Judith Owens, head of Titanic Belfast, on the pressures she has faced and the steps being taken to try to pull in more staycation visitors
It's one of Northern Ireland's most famous tourist attractions, pulling in millions of visitors mesmerised by the Titanic story over a century on from its tragic sinking.
But even the eternal lure of the luxury liner built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast couldn't protect Titanic Belfast from the impact of coronavirus on tourism and the economy. The venue, named World's Leading Tourist Attraction in the World Travel Awards 2016, took the same hit as the smallest bed and breakfast.
The visitor attraction was closed down in March, ahead of the start of the official UK Government lockdown.
Judith Owens was plunged into her biggest challenge since she was appointed chief executive three years ago. She had previously worked as director of operations at the venue since 2011.
Ironically, she was on a Northern Ireland tourism sales mission to UAE & India while the coronavirus crisis was starting to build. "I was there with lots of people from within the industry at the time, and we were all very hesitant and concerned. When we came back home, it just seemed to hit us so quickly and so hard.
"We made the decision to close a little bit earlier than everyone else. I just felt it was like the right thing to do."
Before joining Titanic Belfast, she had spent 14 years in event management at the Ulster Hall and Waterfront Hall. She thinks working in events had prepared her well for dealing with crises - it's just that she didn't expect the present crisis to go on for so long.
"You go into crisis management mode and that feels natural to me - but at this point, the crisis management mode has been prolonged now for four months.
"For the first time for me as a leader, I was quite emotional. We have such a great team. It was one of those times where you really had to drive your leadership, we were making so many decisions you never thought you'd have to make for such a business that had been so successful."
Titanic Belfast and the SS Nomadic - the Titanic transfer ship berthed close to the venue - usually employ around 300 people. But it's understood around 75 have been made redundant.
Judith says: "My aim over the next year is that we really work with our colleagues in the industry and we try and grow the business so I can rebuild the team...
"I'm absolutely determined and I have that in my sights."
The Titanic Belfast building had also become a major venue for events like corporate dinners and conferences - a stream worth millions of pounds, accounting for around 25% of revenues, now cut off for the foreseeable future.
Judith says she hopes events will be back up and running in spring next year, provided government guidance allows them.
"At the moment, we wouldn't be able to do the events and couldn't deliver to the standard that Titanic Belfast delivers them to. So that means we're going to take a rest from events until we can get accurate guidelines and until demand is there for the type of events we do at Titanic Belfast."
She says Titanic has become known for "exceptional" hospitality. "It's not just about the service, but it was also about the atmosphere and experience from the minute when you stepped out of the car and looked at this incredible shining building and came through the grand atrium and up to the top floor. It's almost about transporting people into another era."
Its usual markets for international tourist visitors - the US, the EU, China and others - are currently cut off, making near-markets more important that ever.
"Pre-Covid our international markets were extremely strong and 80% of our six milllion visitors that we brought to Titanic Belfast over eight years came from countries that would never have come here if it hadn't been for Titanic Belfast."
Now the push is to draw holidaymakers from Northern Ireland, the Republic and Great Britain.
Among Northern Ireland people, she will be hoping to recapture some of the excitement and buzz which Titanic Belfast generated when it opened in 2012, in time for the centenary of Titanic's sinking.
"The whole spirit and drive at the time for tourism was just incredible, and the eyes of the world were on Titanic Belfast when it opened... We have been very fortunate to build a very strong organisation with some great people and we've had great successes in the accolades that we've received over the years."
She says the venue has attracted return visitors from Northern Ireland who in turn bring visitors from other regions. "People are usually spending from 1.5 hours but there are other people who are spending four or five hours and drilling down different layers the story. People might feel that once you've been you may not return that quickly but there are so many other facets.
"This year we are selling an SS Nomadic bounce-back ticket so if you visit Titanic Belfast you can come at any stage over six months to see the Nomadic."
Other features which have been developed include a treasure trail across the maritime mile outside Belfast, and an outdoor discovery tour. "You could easily spend two days down here just immersing yourself in the Titanic and the maritime experience.
"The Northern Ireland market is very important and it's amazing how many people haven't been and didn't want to come before as it was always too busy. But ironically this is now a great time to come as we don't have the same level of international guests we would have.
"We have actually developed part of the galleries with the NI market in mind knowing it will be a more local market who come this season."
And she wants to see a major push to promote Northern Ireland. "It's pretty imperative for between now and the height of our season next year.
"We've effectively lost our high season, and we're going back soon into winter again so it's very, very important that there is marketing and there is profile in the UK and rest of UK to let people know they can come over here." She is not in favour of the 14-day quarantine provision for visitors from Great Britain mooted by Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill. "Foremost it's a public health issue and we have to take government guidelines however if the 14-day quarantine was implemented from Great Britain, that would have a severe impact - not just on us, but on many other businesses."
Her link to Titanic Quarter goes deeper than just work. "I have a connection to Titanic Quarter because my father Jim was general manager at the electrical division of H&W.
"As child I remember being brought down to headquarters building when I was about nine. I think having been down on the site when H&W was a thriving business, then to come back and again to see the slipways thrive in a very different way, was just incredible.
