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John McGrillen: I want Northern Ireland tourism to be £1bn industry

Claire McNeilly talks to the new head of Tourism Northern Ireland, about his plans for the future and asks if the political crisis is having an impact.

Published 21/09/2015

Forward looking: John McGrillen says tourism here has a great future
Forward looking: John McGrillen says tourism here has a great future

Q. Is Tourism Northern Ireland in direct competition with Tourism Ireland (TIL)? And is there a fundamental difference between the two?

A. We're not in competition. We have got complementary roles to play in terms of promoting Northern Ireland as a tourism destination. TIL's role, effectively, is to sell the island of Ireland, including Northern Ireland, outside of the island of Ireland. Our responsibility is to promote Northern Ireland within the island of Ireland. Effectively there is responsibility upon us to work very closely together, because our role is essentially around industry development, product development and industry support.

Q. What can Northern Ireland do to attract more outside tourists? Do we, for instance, need more direct international flights?

A Clearly, more direct international flights would be beneficial. It would be our ambition to work with DETI to assist them, and Invest NI is already working to identify opportunities to bring further-away European destinations, and potentially from Canada as well. Part of the challenge is in convincing people before they leave the comfort of their home that Northern Ireland is a place they want to come to. There are significant international connections out of Dublin Airport, so it's about convincing people that that's an opportunity for them to access Northern Ireland as well.

Q. What is your view on the competition between Belfast International Airport and Belfast City?

A. They are two commercial enterprises. It's for them to develop their own business models. What's important for us is that they're bringing in as much traffic as possible. Which airport it comes through isn't important. It's a benefit that we've got two airports as opposed to one, which might not have, for example, the infrastructure for transatlantic traffic. The airports are slightly different in terms of their strengths, which we believe are complementary.

Q. What's your position on Air Passenger Duty (APD)? Some airport chiefs believe it is preventing growth. Dublin saw a 47% hike in Northern Ireland passenger numbers in the first six months after it scrapped APD.

A. It's undoubtedly a factor. From a tourism perspective, we'd prefer not to have APD. It's a UK issue, not just a regional one. While we'd prefer not to have it, we just have to live with the fact that it's there.

Q. Staying with tax issues, what's your position on VAT reduction for the hospitality industry? (It's 20% in Northern Ireland, compared to 9% in the Republic.)

A. Again, we'd like to see that reduced, to allow us to compete better with the Republic. We can lobby and support others who are making that argument, but I'd prefer that we as an organisation concentrate on something we do have control over.

Q. Giant's Causeway is NI's top tourist attraction, followed by Titanic Belfast. What sets them apart?

A. People want to experience something unique. The geology of the Giant's Causeway is unique and therefore it's got standout in the marketplace. Similarly with Titanic; it's a huge global brand. That's why we've got 650,000 people a year coming to visit that. Part of the reason is the investment NITB and others have made to make them attractive in terms of the visitor centre at Causeway and the very substantial investment that went into Titanic Belfast to tell the Titanic story and exploit the opportunity we had. The challenge for us is linking everything in between, so that people aren't just going to Titanic Belfast or the Causeway for a day, but have a reason to stay for three or four days.

We are a small place. If they can sell 3,300 miles of coastline in the south as one proposition, there's no reason why we can't look at how we do that in the relatively small geography that we've got here.

Q. Does Northern Ireland have an image problem, given that sectarian violence appears to be able to break out at any time?

A. It would be wrong to say that it's not still a challenge. It becomes more of a challenge the closer you get to home, because in the US, Germany or France you don't get the same sort of extensive Press coverage as in the UK or, more critically, in the Republic. So, while it's not the factor that it was, it's still an issue and, having negative headlines spread across papers like the Irish Times or Independent in the midst of your holiday season, clearly isn't helpful.

Q. What is your view on the current situation at Stormont? Does it threaten our reputation as a good place to do business or visit?

