Here’s to a continuation of the healthy growth in our tourism industry
As our economist Richard Ramsey has noted, Northern Ireland has one sector in particular which has experienced recent transformative growth – tourism.
Belfast and Northern Ireland have significantly climbed the rankings in terms of tourism competitiveness globally. For instance, Belfast and the Causeway coast was ranked the number one region to visit in the world for 2018, and Titanic Belfast was voted the 2016 top international attraction to visit.
The hospitality and leisure industry in Northern Ireland exports an image of Northern Ireland that is attractive to both near-market visitors as well as those from further afield.
So, in the interests of staying competitive in an uncertain environment, what can other sectors learn?
First and foremost, there is collaboration even in an intensely competitive trade — what researchers working in game theory call ‘co-opetition’.
Our hospitality and leisure sector has clear corporate beliefs and aims on the attractiveness of Northern Ireland as a destination and campaigns for them assertively, with the clear view that a rising tide of visitor numbers has benefits for almost everyone operating in the market.
There’s also a willingness to borrow ideas, enhance them and continually improve them, which has generated a compelling product.
Secondly, the industry is unafraid about promoting its superstars as a means of cutting through to the attention of buyers shopping from an international menu.
Ably supported by bodies like Belfast City Council, Tourism NI and the various business improvement districts (BIDS), the industry is good at putting its best foot forward in terms of meeting consumer need — stating which are the must-see attractions and top restaurants.
They have also invested in their capital assets as a real statement of intent. This is a cultural mindset that should be encouraged across all businesses seeking to grow and scale, as we can sometimes be hesitant in speaking confidently about the areas in which we excel — or dealing frankly with the areas in which we don’t.
But most successfully, the industry has also managed the pivot from being a provider of services to a provider of experiences that modern, millennial and Gen Z consumers are demanding from all brands.
We know in particular that Northern Ireland customers are price-savvy, but to avoid a simple race to the bottom, you’ve got to demonstrate how you can offer more than just a price tag to customers — whether that’s signposting the place for a perfect Instagram shot, or detailing the history, provenance and ethical care that’s gone into producing a product or service.
And without a willingness to replicate these efforts, the danger for other sectors is clear. We exist and compete in a global market for tastes and trends — our many food and drink producers will attest to that. Regulations and trading arrangements change.
Without investment and continuing to pitch for relevance, brands sink lower down the pecking order, even with established audiences.
So let’s take a break with some of the people in Northern Ireland who are managing this best and see what we can learn.