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'Growing tourism is a balancing act, it's about sharing the load to avoid overcrowding...'

Heather McLachlan, regional director of the National Trust, talks with Emma Deighan about the challenges and plans ahead for the charity

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Heather McLachlan, regional director of the National Trust, enjoying the autumn sunshine at Shaw’s Bridge, Belfast

Heather McLachlan, regional director of the National Trust, enjoying the autumn sunshine at Shaw’s Bridge, Belfast

Mount Stewart is an 18th century house under the care of the National Trust

Mount Stewart is an 18th century house under the care of the National Trust

Northern Ireland Tourist Board

The Mourne Mountains are a favourite destination for keen walker Heather McLachlan

The Mourne Mountains are a favourite destination for keen walker Heather McLachlan

Heather McLachlan, regional director of the National Trust, enjoying the autumn sunshine at Shaw’s Bridge, Belfast

Heather McLachlan, regional director of the National Trust in Northern Ireland, attributes her passion for nature and the environment to her late father.

The Kent-born mother-of-two moved to Lisburn when she was just six years old. It was a move across the water to support her father, Peter McLachlan, a former UUP Councillor's constituency there.

Heather studied at Friends' School in the city after which she relocated to Manchester where she took up a degree in business studies.

Post graduate positions in duty free retail and the voluntary sector followed but it was when Heather's father passed away in 1999 that she made what would be a life and career-changing trip to Sri Lanka.

"I didn't realise that I had a natural interest in the world around me until I worked at a turtle sanctuary there. I saw how big a return there was from looking after nature and how the community benefits from it. It was one of those moments when the lights went on. I was privy to the release of these turtles into the sea and then I wondered if I could do something like this when I went back home," she says.

And within six weeks of returning to her home in Co Antrim, Heather secured a role with the Ulster Wildlife Trust.

"You always hear that people in certain roles were inspired by their fathers and I can say that is the case with me, but only at a much later stage in life," she says. "My dad loved walking and was always dragging me up Slieve Donard from I was 13. He inspired me."

Heather has been at National Trust for six years. Her job sees her look after the maintenance, development and growth of its colossal portfolio here.

And within that offering are well-known mansion properties, 40 listed monuments as well as 22% of NI's coastline which equates to 122 miles. Then there's NT's landmass - some 12,000ha - which makes it the largest land owner in Northern Ireland next to the government, Heather reveals.

"Many people won't know that we look after a real mixture of sites. We are known for our grand mansions but we have so much land management too," she continues.

The UNESCO World Heritage Giant's Causeway site, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Castle Ward, Mount Stewart and Portstewart Strand are among its best-known attractions.

And among those lesser known NT sites are everything from offshore locations, Strangford Lough and even the Donard and Commedagh walking trail. The latter is just a fraction of what the organisation actually looks after. And it's a costly affair for the trust to maintain and conserve its family of attractions. Last year alone it had a local spend of £17m, £6m of which was allocated to the Giant's Causeway.

When asked what the trust's most successful site here is, Heather says "in terms of successful as in the number of visitors and international visitors, the Giant's Causeway is the top grossing site".

Last year over one million people visited that site, 75% of which were "from beyond our shores".

Reviewing the figures by market, over 40% more visitors came from Spain, with the US and Canada up 6.21%; Australia and New Zealand up 5.09% and Italy growing by 1.75% for the same period the year before.

Heather says the nature of that site, and many of its other attractions, makes visitor acceleration something of a "balancing act".

"There are pros and cons when it comes to conservation and preservation, especially when people clearly want to see that site," she explains.

The work that goes into preserving the trust's most popular site includes safety works such as rock clearance. It's a tricky task for a location that is frequently busy.

And funding that work is also a challenge - much of which is generated from memberships.

"That's a key thing for us, growing membership. We've been working hard to secure 91,000 members in Northern Ireland. That makes us the largest membership organisation here and it's growing. When I joined in 2012 we were just hitting 59,000."

A shift in lifestyle choices here has helped boost NT's visitor figures. Heather continues: "People are getting outdoors more than they have done and there is growth in running, cycling and walking and I think we have a young demographic here and we offer that demographic a nice, safe space for families to enjoy themselves."

Targeting an even more youthful member, the trust has embarked on several marketing schemes including '50 Things To Do Before You're 11 and a Half'.

"That includes activities like rolling down a hill and it really engages children with the world around them and that's great because I think we have a role to connect people here."

Keeping an increasingly blue screen-focused generation interested in the outdoors is no mean feat but as a mother of two teenagers, Heather recognises the importance of a digital detox.

She says her daughter Ren (17) and son Peter (14) "get it". "I remember when my daughter came in from school when she was around nine years' old she said 'I know why you do what you do because if you don't look after nature, everyone would die'.

"We live in the country. They love the green fields and they recognise the difference between a dandelion and a daffodil and that makes me feel like I've done my job as a mother."

