Northern Ireland's newest tourist attraction is great Food and Drink Awards
Today marks the deadline for entries to Tourism NI's Year of Food and Drink Awards, celebrating our best producers and honouring their contribution to last year's events showcasing their products
The Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink Awards, in association with the Belfast Telegraph, are an excellent way to acknowledge and applaud the breadth and depth of innovation, enterprise and sheer hard work that went into making the YOFD such a success.
The YOFD's 12 themed months gave food producers, preparers and presenters the opportunity to focus on quality and creativity and to improve and enhance every aspect of the Northern Ireland food and drink experience.
That delivered not just a fantastic year of culinary delights but also a robust foundation on which to further build food-related tourism.
The NI Year of Food and Drink Awards are one of the first building blocks to be placed on that foundation.
So I would encourage all those who took part in the events and initiatives of the past 12 months to highlight their contribution to the YOFD success by entering this exciting competition.
There are eight categories: Best NI Food Event or Festival; Best NI Local Market; Best NI Tours and Trails; Best Food Story - linking food to destination; Food Innovation; Roots to Market - demonstrating collaborative working; Growing for the Future - focusing on the skills required to drive food destination development; and Best Marketing Achievement. There will also be an overall winner - Destination Delicious NI - for the entrant who is judged to have made an outstanding contribution to the YOFD and to the development of Northern Ireland as a food destination.
The very act of completing the application form will be a means of reflecting on what has been achieved, identifying what worked and what can be further developed, and refocusing on strengths and potential. In that sense, every entrant is a winner.
But for those who receive the awards there will also be invaluable publicity, increased interest in their offering and the chance to open up new markets for their goods and services.
Our food and drink industry is no stranger to the power of awards. In 2016, 84 producers secured 303 Great Taste Gold stars, and Northern Ireland companies also won the highest ever number of awards in the Irish Quality Awards and Blas na hEireann Awards.
And last year also saw several local restaurants and hotels achieve awards for excellence, including Michelin stars for Belfast restaurants OX and EIPIC @Deanes, and Bib Gourmands awarded to Wine and Brine in Moira, Old School House Inn in Comber, Belfast venues Bar and Grill at James Street South, Deanes at Queen's and Home, and Fontana in Holywood.
Such success brings international attention and commercial opportunity. As 2016 showed, our local fare has become very important to the tourism industry. The Belfast Telegraph awards focus on that link and what has been achieved in just 12 months.
I believe every individual, organisation or business that took part in the YOFD activities deserves the chance to shout about what they created and delivered, because every contribution was a part of the overall colourful and mouth-watering YOFD mosaic.
John McGrillen is chief executive of Tourism NI. To enter the contest, visit belfasttelegraph.co.uk/foodanddrinkawards
Food and Drink Awards winners will be announced at a gala ceremony with a six-course banquet at the Culloden Hotel on February 2. A ticket costs £75 and a table for 10, £750