Coach tours driving up Northern Ireland tourism market and providing boost to businesses from shops to garden centres
Seeing Northern Ireland by bus is not just for international travellers but also local groups like the Women's Institute or Folds, as business editor Margaret Canning finds out
The coach tour business is booming in Northern Ireland, providing businesses like garden centres with a major cash boost. And it is not just big-spending international visitors indulging in days out and excursions.
Plenty of Northern Ireland folk are treating themselves to coach tours to tourist locations, making stops in towns and shops en route.
As well as summer days out, they are also opting for special autumn and Christmas coach shopping trips to places like Cookstown, Coleraine and Ballymena.
The managing director of Colemans Garden Centre in Templepatrick, Richard Fry, said visits from coach tour parties were now worth a six-figure sum to his business every year.
He said June has been the biggest month of the year so far as older people's groups and organisations like the Women's Institute marked their summer recess with a big day out.
He said: "The coach tour business is now worth several hundred thousand to us. It's a very important business for us as a small business.
"It's been growing in Britain for some time and now it's really starting to take off for us."
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He said the growth was down to the £5m investment the business has made in extending its premises, and the addition of retail concessions like Mountain Warehouse and Pavers.
"We do get a lot of coach tours, especially this year as we relaunched at the end of March.
"We have had a very successful year with coach tours, especially in May and June. The end of June finishes the season for a lot of the groups we attract - like the ladies' groups, church groups, Women's Institute, retirement groups and community groups.
"They're usually on a day outing and stop in with us on their way somewhere.
"Sometimes we get visits from gardening groups who are on their way to see an open garden somewhere, or are going to Belfast for shopping, or to places of interest like Antrim Castle Gardens.
"They're going to an event and call in to break the day up. It's a huge part of the business in that time of year. Some Saturdays we have had six or seven coaches.
"We would offer a food package now for coach groups, and they can also get a discount in store.
"Groups call for coffee and scones and a comfort stop and others on the return leg might call for a coffee and a bun or dessert.
"We've now got great toilet facilities and a 250 seater-restaurant. Some mornings we had 150 people in at the one time. We're now actively targeting the groups and the tour companies."
He's now hoping to draw more groups from Dublin, and planning to market Colemans as a halfway point between Dublin and the Giant's Causeway.
Andy Storey, the manager of Boots in Ballymena and vice-chair of its Business Improvement District (BID), said it's been targeting groups to entice them to spend a few hours in the town - a handy pit-stop for the north coast.
The BID, a grouping of retailers which aims to improve the town's shopping, has said its efforts have meant that footfall in the town has risen by 6.9% over the last year.
Mr Storey said: "Over the last couple of years, we have put an emphasis on it to encourage church tours to come to the town.
"Ballymena works very well as a stop-off as you have a lot of people going to places like the Giant's Causeway and the Antrim Coast.
"What we can offer is a bit of rest and relaxation in line with a day out, so now we offer different packages to organisations like church groups and a charity like Saint Vincent de Paul.
"They might stop with us in Ballymena on their way back from somewhere because they want to do a little bit of shopping or go for a coffee. They have a look around and take in a bit of shopping.
"A town warden will welcome the groups and direct them towards coffee shops and the independent retailers in the town like Camerons and Wallaces.
"I live up in Claudy. My mother lives in a Fold there and four times a year they go on trips organised by Saint Vincent de Paul - for example, they went to Portrush last Sunday and stopped in Limavady on the way back.
"They also went to the Glens of Antrim and stopped off in Ballymena. They went from Claudy to Ballymena for a few hours, then on to Slemish and Glenariff, then back, stopping in Tullyglass Hotel for a dance."
Caroline McComb, of McCombs Coaches in Belfast, said groups making journeys in Northern Ireland made up around 10% of its business.
"We get a multitude of local groups who come to us when they already have in mind where they want to go - it would be places like Fermanagh or Newcastle. We're then able to help them with the finer planning."
Trips will include a coffee and cake stop, she said.
"For those kinds of groups, we do still get business through the down season but there is more of a feel-good atmosphere in the summer," she added.
But public transport company Translink is the main provider of coach services for excursions. It takes groups to the market in Cookstown and The Linen Green retail centre outside Dungannon in October. It also runs Christmas shopping trips to Coleraine and Ballymena in December.
Ulsterbus Tours said: "This remains one of our most popular Christmas shopping trips, providing ample time at two great shopping towns with dinner to round off your day. At such excellent value prices including dinner, these coaches will fill up quickly so don't forget to book early and avoid disappointment."
Many towns and businesses throughout the country are set to benefit from Ulsterbus Tours' upcoming itinerary. It includes the Rathlin Island tour in August, Cookstown Market and The Linen Green tour in October as well as the Halloween in Derry-Londonderry tour that opens up not just the world-famous carnival there on October 31 but free leisure time when passengers can visit Foyleside Shopping Centre, the Richmond Centre or one of the many independent retailers and hospitality establishments in the town. And these will be followed by festive-themed shopping tours provincewide.
Tourism NI says the coach tour sector is a growing one and every year new business deals are signed and new partnerships commenced between members of the Northern Ireland tourism trade and coach and group operators. It is an area of tourism it is actively promoting.
This September it will host another of its annual workshops "GB and RoI Coach and Group Operators Workshop 2019" at the Waterfoot Hotel in Londonderry.
It said: "This annual workshop creates the perfect opportunity for carefully-targeted coach and group tour operators from GB and RoI to come together with hoteliers, visitor attractions, experience providers, local councils and other important tourism representatives from across Northern Ireland to increase the awareness of the destinations' collective offering.
"As our tourism product develops, and our reputation as a must-see destination reaches new heights, it is becoming increasingly important for the local trade to position their respective business to market at home and on a global stage."
Last year's event was held at Belfast Cathedral where Tourism NI's business solutions manager, Eimear Callaghan, said over 1,600 sales appointments took place.
Ms Callaghan said: "As a destination, Northern Ireland has much to offer the international visitor, from a high standard and variety of accommodation to award-winning unique visitor attractions and available activities."
"Face-to-face networking events such as this one are vital for ensuring that Northern Ireland tourism businesses can (secure) contract for years to come, thus future-proofing their businesses," she added.