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Derry's Tourism Offer Is Now World Class

Chamber Of Commerce Vice President Jennifer McKeeverwrites a new column for the Derry News

It's easy to feel pretty downbeat, given the politicalchatter (or lack thereof … we're talking about you, Stormont assembly!) butactually that's not the vibe in much of the business community, andparticularly the local tourism economy.

In fact, for many of us who have the privilege of meetingand serving visitors on a daily basis, the mood is very upbeat. You would haveto be a true dyed-in-the-cloth cynic not to see the transformation that hastaken place in the city over the past five years. The city has become astandalone destination for domestic and international visitors alike, and allthe signs are there to indicate that we are only at the start of ourascendancy.

From 2015 to 2016 overnight trips to the city increasedby a staggering 26% - in one year. This year that trend has continued, with thefirst eight months of 2017 finishing as the best performing months on record.Visitor spend (let's be honest, that’s what it's all about) is up 18%, andrising.

Hotel room sales have peaked because peak season hasreached capacity and we need more rooms to sell. Three additional hotels aredue to open in the near future at Ebrington, Foyle Street and Strand Road.Derry has become a real food and drink hotspot with openings, renovations andexpansions across hospitality and hotel venues.

Ebrington is finally – finally! - growing into itspotential and, with the addition of the Quiet Man Whiskey Distillery opening in2018, it will be a true pleasure to see tourists walk across the Peace Bridgeto visit both a craft beer brewery and a whiskey distillery. Eat your heart outBushmills!

Sometimes it's frustratingly hard to see the growth inwealth and jobs when the regional 'economically inactive' figure remains astubbornly hard one to shift, but it's equally hard to ignore the improvementto the visitor-servicing economy. The product available to our visitors isvastly improved over pre-City of Culture days, and the range and qualitycontinues to grow and improve annually.

Festival power

The Jazz Festival and the Halloween festivals are wellestablished and greatly admired (has your city been named as BestHalloween Festival by USA Today? No? Well, ours has …) and the investment inthe marketing and development of the festival and events' calendar is crucial ifwe are going to see this growth in visitors continue.

There has been a positive and improving collaborationbetween public and private sectors as both understand that both the marketingand the delivery of any product or service is crucial, and one can't flourishwithout the other. Other festivals like the City of Derry Choral Festival,Fashion Fest, Legenderry Food Festival, and Sippy of Culture have become realanchors in the city calendar and have been enormously effective motivators forattracting visitors.

I think we'll see a greater focus on the internationalvisitors over the coming years, as we become more sophisticated at attractingspecific markets and segments.

It's always a challenge to create a message that attractsnew customers while not neglecting your existing ones, but our resources haveto be used wisely, and I think we'll see the city and region developing theirmessage to maximize the marketing spend on those international visitors whowill stay longer and spend more. Golf, screen and food tourism have becomemassive motivators for international visitors and we could use our location –an hour away from Ballyliffin and Royal Portrush – to establish ourselvesfirmly as a hub city for a huge global market coming for the Irish Open and theOpen Championship over the next two years.

I know what you're thinking … what about the Big B word?Brexit reminds me of that disconcerting experience of when the sun is shiningat the front of your house but if you look out the back door there are bigblack clouds threatening to break, and you're trying to decide whether youshould risk a walk or not. (Spoiler alert – I never risk it).

Brexit is, of course, the great unknown. It is –potentially – a threat to every sector and size of business, and the tourismeconomy is no different. Visitors servicing businesses are weighing up therisks and trying to make decisions about investments, same as everyone else.Will there be a hard border? An exit from the customs union? A drop in thevalue of sterling? A drop in the value of euros?

Challenges and opportunities

In my most optimistic moments, I believe that changealways brings an opportunity for improvement and that challenges are good forus. Most people in business will tell you that what doesn’t kill you will makeyou stronger... and the things that actually nearly kill you are the ones thatmake you the strongest.

The next few years will certainly bring challenges andit's up to us as business and tourism providers to continue to lead, grow anddeliver the best product we can to our customers, whether they are from Canada,Crimea or Creggan.

That means ensuring your staff are well trained, andmotivated to provide great service. It means staying informed and connected andalways finding ways to market your business to as wide an audience as possible.Yes, that means digital platforms. If your customers can't find you online,they can't find you at all.

Be aware that change is coming. Brexit is certainly partof it, but the global market for visitors is changing even without Brexit.Emerging economies like China, India and Russia are providing increasingvisitor numbers, and they are high-value propositions with high expectations.

We'll have to fight for our slice of the tourism pieharder and smarter than ever. But I continue to be optimistic for our city andregion because I have seen our product improving from standard to above averageto genuinely world class, just over the last five years. Imagine what the nextfive will bring.