"When I came to operate Titanic Belfast, I hadn't been involved in the operation of a visitor attraction before but I think in Northern Ireland Titanic has always been part of our DNA and we all knew the story and we love to share that absolute passion with our visitors.
"You become a Titanorak very quickly. I think I have to be."
There were plenty of naysayers at the outset who thought the attraction, which cost over £100m, would not succeed.
But Judith was focused on proving them wrong. "I think to be honest with you in the first couple of years, I didn't look outwards as much as certainly I have to now.
"It was all about building the business and concentrating on what our goals there, and looking to those really important international markets.
"Everything is about the present... It's very difficult to predict what's going to happen though we are trying to but we don't know what is going to happen.
"But what I would say is that we cannot lose sight of growing those international markets.
"At the minute those markets are still looking at us and we have to be very confident about how we're messaging NI over the next year or so.
"I think the next six months, the next year, is going to be very challenging, I would like to see tourism as one of the key sectors for regrowth and investment. I would like to see investment in that. There are so many jobs that are associated with the tourism industry and we need to see it as a catalyst for regrowth."
She says Titanic Belfast has carried out extensive research on how to draw in the staycationers. Even the Titanic Belfast shop has been redesigned and restocked, bringing in items that the local market is expected to prefer.
"The tourists from the international market buy a lot more clothing but our local market prefers small items of memorabilia so that's what we have brought in.
"There are lots of different types of gifts to people who want to treat to themselves to something a little bit special.
"Our cafe is now takeaway only but we have some new picnic benches outside, and people can also bring their own picnic down and enjoy the slipways where Titanic was built."
Judith grew up in Holywood with her dad Jim and mother Pat but has now lived in east Belfast for 25 years. She lives with husband David and their daughter, Grace, who's 18. She's had a varied career, and worked in media sales at the Belfast Telegraph and later UTV, before joining the Ulster Hall and Waterfront Hall.
Titanic Belfast secured a £25,000 grant from the NI Executive and is also talking to insurance brokers about a potential claim for the impact of Covid-19 on business. It has added up to a challenging time. "I have never worked harder in my life. When we opened Titanic Belfast I didn't take a day's leave for a year, I worked every day.
"Lockdown was so much more intense than that and I think it was because of how quick it seemed to happen, because one day we had a thriving business next day it was closed. We were trying to come to terms with working from home and leading a team and if I'm being honest, trying to save a business.
"It was awful. I was in the dining room and my husband would call it the bunker. I went in at 6am and 6.30m in the morning and I had to be pulled out at night. I'm really glad to be back in here at Titanic Belfast again."
Q What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A Work hard, stay grounded and focus on your goals. Never take success for granted as you never know what life can throw at you, which certainly rings true during this challenging time as we work to regrow our businesses following the impact of Covid-19.
Q What was your best business decision?
A When I took over as chief executive of Titanic Belfast, I made the conscious decision to get involved in the wider tourism industry, helping raise its profile and the needs of the sector, as well as building supportive networks for myself and our organisation. Over the last three years, tourism's voice has certainly become stronger and this decision has been invaluable, especially during this crisis and as we look towards recovery.
Q If you weren't doing this job, what would be your other career?
A I'm privileged to be where I am today and would not change my role. However, if I had the choice to go back and do it all again, I would consider taking a few years out to experience another culture before returning to Northern Ireland, I have never worked abroad for a considerable amount of time, despite travelling a lot as part of my role. I feel strongly about encouraging young people to study or work abroad and then return to be part of Northern Ireland's future.
Q What was your last holiday? Where are you going next, restrictions permitting?
A My last break was my annual ski trip with my daughter, a matter of weeks before lockdown. Whilst we have always enjoyed staycations, this year they are more than important than ever and I will be visiting Lough Erne, as well as a few day trips to support local businesses as they reopen.
Q What are your hobbies/interests/way to relax?
A According to my family, I can't sit still. However, I'm happiest experimenting in the kitchen, with a glass of red wine in hand.
Q If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A I haven't had the time to read recently but I have rediscovered audio books, recently I've listened to Lucy Foley's The Guest List and The Hunting Party.
Q Have you any economic predictions?
A The private sector will continue to be the most severely impacted by Covid-19 outbreak, with substantial job losses over the next six months. Any chances of the short sharp dip forecast at the beginning of this crisis have now been replaced with prolonged uncertainty and more gradual regrowth.
Q How would you assess your time in business with Titanic Belfast?
A I, like many of my team, have been completely immersed over the last eight years in developing Titanic Belfast as a product and as an organisation that contributed £60m of spend to Northern Ireland economy each year. Although it has been all encompassing it has been incredibly rewarding and I am more determined than ever to see our business and our industry bounce back over the next few years.
Q How do you sum up working in the tourism sector?
A At the moment, the industry is facing huge challenges but I am working alongside a group of highly motivated and inspiring individuals at Titanic Belfast, within the industry and in our tourism agencies, and for me it is and always will be a privilege to promote Northern Ireland every day.