A. Clearly, it's better to have political stability than not. Front page headlines suggesting that there's instability, suggesting perhaps that vacuums may be created that could allow dissident activity to develop in the future... well, that's not helpful.

Q. Do you think 'The Twelfth' could ever become a bona fide tourist attraction, and could Tourism NI market it as such?

A. People will have their own perceptions on July 12, but it is part of Northern Ireland's culture and people come here to experience the place and the people and it's part of that. We have worked with the Orange Order around developing flagship parades, one of which we had in Bessbrook this year. We'll continue to work to ensure that the experience people have on the day is one where they can learn a bit about culture and life in Northern Ireland. It's there, we can't deny it and hopefully we can learn from it.

Q. What's your opinion on the 'Troubles Tourism' done by coaches and taxis in Belfast. Again, could it be officially marketed?

A. There's definitely a curiosity around it. It's part of our past, part of our history and tourists are interested in it, but I don't think that's something we would want to go out and explicitly promote. It's a very sensitive issue. Clearly, there are a lot of victims in terms of what happened. Many of those victims and their families are still around. We need to recognise that it's there and that people have an interest in it and that in telling the story that there is a balanced narrative around how that is told.

Q. What key events (such as Tall Ships and Giro d'Italia) set NI apart from other countries?

A. It's not just about the event. We deliver events well; that's been proven. What differentiates us is that local communities buy into them without exception. Look at Tall Ships, where you had half a million visitors. Look at Giro, the Irish Open; the reception MTV got when it came here. Everyone we speak to, without exception, has told us that this is without doubt the best place they've staged that event.

That's where 'Team Northern Ireland' excels - you've got everyone from Tourism NI to Tourism Ireland, the police, councils, roads service. Everybody is rowing in the same direction and absolutely committed to ensuring the people who bring these events here leave with a very positive impression.

Q. What others are you hoping to attract? The Tour de France, perhaps?

A. The Tour de France is something that we might look to in the future. We have an event strategy. We want to continue to deliver large international events that will allow us to present Northern Ireland as a forward-looking, friendly, attractive place. We want to work with things like Belfast International Festival, Culture Night, Feile, EastSide Arts Festival. Those sorts of events are part of Northern Ireland's DNA.

Q. What is our biggest claim to fame to date when it comes to hosting events? What would be the ultimate 'catch', so to speak?

A. I wouldn't specifically pick one out. People who are into cycling remember the Giro, the kids who are into music remember MTV, golfers will remember the golf, people who are interested in maritime history will be into Tall Ships and remember that. They are all stand-out in their own right.

Q. Speaking of golf, how can we build upon our golfing reputation and the success of our three major winners Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, to boost international tourism?

A. I'm not sure there's much more that we can do than what we've currently done to build our reputation as a golf destination. The two most recent Irish Opens were held here and, outside the BMW, they've been the biggest and most successful events on the European Tour over the last three years. The numbers of people coming here to play golf and the contribution of golf has increased from £25m to £33m over the last few years. We have a specific target in terms of golf tourism spend, which is £50m by 2020.

Q. While at Belfast City Council, you were senior responsible officer (SRO) for the redevelopment of the Waterfront Hall. What do you think of the controversial new extension that has been dubbed 'The Box on the Docks' and 'The Sore On The Shore?'

A. I agree with the architechs that people are coming to conclusions before the building is actually finished. People also have to realise that it's a development which has had to work within a space constraint in terms of the site and, probably more importantly, within a budgetary constraint in terms of the amount of public money available. Yes, there could have been more elaborate designs done, but we have to live within the available budgets.

Q. Funnily enough, the architects who lost out on the extension said their proposal - a glass-panelled building that wouldn't have obscured the Waterfront Hall - was cheaper than that of the firm which secured the project. What's your view on that?

A. To my knowledge the cost of those designs was never fully worked through. That was never a fully-blown proposal at any point. Those were concepts which were drawn up at the time, but there is no doubt that had they been developed the cost of those would have been substantially greater than the current design.

