Belfast Telegraph

A refreshing new approach to pulling in more visitors from across the border

By John Simpson

Tourism NI deserves an unusual compliment. It has acknowledged a marketing challenge, shown how it might be challenged and offered potential visitors a reassurance of enjoyment, a good quality of satisfaction, value for money and a convenient friendly neighbouring place where there will be the shared benefit of well-received visitors cared for by welcoming hosts.

Tourism NI is trying to revive and grow the interest of people who live south of the border in making short (or long) visits to Northern Ireland.

The surprise in its publicity is the frank admission that bringing southern visitors here has, in the recent past, been less successful than would have been hoped and, indeed, not as successful as a few years ago.

All credit to Tourism NI as it acknowledges recent poor performance. A special taskforce has looked at the evidence affecting a fall in the number of southern visitors and, critically, set itself the challenge of finding the "strategic imperatives required to... drive sustainable growth in the future".

The main ambition for the revised approach was to identify and implement a new customer segmentation strategy drawing on the extensive research available on what has been happening and seeking the professional advice of some of the key providers of services for visitors. The evidence offers stark contrasts.

Last year, 2016, was a good year for tourism generated from the southern part of this island. Holiday trips increased by 19% compared to 2015 and spending was 6% higher.

That may point to a preference for economies in the spending per holiday visit.

However, Northern Ireland as the nearest neighbour marketplace, attracted only 3% of the holiday trips, and 4% of the holiday spend.

The inherent challenge in this evidence is to ask why, or how, Northern Ireland might attract a larger share of a buoyant market.

In a presentation that some professional marketing specialists might try to avoid, Tourism NI is upfront and asks what are the reasons for a decline in the number of visitors travelling northwards.

First mention has been of the changed macro-economic situation. No surprise that currency fluctuations and differences in VAT rates are identified as problems. The depreciation of sterling might have been a plus factor but Tourism NI links uncertainty about Brexit and its implications for currency values as an uncertain unknown.

The search for reasons for a less buoyant marketplace for visitors, whilst acknowledging that Northern Ireland does still attract commercially attractive business from south of the border, goes on to examine how Northern Ireland has fared in making short visits more commercially attractive and the perception of the skill and effectiveness of promotional activities.

The self-critical analysis suggests that Northern Ireland could do better on both counts.

The taskforce shows a valuable insight when it asks whether Northern Ireland presents as features to attract visitors the same features as would be highlighted by southern agencies for their home market.

That poses the difficult question of what presentation would effectively differentiate Northern Ireland as a visitor attraction different from 'homegrown' southern features.

Tourism NI has made this self-examination into a useful exercise. As a derivative, there is a reshaped strategy for growth. The ambition for 2025 is an annual revenue from southern visitors of £140m.

The restated priorities for visitor attraction, along with a careful review of the formula for success and a programme for (tourist) industry engagement and development, are all part of this refreshing new approach.

Winter is not a good time to launch big tourism ideas. However, the ideas need to mature and get implemented. Now is the time to start.

Belfast Telegraph

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