Food and Drink showcase will go on!

Article written by Sam Butler, featured in the Newsletter 09/01/2017

Tourism NI chief executive John McGrillen is quick to acknowledge that Northern Ireland’s first-ever year of Food and Drink “exceeded all expectations” and overall was “a resounding success”. He reinforces this by adding: “We’ve got to build on the legacies of the initiative during 2017 especially in our partnership with Tourism Ireland to promote Northern Ireland as a great food destination.”

Promotional activity abroad included bringing hundreds of food writers, bloggers, and chefs to Northern Ireland and generated coverage in magazines, newspapers, and blogs worth around £30 million – against an initial target of £10 million, he continues. The most significant achievement in promotional coverage being in the core markets of Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. “The overall coverage of Northern Ireland food and drink among the ‘culturally curious’, our target audience,’ in both these hugely important markets has been tremendous,” he says.

His appreciation of the value of media coverage abroad has been shaped by time spent marketing Northern Ireland in Germany as a business location for the former Industrial Development Board. This experience has also led to the close relationships developed with Invest Northern Ireland during the past year.

“The Northern Ireland food destination message, in addition, has been covered in the US, the Middle East, and Asia. As a result of the programme of international media visits, we’ve developed good relationships with many very influential food writers and specialist journalists. And we will continue to follow up the contacts made with news and other information likely to be of interest to them. We also appreciate greatly the enthusiastic support from the media here. There’s now a much greater awareness of the outstanding quality of our food and drink, our superb hotels and restaurants, and the culinary excellence of chefs here.”

While measuring the success of such a wide-ranging initiative as Year of Food and Drink is likely to take some time, Mr McGrillen draws great encouragement from the most recent Visitor Attitude Survey, completed at the end of October, showing that the percentage of visitors who thought Northern Ireland’s food offering was either excellent or very good rose from 60 percent to an immensely impressive 83 percent this year.

He took over as Tourism NI supremo just before the public launch of Year of Food and Drink and has seen visitor numbers from overseas hit an all-time record of almost 2.1 million, a very healthy increase of six per cent on the previous year and generating almost £600 million to the local economy, nine per cent up on 2015. The body is clearly on target to drive tourism spend to more £1 billion by 2020.

The role of food and drink in tourism has long been recognised by Tourism NI, he continues. “It’s a key element in our market strategy…and will continue to be so. Research shows that 25 percent of spending by visitors is on food and drink, which makes it essential that we continue to focus attention on what we offer them. This is why Year of Food and Drink was so important. The initiative has succeeded in reinforcing the position of food and drink at the heart of the visitor offering.

“What it did was to provide a framework which pulled together the public, private and voluntary sectors to come up with an immense programme of some 100 activities showcasing our food and drink,” he says. “While Tourism NI implemented the initiative very professionally and effectively, the support we received from the industry and other stakeholders ensured its success,” he adds.

He acknowledges the contribution of Food NI in co-ordinating and supporting marketing initiatives and sees a continuing role for the organisation in carrying forward the legacies of the campaign. “This will mean a close look at Food NI’s resources to enable it to build on last year’s achievements and the partnerships established across Northern Ireland.”

Partnerships are important to him. His previous experience as a top executive with Belfast and Downpatrick councils underpins his appreciation of innovative initiatives by local government in support of Tourism NI especially during Year of Food and Drink.

“Councils, for instance, have been involved in a host of activities from establishing food markets to supporting many of the 17 food tours now operating across Northern Ireland for the benefit of tourists as well as hundreds of smaller producers.”

A busy programme of activities for the year ahead is being shaped by Tourism NI in collaboration with its partners. The popular BBC Good Food Show is returning to Belfast in October; the RUAS at Balmoral Park is being extended to four days and will feature an even bigger Food NI Food and Drink Pavilion; LegenDerry Food Festival and other foodie shows in Derry will continue; and the Twilight Markets in Belfast, Newry, Portadown and Lurgan will also feature along with enhanced food and drink offerings at agricultural shows throughout the province.

The show goes on and will continue to gather momentum during 2017.