In Conversation With Niall Gibbons, CEO, Tourism Ireland

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ES. Could you provide the readers with information about your early life and career? What was an early project you are particularly proud of and an early defining career moment? Please share some major milestones in your professional journey with our readers.

Niall Gibbons. After I graduated, in what was then ESS from Trinity College in 1988, I spent the next four years of my career as an accountant with Coopers and Lybrand. I worked in what was then called ‘Business Services’ – which provided a wide range of services to clients such as audit, tax and consultancy. While certain aspects of the accounting work never appealed, the social side never let me down. I moved on to work in the private sector for a number of years. An opportunity came up in the public sector and I joined the Marine Institute as Financial Controller in 1994 and left as Director of Corporate Services in 2002. The public service was a big change for me. It meant different ways of doing things, a new style of communication and accountability. But the value of the accounting qualification, combined with a capacity to deal with people, was an invaluable combination. In 2002, I moved to Tourism Ireland and took on the role of Director of Corporate Services and Company Secretary. Tourism Ireland was established after the Good Friday Agreement, to promote the island of Ireland overseas as a holiday destination. In June 2009, I was appointed Chief Executive of Tourism Ireland.

ES. The MICE business in Ireland has expanded significantly in the recent years, what do you attribute this development to? What makes it a good place for business events & meets?

Niall Gibbons. India has shown significant growth in MICE tourism to Ireland in recent years. Prominent Indian travel agencies have been promoting Ireland to their MICE clients and increasing the number of MICE groups visiting Ireland. Today, MICE groups are looking for unique and cultural experiences, state of the art convention facilities and world class accommodation – all salient features of Ireland.

There has also been an increased awareness of Ireland as an ideal destination for MICE travel. MICE visitors have the opportunity to experience Ireland’s stunning natural beauty, its dramatic landscapes, stunning cliff tops and sea views. Groups can visit Ireland’s beautiful castles that also offer accommodation and event facilities.

There is an opportunity to mix business with pleasure through Irish heritage and culture that is known and celebrated worldwide through Irish music and dance, cuisine, pubs etc. Groups can participate in unique and immersive activities such as gin and whiskey tastings, Guinness tasting, farm tours, Viking settlement tours and even visit iconic shooting locations of the show Game of Thrones. Adventure and sport activities such as kayaking, and golf can be organized. Being a small and compact island, one can travel across the country within a span of a couple of hours. City experiences are interesting, quaint and walkable and one can experience traditional Irish charm. Connectivity and visas are two key concerns of MICE planners. Ireland is easily accessible from India from the UK, Europe and Middle East. In addition, the British Irish Visa scheme enables Indian visitors to travel freely between Ireland and the UK using the same travel documents i.e. using either an Irish or UK visa. This has significantly made the visa application process easier for most business and corporate travellers, who mostly already hold a valid UK visa. With regards to accommodation and event venues, Ireland is home to a host of fantastic options, from luxury properties to castle stays, from state-of-the-art convention centres to charming estates. Capacities vary from small to large groups. There are a variety of well experienced DMCs and professional conference & event partners that can tailor make itineraries that suit a corporate’s travel requirements. Another factor that makes Ireland an ideal MICE destination is that it is the only English-speaking country in the eurozone, providing an ideal hub for international associations to meet. Here award-winning researchers, numerous regional corporations and 1,200+ multinationals all come together to produce an international, multilingual melting pot of skills. Ireland is also home to seven universities, 45 Centres of Excellence, numerous research centres and 16 university hospitals, giving access to key opinion leaders, world class speakers, sponsorship opportunities and plenty of conference delegates. With plenty of accommodation options and conference venues, world class restaurants and traditional and adventure activities, stunning natural beauty and access to a skilled talent pool, Ireland is on its way to be a leader in the world of MICE tourism.

ES. We would like to know about the state of key infrastructure and support infrastructure for MICE in Ireland? Can you share about the major convention facilities in your country and the business hotels there?

