NITA Summary – Tourism NI Conference: People, Place and Partnership

Tuesday 23rd April, Titanic Belfast

The Tourism NI conference was very well attended and received by over 300 delegates from a cross-section of local tourism businesses. It was hosted and facilitated by award winning journalist, author and broadcaster Dearbhail McDonald. Economy Minister Conor Murphy MLA formally opened the event, followed by Tourism NI Chief Executive John McGrillen and Tourism Ireland Chief Executive Alice Mansergh outlining their strategic priorities for the year ahead. Guest speakers included George Clarke (presenter, architect and a passionate environmental and sustainability expert), Adrian Webster (motivational speaker and author of Polar Bear Pirates Book series) and Ciaran Connolly (founder of Profile Tree).

Conor Murphy, Economy Minister

Conor Murphy highlighted some recent tourism statistics, local events and also discussed ways in which tourism businesses in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland could collaborate eg Wild Atlantic Way. Air connections, ETA, skills categories and incentives for hotel development were also highlighted alongside the importance of business and political tourism. He mentioned NITA and how far tourism has come in regard to being recognised as a key economic driver on the island of Ireland, and also the NI Tourism Strategy which is due to be published soon by the Department.  He stated that they would establish a Tourism Partnership Board to develop an Action Plan to enable the industry to continue to grow in a way that aligns with the Economic Vision of a productive, regionally balanced, net zero economy with good jobs. He set out an outline of their plans which can be found in the Department’s press release HERE

John McGrillen, Tourism Northern Ireland CEO

A video showing the highlights of the last year was presented and Tourism NI’s work with different partners was discussed. 

  • “Good Jobs’  – using the Wellbeing Promise to deliver a Tourism and Hospitality Careers programme aimed at changing perceptions of the sector as a career option.  Developing the ‘MyTourismNI’ e-learning platform is essential to enhance capacity and professionalism within the tourism and hospitality enterprise. 
  • Regional Balance – local tourism related events are just as important as major international events and it is important to promote NI as a short break destination across the island of Ireland through integrated marketing campaigns, driving visitor growth and revenue, with a regional balance. It is essential to support the development and delivery of the major new tourism investment projects identified within the City and Growth Deals across Northern Ireland. The ‘Embrace a Giant Spirit’ Portfolio development can contribute to this.
  • Increased Productivity – delivering an Innovate Tourism Growth Programme aligned to Innovate NI framework and wider programme/fund and deliver the Business Tourism Strategy to support the industry in securing conferences and business meetings for NI.
  • Sustainability – deliver the All Island Sustainability Tourism Assurance programme in collaboration with Failte Ireland and Tourism Ireland, deliver a Sustainability Industry Programme to support wider Climate Action initiatives and the All-Island Programme and produce an accessible and inclusive tourism industry toolkit by the end of this year.

Alison Mansergh, CEO Tourism Ireland

  • Our remit – Grow overseas tourism to the island of Ireland and assist Northern Ireland to realise its potential. NI revenue growth is expected to increase 6.5% average year on year to 2030. Seasonal events can be used to promote this eg. a Halloween Autumn festival. Rory Best highlighted various attractions in a promotional video..
  • Vision – Increase the value of overseas tourism to the island of Ireland, sustainably supporting economies, communities and the environment. This can by done by inspiring visitors and strengthening strategic partnerships, always with a values-led approach. Air and sea access has increased in 2023 to beyond pre-covid years.
  • Inspiring Visitors – Awareness, consideration, research, purchase and advocacy.
  • All Ireland Sustainable Tourism Assurance Scheme – collaboration between Tourism Northern Ireland, Failte Ireland and Tourism Ireland.

Adrian Webster (motivational speaker and creator of Polar Bear Pirate series)

Adrian’s presentation focused on TNTs (Tiny Noticeable Things).  Adrian demonstrated what it takes to develop a people-centred, aspirational culture that fosters self-belief, encourages ownership and uncovers hidden talents.  

The four most important qualities that a business can  offer staff are time, care, share and fallibility, which can all be demonstrated by TNT actions.

  • Progress can be achieved by focus, setting goals and neuroplasticity.
  • Important to be prepared to take advice and change if necessary.
  • Drink water to prevent dehydration and brain deterioration.
  • Lots of different types of people on the planet and 6 years research identified that they could fall into the following categories – Ask, Enthusers, Determination, Doers, Belief, Fun, Agile, Bounce, Simple, Energy, Authentic, Edge and Corkscrew. However many who are negative about everything fall into the ‘pothole’ category!
  • Books include – ‘Great People Make People Feel Great’, Tiny Noticeable Things’, ‘Sort Your Brain Out’, ‘Polar Bear Pirates aid their quest to engage the sleepwalkers’, ‘Polar Bear Pirates and their quest to reach Fat City’.

