People power gives us an edge in attracting the big spenders
While leisure trips dominate the headlines and adverts, corporate is the real hidden earner - with inbound business travellers to Ireland worth "three times as much as leisure tourists", according to Failte Ireland CEO Paul Kelly.
The conference sector is where the real money is - and explains the dismay in recent years at the loss of Paddy Cosgrave's Dublin-based Web Summit, the world's largest tech event - to Portugal. It's estimated that the week-long summit, which attracts some 70,000 delegates and speakers, generates about €300m in hotel and other revenue for host city Lisbon each year.
Technology editor Adrian Weckler revealed that it has secured €110m from the Portuguese government to stay put for the next 10 years. Here at home, Failte Ireland, normally seen operating in the tourism space - but which is tasked with attracting high-spending conference delegates - said the overall business travel market was worth €760m to the economy last year alone and supports over 20,000 jobs.
The interesting thing is that in an age where we're force-fed the gospel of digital marketing, word-of-mouth is key to attracting events - with three-quarters brought here by Failte Ireland's 1000-strong cohort of Irish 'conference ambassadors' who have attracted 1,500 conferences to date.
Last Friday, it honoured 83 of them - from areas including academia, medical science, technology, environment, and culture - in Dublin. Professor Geraldine Boylan was named ambassador of the year for her role in attracting two major global conferences to the country.
A professor of neonatal physiology at University College Cork and director of INFANT - the Irish centre for fetal and neonatal translational Research - she brought the International Conference on Brain Monitoring and Neuroprotection in the Newborn to Cork back in 2015, and again to Ireland two years later.
"It was the first time it was ever hosted in Ireland and only the second time in Europe as it's generally held in the US," Boylan told the Sunday Independent. Explaining the power of word-of-mouth, she explained: "I and my colleagues travel and talk about our research everywhere. The first thing we always do is put up a picture of Cork and where we're from. I always put up a map of Ireland as you'd be surprised how many don't know where Ireland is. When you're away from home, you always want to say something about Ireland and people are interested."
She said that the key is "you can only pitch for this [conferences] if you're someone they see as a leader in the field".
"We've got an international reputation for doing research in the newborn space and paediatrics. So when it came to bidding for conferences, we thought why don't we get everyone to Ireland."
The 2015 conference was held in the Fota resort in Cork, and she said supports from Failte Ireland proved crucial in the logistics end, from videos and promotional material, right down to goodie-bag ideas, along with aid from Science Foundation Ireland. Delegates were attracted back, this time to the Europe Hotel in Killarney, in 2017 - which is unprecedented given that the conference rarely strays from the US.
Delegates came from around Europe, throughout America, along with Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan, as well as representatives from the medtech community.
"We even had companies from as far away as Japan exhibiting at the conference. Manufacturers of brain monitoring were showcasing their equipment from all over the world."
The conferences were restricted to 250 delegates, many of whom travelled to the country with their families - reflecting the rise of the 'bleisure' aspect of business travel - and have returned since for holidays.
But, Boylan added, conferences aren't just about the event itself - they have long-term benefits for academia and business in attracting new staff from diverse backgrounds.
"We had a team on standby to show people around and a lot of people wanted to come back to work here. From the contacts we've made we've actually hired people from around the world who experienced Ireland for the first time at the conferences."
Sunday Indo Business