Niall Gibbons. Ireland has state-of-the-art facilities and infrastructure to support MICE groups of all sizes. As a world-class destination for MICE, Dublin is always ready for business and provides a breath of fresh air for delegates – leaving them feeling completely revitalized. The energetic, can-do approach of Dublin Convention Bureau gives the refreshing freedom to have successful MICE events with a range of practical support available from start to finish. Dublin Convention Bureau offers site inspections for local organizing committees and international boards at locations across Dublin, including hotels, congress venues and restaurants.

The vibrant and cosmopolitan city of Belfast is known the world over for its famous hospitality. The city has undergone major transformation and rejuvenation, resulting in a modern hub with a deep current of history. The Visit Belfast team that specializes in their field and ready to welcome delegates to the perfect MICE destination. ICC (International Convention Centre) Belfast is a multipurpose-built conference facility in the heart of Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast. With the latest event technology, ICC Belfast ensures event stands out in the heart of the city. Located in the south-west of Ireland, Cork is the second largest city in Ireland. Cork Convention Bureau is the first port of call for businesses interested in meeting in Ireland’s second capital, a cosmopolitan location with rich heritage and contagious energy. Leave the city and find 1,100 km of breath-taking coastline, with stunning islands and championship golf courses. Beautiful lakes, rivers and mountains offer adventure activities, while contemporary hotels provide world-class accommodation. Cork City has some of the great restaurants and craft beer pubs, and visitors interested in Irish whiskey will revel in a tour of the Jameson Distillery in Middleton. Step inside thehistoric city of Derry to discover a place that is warm, witty and welcoming.

The northwest of Ireland is renowned for its beauty, heritage, friendly locals and culture; there’s nowhere that shows off these credentials better than Derry-Londonderry, where your delegates meet a destination that is truly #LegenDerry! The Visit Derry team are MICE professionals and can help to source the best venues, restaurants and local service providers to create a ‘wow’ factor experiences for your clients and delegates. Galway is the ideal location for your next business event. Galway city has charm and vibrancy in abundance. Situated on the western fringes of Ireland, with the ocean lapping at its edges, it’s a stunning destination on the Wild Atlantic Way and the gateway to Connemara. The Galway Convention Bureau works closely with the Meet in Ireland team to ensure your business event surpasses all expectations.

ES. With the decision by the Irish government and Northern Ireland executive about the re-opening of travel to the island of Ireland, what are the plans of Tourism Ireland to entice and welcome back international business visitors?

Niall Gibbons. The recent announcement about the re-opening of international travel to Ireland on 19 July is excellent news for everyone working in the tourism and hospitality sector in Ireland. Tourism Ireland has been actively planning for this restart and is now ready to roll out a significant promotional kick-start campaign to entice and welcome back overseas visitors. As of now there is no clear indicator of when borders will open to Indian visitors as this will depend on the dynamic nature of the COVID situation.

ES. MICE events are not just about business. What incentives does Ireland offer in order to create a truly memorable experience?

Niall Gibbons. Meet in Ireland is the first point of contact for global business tourism operators and is responsible for helping meeting planners organize successful international MICE events in Ireland, a world-class destination for MICE. Meet in Ireland works with more than 500 Irish organizations and suppliers and connects with amazing local resources. The island of Ireland is the perfect destination for MICE travel. Meet in Ireland provides practical support and financial assistance to MICE groups that meet the eligibility criteria to make their events successful and memorable. Some of the practical support provided by Meet in Ireland:-

  • Introduction to approved DMCs (Destination Management Companies)/PCOs (Professional Conference Organizers) – Meet in Ireland can issue client’s RFP (Request for Proposal) to three approved DMCs, our local experts, who specialize in looking after clients travelling to Ireland.
  • Convention Bureaux Supports – They can offer you complimentary venue finding and accommodation sourcing services in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Shannon and Kerry.
  • Presentation Toolkit – Should you require assistance presenting Ireland as a destination of choice to a decision-making committee Meet in Ireland can provide with imagery, video, presentation templates etc.

