Council sends six people to US to staff tourism stand at ratepayer's expense
An under-fire council is standing by a decision to send six people at ratepayers expense to America to attempt to lure visitors to The Gobbins coastal path in County Antrim.
A spokesman for Mid & East Antrim Borough Council says five councillors and one council staff member are needed so a promotional stand can be manned on a rotational basis and ensure would-be tourists are not greeted with jaded personnel.
Attempting to justify using half a dozen representatives, the spokesman added: "Such intense interaction over four days is hard work, each ‘customer’ who approaches the stand needs to be greeted with enthusiasm and a friendly outlook."
The Council has not confirmed the cost of the trip to Milwaukee in the US mid-west state of Wisconsin.
However, a spokesman was able to say that the partner of one of the council group is also travelling but at no cost to ratepayers.
But the 3,500 mile cross-Atlantic mission to drum up tourists has been greeted with anger by many ratepayers who say the money would be better raising awareness of The Gobbins at home and they have questioned the need for six people to go State-side.
A council spokesman said the trip would provide an excellent opportunity to boost tourism at The Gobbins coastal walk near Larne which is due to re-open to the public in August.
He added: "Mid and East Antrim Borough Council is working to maximise the Gobbins as a major tourist destination by marketing it across North America and Europe.
"During the past number of years, Larne Borough Council sent a delegation of elected members and officers to the prestigious Milwaukee Irish Fest. This is an event that attracts 150,000 visitors over the four days of the show.
"As the largest celebration of Irish culture and heritage in the United States, attendance requires a concerted effort on behalf of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council to ensure that a positive impact is made in one of the world’s biggest tourist markets.
"On top of a day’s travel each way, (out on 12 August and back on 17 August), members will be required to staff The Gobbins promotional stand on a rotational basis.
"This requires at least two people to be present at any time the stand is open, for up to 12 hours per day (nine hours on average) throughout the four full days of marketing at this festival.
"It should be stressed that events of this nature depend heavily on individual face-to-face conversations, something that elected members with an intimate knowledge of their home territory are best placed to provide.
"Such intense interaction over four days is hard work, each ‘customer’ who approaches the stand needs to be greeted with enthusiasm and a friendly outlook.
"Anyone who has played their part in such marketing events will acknowledge that it is vitally important to have a proper timetable to allow regular ‘downtime’ between shifts.
"The attendance of five elected members and just one member of staff in support is the bare minimum to get a return on the considerable investment by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council in the development of The Gobbins as a tourist attraction.
"Therefore, the daily timetable has been developed with the six individuals to provide this rotational presence on the stand at all times.
"This expenditure is part of the overall investment involved in the promotion of The Gobbins in one of the biggest tourism markets in the world. It is expected to bring in tourists, attracting spending across the retail and the hospitality industries alike.
"Mid and East Antrim Borough Council is committed to ensuring the very best return for its use of public funds.
"The overall cost for attending the Milwaukee Irish Fest is still being finalised. In due course council will complete a full evaluation of all marketing spend, including the Milwaukee promotional activity.
A Ballymena businessman, who did not wish to be named, said: "At this time of austerity and people having to cut back on everything and the grass not even being cut on some roads, you have to ask yourself if we need to be going out to this.
"And if the answer is yes then why do we need six people. A couple of people could have done the job and manned the stand for a number of hours each. They say they need to have six people, two at a time, on the stand for around nine hours a day.
"There are plenty of local businesspeople who have to stand for more than nine hours a day greeting customers to make a living. Maybe the money would be better informing local people where The Gobbins are."
David Hoey, Northern Ireland co-ordinator for the TaxPayers' Alliance, added: "It seems odd indeed that so many individuals are attending this conference when money is so tight. This is not an event that attracts tour operators or key tourism professionals especially.
"The Milwaukee Irish Festival is a predominantly entertainment focused event, not a tourism trade fair."
Mid and East Antrim Borough councillor and former first citizen of Ballymena, Audrey Wales, said the trip - which she is going on - will be invaluable.
She added: “Milwaukee Irish Fest is the largest celebration of Irish culture and heritage in the United States and a great opportunity to showcase The Gobbins.
“The show attracts approximately 150,000 attendees and is located only two hours from one of our key tourism markets - in Chicago.
“The festival focus is on Irish heritage and culture with a whole section devoted to travel to Ireland, so this is a very important promotion. Members are keen to generate consumer databases and enquiries and will be working towards the provision of opportunities to promote the attraction to major tour operators and key tourism professionals.”
The Gobbins will re-open to the public for the first time in 60 years this August following a £7.5m investment.