Q. How do you see Tourism NI's role within the new council structure?

A. For some councils, tourism is going to be more important than others and, while we want to work with all of them, there are some we'll want to work very, very closely with because they have a role to play with their new economic development powers in terms of supporting and developing new businesses.

They have a role to play from a regeneration perspective in terms of their towns and villages, and they have got access to rural development money, which will allow them to work with others to develop their rural tourism product. They are also significant operators of tourism facilities - managing beaches, visitor centres, museums, a range of facilities - and they're also responsible for keeping the place clean, tidy and attractive to visitors.

Q. Which councils would be the most important from that perspective?

A. Belfast, Derry, Newry and Mourne, Down, East Antrim, Causeway Coast and Glens, Fermanagh, Omagh.

Q. How can Northern Ireland be included in the Wild Atlantic Way?

A. It's not about being included within the Wild Atlantic Way; the issue for us is how do we develop a proposition which is equal to and complementary to it. In the Republic, Bord Failte is promoting three large-scale destinations - the Wild Atlantic Way, Dublin and what they are now defining as 'Ireland's Ancient East'. We need to look at how we promote here in a similar way.

You've city destinations like Belfast and Derry, but can we link, for example, everything from Carlingford Lough to Lough Foyle in a way that allows us to promote that part of the island in the same way that the Republic has gone about promoting the Wild Atlantic Way and the west coast?

And I'd argue that when you look at the tourism propositions that exist from the Mournes, St Patrick's Country, Strangford Lough, Belfast, The Gobbins, The Glens, The Causeway and Derry and put it all together, there is a strong proposition there. We need to get people into seeing it as one entity, as opposed to five or six different products.

Q. Now that you're in your new role, what are your immediate goals, as far as the job is concerned?

A. Ultimately, to make this a £1bn industry, employing 55,000 people in tourism within five years.

Q. What is Tourism NI's annual budget? Is it enough to do everything you hope to achieve in the job?

A. It's £20m. We could do more with more resources, but we have to be realistic. We need to maximise what we have available to us.

Q. Game of Thrones brought £110m into the NI economy. Figures from NI Screen show that over £21m has been generated every year for the last five years. Is Tourism NI actively promoting the province as a film destination?

A. That's NI Screen's job and they do it very well. We want to maximise the benefit that brings. Lots of people are coming to visit Northern Ireland as a result of the success of Game of Thrones. We have a clear strategy as to how we are going to work alongside NI Screen and the owners of some of these facilities to make sure that we maximise the benefit of that.

Q. The number of tourists from ROI has declined recently. Why is that? How is NI going to get them back?

A. The exchange rate is an issue, because it makes us appear more expensive. However, in real terms, we are probably every bit as competitive.

Q. What is your background?

A. I'm 53 years old and married to Maria, a homemaker. We have no children. I'm originally from Ballynahinch and now live in Loughinisland.

Q. Your background is in mechanical engineering and you have a qualification in international business. Your previous jobs were with Short Brothers, Industrial Development Board (IDB - now Invest NI) and NI-Co. You were also chief executive of Down Council for 10 years. Most recently you were Director of Development at Belfast City Council. What do you see as your major professional successes to date?

A. I left behind a successful business in Ni-Co when I moved on. When I was with IDB, I was the client executive responsible for what was the largest inward investment project in its history - FG Wilson had their large expansion and were sold on to Emerson Electric.

I was responsible for the regeneration of Newcastle when I was chief executive there, the redevelopment of Downshire estate and the new cinema and retail complex in Downpatrick.

At Belfast City Council I was ultimately responsible for a number of large events in partnership with Tourism NI, such as MTV and the Giro d'Italia.

I was senior responsible officer (SRO) for the new Welcome Centre in Donegall Square and, up until very recently, I was SRO for the redevelopment of the Waterfront Hall.

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