Financial support offered by Meet in Ireland to groups that meet the eligibility criteria are through assistance with site inspection hosting and programme enhancement funding in the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland also offers financial support through the Conference Support Scheme, site inspections and familiarization trips assistance, civic hospitality and destination wide support, assistance with designing local entertainment itineraries for delegates, family and friends, literature for delegate packs, free online accommodation booking service, dedicated account manager who will support you through planning, special offers and discounts for delegates, assistance with event services like AV and transport, appointment of a local professional conference organizer or event management agency to support your event if required, tourist information and meet/greet service for delegates and VIPs.

ES. What role does Tourism Ireland play in facilitating the growth of MICE industry and support its key stakeholders in the region?

Niall Gibbons. The Tourism Ireland India office has a dedicated sales team which conducts destination presentations to travel agents and promotes MICE to Ireland. Regular familiarization visits are conducted to Ireland for agents to identify products and regions that are relevant and would entice Indian MICE travellers. (eg. Bailey’s farm in Wicklow) Tourism Ireland India conducts marketing and promotional activities to be able to promote these relevant products to the Indian market. Regular newsletters are created and disseminated to MICE agents giving them an update on the new attractions, venues, capacities and products of interest. Tourism Ireland’s annual Sales Mission in India enables Irish industry to travel and meet with Indian travel agents. This also provides an opportunity for the key attractions, hotels and experiences to present their MICE product to the Indian agents first-hand and network with Indian travel agents. (Eg. Winterfell Tours in Northern Ireland is a great Game of Thrones experience and has hosted multiple Indian MICE groups) Tourism Ireland works closely with Meet in Ireland to support and encourage MICE groups. Once a MICE group is confirmed, Tourism Ireland facilitates the visa process by working in close conjunction with the Irish visa office, the corporate and the travel agency. Larger corporate MICE groups are actively assisted by the visa office. This ensures a smooth and efficient visa process.

ES. Tourism Ireland announced their plans for 2021 in a virtual conference entitled “Ready for Recovery”. What are your hopes for the year 2021 and ahead, especially in regard to MICE tourism?

Niall Gibbons. In certain key markets of the world,

Tourism Ireland has launched a new €3.5 million promotional campaign on 7 June to build anticipation for travel to Ireland. Phase one involves a major digital video campaign – Let’s get back to Ireland, which has gone live. Phase two of Tourism Ireland’s kick-start activity will go live in July.

This will be a separate campaign, which will deliver a very clear ‘book now’ message to prospective international visitors and will single-mindedly drive visitor numbers back to Ireland. As international travel begins to restart, the priority for Tourism Ireland will be to keep the island of Ireland front and centre in consumers’ minds. Our kick-start campaign will need to punch through the noise and create an immediate desire to visit. Tourism Ireland is ready to play its part in the recovery of this sector. Our message is that we can’t wait to roll out the green carpet and welcome back our overseas visitors.

Top trends in MICE tourism

1. Safety, Hygiene and Clean Tourism: The pandemic has encouraged the world to be more hygiene and safety inclined. This is a habit that many experts believe will be carried forward post covid as well and will ripple through the travel and hospitality industry leaving visitors extremely cautious and careful about the cleanliness of their environment. Hotels, event venues and hospitality professionals will need to take note of this and be able to guarantee the visitor a clean and safe environment.

2. Hybrid Events: Hybrid events are events that incorporate both in-person and virtual, live-streaming elements. Hybrid events are a good way to manage crowd levels, ensure all relevant attendees of the event are able to attend, and offer increased eyeballs and in turn, increased Return on Investment. The hotel, hospitality and event industry will need to keep up with this growing trend by educating themselves on the technology involved and of course, good internet bandwidth to be able to support hybrid events.

3. Sustainable Tourism: With more and more activism towards environment protection, corporates are shifting their gaze towards sustainable practices and tourism. Experiences that leave a low carbon footprint, little to no impact on the environment, limited waste and zero plastic usage are gaining popularity. Tourism is shifting outdoors and towards nature and nature-based activities are gaining popularity. Younger travellers are engaging in more cultural and local authentic experiences that are environment friendly and this will translate to corporate and MICE tourism as well.