As the hospitality and tourism sector across Northern Ireland continues to react and respond to evolving Covid-19 restrictions, one local council is embracing the recovery challenge head on through its specialist new task force.
Established by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council (MEABC) chief executive Anne Donaghy OBE, the Hospitality and Tourism Task Force includes Tourism Northern Ireland, Tourism Ireland, the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation and a range of local businesses from across the sector. Its aim is to provide a platform for key players and influencers to work together to deliver a clear action plan focused on recovery, and to raise the profile of the local tourism economy within Mid and East Antrim.
The task force is chaired by Colin Johnston, managing director of Galgorm Collection – which includes Galgorm Spa and Golf Resort, The Rabbit (formerly The Templeton Hotel), the Castle Kitchen and Bar at Galgorm Castle, and Belfast’s Café Parisien and Fratelli restaurants.
Appointed in September 2020, Mr Johnston said that the work of the group would be critical to the recovery of the hospitality and tourism sector in Mid and East Antrim in 2021 and beyond.
“Having been involved in one of the borough’s primary hospitality and tourism businesses for almost 20 years, I have witnessed first-hand the crucial contribution the sector makes to the wider culture and lifestyle offering of Mid and East Antrim and its local economy,” he said.
“Accounting for around 10% of GVA (gross value added) in the borough, hospitality and tourism is one of our key growth sectors as we aim to drive economic recovery in the immediate term and strive for sustainable economic growth in the medium to longer term.
“However, the challenges and threats posed by Covid-19 are among the greatest that our industry has ever experienced, and the impact will be felt by our local hospitality and tourism businesses for some time to come.
“That’s why the development of a practical and tangible strategy that will drive recovery and sustainable growth has been so important. The strategy puts the safety of our visitors and our teams at the forefront whilst securing livelihoods for our colleagues.”
Led by the Task Force in partnership with MEABC, this Integrated Tourism Strategy centres on the rebuilding of a vibrant tourism economy that not only serves as an attractive draw for international and domestic visitors to the borough, but also continues to enhance the lives of its citizens.
The delivery of the strategy is underpinned by a two-phased action plan, with the group now taking forward phase two.
“Phase one of the action plan was naturally very reactive and focused on response-driven initiatives necessitating from the first few months of Covid-19,” Mr Johnston said.
“This included the delivery of a programme of political and stakeholder lobbying activity, together with the roll out of skills interventions, operational guidance and enforcement support, and provision of PPE – all of which played an important role in preparing the sector for safe re-opening following the first lockdown period.
“In phase two we have been focusing on a number of strategic levers, including sustaining our sector, collaboration, innovation, skills and growth. This phase sets out how we plan to move forward over the next 12 months, with the flexibility to adapt and evolve as it becomes clearer on how the local economy is likely to recover.”
The action plan is supported by a robust communications and marketing plan. Focused on continuing to position Mid and East Antrim as an attractive visitor destination for NI, the Republic of Ireland and GB markets, in recent months this has included the successful execution of a number of multi-channel PR and advertising campaigns across online, print and broadcast platforms.
“In June 2020 we launched our #RediscoverMEA campaign to promote the borough’s compelling hospitality and retail offering,” Mr Johnston said. “This generated over 10,000 news articles and individual social media engagements, reaching almost one million potential visitors across Facebook, Twitter and Europe and a further 850,000 through radio and television advertising.
“Combined with our outdoor digital and billboard campaigns, this led to a surge in interest in Mid and East Antrim as day trip or short stay destination – evidenced through our online analytics, which showed that unique daily Google searches for Mid and East Antrim soared by more than 400%.”
MEABC subsequently launched its ‘Spirit of MEA’ campaign to support the sector which, like #RediscoverMEA, focused on shop local, eat local, stay local and safe spending. Throughout December this included a high-profile radio competition to win voucher prizes to spend in the borough’s shops, hotels and restaurants, together with a two-week television advertising campaign on UTV.
In the run up to the festive period the council also incepted its ‘Covid Confidence Scheme’ – which, according to Mr Johnston, brought much-needed reassurance to shoppers, diners and visitors to the borough.
“Given the constantly-evolving Covid-19 restrictions that challenged the hospitality and tourism sector throughout November and December, we knew visitor and consumer confidence would be key to maintaining a steady footfall and demand for local businesses throughout the Christmas period,” he said.
“Our Covid Confidence Scheme promotes local businesses as safe, welcoming and ready to trade – aimed at assuring shoppers, diners and visitors that all necessary steps have been take to control and mitigate the spread of coronavirus in our towns and villages.
“Through the Scheme, all local businesses have been receiving a Covid-19 Business Support Pack, with follow-up visits by offices ensuring that all appropriate measures are in place before they are awarded the Covid-19 Confidence Mark – bringing that continued confidence as we enter into 2021.”
With the early stages of a mass Covid-19 vaccination programme now in place, Mr Johnston said that hospitality and tourism businesses in Mid and East Antrim are desperately hoping for a more positive 2021.
“With the vaccine bringing hope of a return to even some semblance of normality in 2021, local businesses are now very much dialling up their recovery strategies and tentatively making ambitious plans for this year.
“Bold and forward-thinking decisions have already by taken by MEABC and the Tourism and Hospitality Task Force and it’s our job to ensure that the sector is supported in every way possible going forward in the coming 12 months and beyond.”