Winning at parenting is one half of Heather's battle, but her biggest challenge career-wise has still to come. Brexit, sustainable tourism and landscape restoration are the three main areas of focus for the trust.

Brexit concerns include the potential loss of EU legislation that has contributed greatly to the preservation of the Trust's portfolio. "We are working with other organisations to have a strong voice and get the best for nature. We are a biogeographic island and that means a hare at the border is not going to say 'where am I?' so we need the same legislation," Heather says.

Around 95% of the laws that protect the National Trust's properties here are EU-driven and her hopes are that these regulations will be protected or even bettered after our exit from the EU.

"If they're not in place, how do we protect our sites as good as, if not better than what we have before?" she asks.

Another area of focus for the trust is sustaining the growth of tourism here and "spreading the love".

"We want people to get what they want here and enjoy the experience but we also want those visitors to spread out so that Northern Ireland is benefiting on a wider basis and that the rise in tourism isn't having a negative impact on certain areas. It's a balancing act. We want a value model rather than a volume model and to spread that load for the economic benefit of everyone.

"Tourism is now our number one industry - bigger than agriculture - and there are places that are seeing too many people come in so we need to do something as a collective," adds Heather, who cites Dubrovnik of a case where too much of a good thing can present a problem.

The Croatian town, which represents King's Landing in HBO series Game of Thrones, has seen visitor numbers balloon to damaging levels.

One media source there says that in 2015 there were 300 tours related to the TV series and last year that figure grew to 4,500. Dubrovnik is now so overcrowded and some predict that is could be in danger of losing its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

If 'spreading the love' is on the agenda for damage limitation, it begs the question, will the trust acquire any more sites to ease the workload for others?

"We've started working more in partnership with other organisations instead of just acquiring. In the last number of years we have joined up with Historic Environment at the Department of Communities to open up sites which are linked to our existing sites."

Among those openings are Scrabo Tower and Audley's Town Castle at Castleward. The most memorable for Heather is securing an extra 500 acres of land within the demesne at Mount Stewart which will open up 26 miles of walkway at the attraction.

And in the pipeline is Dundrum Castle and possibly the Causeway School which dates back to 1915.

That's not to say that brand new sites joining the portfolio are off the table.

Heather says it is the trust's duty to consider any historical attractions that may be at risk.

She adds: "If there is a site that is in danger of loss, we have a criteria that we apply before acquiring a site. It has to be a very special site because all of our properties are inalienable which means we have forever to make sure those sites are looked after."

Among its bigger plans is the trust's bid to open up the coast by creating "a network of paths".

"In eight or nine years we would like to see access around the coast so people can enjoy one of the most dramatic coastlines there are," she says.

It's a labour of love for Heather who says she has had a love affair with NI since she moved here.

And it's a passion she says is shared among those working at the trust - some 620 paid staff members at peak times and 2,500 volunteers.

"They're the most brilliant, passionate people that I have ever met. They're an amazing group of people. They're knowledgeable and passionate and I would challenge anywhere else to have that level of potential.

"It's only when you come into the organisation and see the volunteers, see them look after everything from a chandelier to telling stories that you realise they are just so proud and love these places."

'You will often find me up a mountain in the Mournes'

Q What's the best piece of  business (or life) advice you've ever been given?

A Listen first, speak second and always look for what you can learn from others.

Q What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?

A Anything is possible, do not limit yourself by the self-limiting beliefs of others.

Q What was your best business decision?

A That would definitely be taking this job at the National Trust.

Q If you weren't doing this job, what would be your other career?

A People development and training. A career where I would be supporting others to fulfil their potential.

Q What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?

A I was in Tallinn, Estonia, a few weeks ago and was intrigued by how old and new parts of the city sit side by side and how their young people embrace both. Best vegan restaurants ever!

Q What are your hobbies and interests?

A Travelling, running, yoga and walking - you will often find me up a mountain in the Mournes.

Q What is your favourite sport and team?

A I don't have a favourite, I enjoy seeing how others head up and lead their teams. I'm a regular part of a Mournes walking group, having done the Mourne Way Marathon twice, and the Seven Sevens Challenge.

Q And have you ever played any sports?

A Tennis is my favourite although I could do with a few lessons!

Q If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?

A I love the old classics… Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte would be my all-time favourite. I've always got a number of books on the go.

Q How would you describe your early life?

A Defining in my love for Northern Ireland. I moved here at six years of age and have been in love with the place ever since.

Q Have you any economic predictions?

A Who knows post-Brexit, however, depending on the rate of exchange and other factors, I think we will see tourism continue to grow in Northern Ireland.

Q How would you assess your time in business with the National Trust?

A Challenging and fun. Every day is a school day with no two days ever the same.

Q How do you sum up working in the tourism/heritage sector?

A Vibrant and welcoming - so many passionate people who are as impressive as the amazing buildings and dramatic landscapes we have across the country.

Belfast Telegraph