tourists to these shores, particularly at a time when there are hotel capacity constraints in some of our main cities.
With a marketing budget of €36m at its disposal in 2015, a lot is expected of Henry and his marketing team around the world. Although the budget for 2016 has seen a slight increase, it still falls way short of the €62m which it had in 2008.
A reduced marketing budget has meant Tourism Ireland has had to be a lot more creative and innovative with its marketing strategy and product development while at the same time trying to ensure that the number of tourists visiting continues its upward trajectory.
While doing a lot more with less money appears to be working, there are downsides.
"We've seen a fall in our share of voice metrics in all our key markets at a time when our competitors in England, Scotland and Wales have more or less sustained their investment in marketing over the last number of years.
"While we have attempted to maintain our investment in key markets like the US, France and Germany, we have had to take cutbacks in Britain," says Henry.
"But the Action Plan for Tourism, which was launched in March, commits to increasing the budget over the coming years, so we are hopeful that we will be able to do a lot more in the future," he adds.
Declining budgets have also meant a significant change in Tourism Ireland's overall marketing mix.
Once upon a time, traditional advertising accounted for the lion's share of the budget, now it's carefully focused around social media, content marketing (including paid-for content) and word-of-mouth followed by traditional advertising.
"With less funds we had to be smarter and one of the big successes has been our social media profile. On Facebook, for example, we are fourth in the world behind Australia, the USA and Turkey in terms of our following and number one in Europe if you don't count Turkey.
"Social media, with the right content, can be a very powerful channel," says Henry.
Clever brand positioning alongside the movie Star Wars, as well as Game of Thrones series, which is filmed in Northern Ireland, have also helped Henry and his marketing team generate social conversations as well as both online and offline coverage for Tourism Ireland.
"Our engagement marketing philosophy, which underpins everything we try to do is quite simple.
"It's about winning people's attention through activity that talks to their interests, that brings the Ireland brand to life - and that encourages them to interact with it and with each other," he concludes.
Sunday Indo Business