Ciaran Connolly (The Profile Tree specialising in digital transformation)

Ciaran discussed Tourism and the development of AI, demonstrating what AI can do for tourism businesses to help improve customer experience, streamline operations and drive growth. He summarised the free and paid AI and digital tools available to streamline businesses.

  • How could we use video AI? Personalised travel videos sent to guests, video-based booking confirmation, international videos, learning and development, scaled email outreach and video ads.
  • What is AI? AI are systems that can analyse vast amounts of data, identify patterns, and make predictions or decisions based on that information. AI cant think like a human, but it can perform tasks that need some level of intelligence. They can also learn and adapt over time, improving their performance as they process more data.
  • Ethics of AI – AI is revolutionising every industry at speed, but along with the benefits, there are some ethical considerations – AI bias, privacy of data, new regulations, copyright, job displacement, human oversight.
  • Digital Innovation – Create an AI business strategy, review areas for business improvement, develop an AI policy/guidelines, train anyone using AI and mistakes will be made!
  • The Importance of People in Tourism – Use AI to remove mundane low-value tasks – we do not hire a person to ‘check in’ a guest, we hire them to deliver an incredible experience – personalised service, cultural understanding, building relationships, problem solving and adaptability.
  • The Number 1 AI tool to use – Chat GPT Plus – a personal assistant that can write, draw, analyse data, finance, innovation, training, code, video, strategy and more!
  • Lazy Prompts – basic design, and then you can personalise.
  • Perfect Prompt = PROFIT:
    • Profile – target audience, demographics and behaviours
    • Results – desired outcome, KPI’s
    • Objectives – specific, measurable goal
    • Focus – key campaign theme and unique selling points
    • Insights – data driven decisions and customer understanding
    • Timeline and Tone – project schedule, brand voice and messaging
  • The “Perfect Prompt”:
    • Profile – eco-conscious young adults, 22-35, adventure seekers
    • Results – increase web traffic 20%, social followers 15%, bookings 10%
    • Objectives – engaging eco-adventure social media campaign and targeted ads
    • Focus – premier destination for sustainable adventure experiences
    • Insights – rising eco-travel trend, Instagram/TikTok influence, unique hotel features
    • Timeline and Tone – 3 month campaign, energetic and informative, £3,000/month budget
  • AI + Devices = Opportunity – can be used on various devices.
  • Examples of AI Applications:
    • – User Generated Content AI (UGC), Add a URL, Edit the script, Post (for videos). 
    • – a voice application.
    • – Generative Voice AI – converts text to speech online for free , will create natural AI voices instantly in any language – perfect for video creators, developers, and businesses.
    • – can recreate 1 long video into 10 viral clips, 10x faster. 
    • – free all-in-one video editor to create basic content anywhere. Needs payment for advanced features. Used for Tik Tok.
    • – for videos and podcasts.
    • – for social media.
    • – for social advertising.
    • – make a song about anything – 10 songs per day. Free but no commercial licence unless you pay for advanced features.
  • Where Can AI Help?
    • AI for Business – written content, AI automation, workforce management, cyber security, supply chain optimisation, images and video creation, data analytics, AI chatbots, customer service.
    • Scale Marketing and sales – analyse your analytics/metric and ask Chat GPT what to do next, write a draft of your content, create unique images, AL Chatbots on your website (Chat GPR has over 100 languages with better experience and conversion) and how you can introduce more personalisation into your organisation.
    • A Concierge Service – with AI, we can now offer hyper- personalisation to our guests which was very expensive until now. 24/7 availability (guests can access concierge services anytime, anywhere), personalised recommendation (AI can learn guest preferences and recommend services, restaurants or activities that they are likely to enjoy) and increased efficiency (AI can automate tasks such as making reservations or booking tickets, freeing up concierge staff to focus on more complex requests).
  • Major Platforms – Expedia, Facebook, Trip Advisor etc.
  • AI+People = Massive Win – AI Won’t Replace Humans – But Humans With AI Will Replace Humans Without AI.

George Clarke (Architect, TV Presenter) 

Interview with Dearbhail McDonald, discussing sustainability, regeneration, and the importance of a ‘Sense of Place’ in the context of the tourism and hospitality industry.

  • Left school at 16, no A’ levels, started working in an Architects office in Sunderland (home town). 
  • Most important factor is to get under the skin of a place and concentrate on what makes it unique (not the top 10 features that all buildings have). 
  • Prefers to restore old buildings as they last over 100 years (has never worked on a new build – flimsy, not adaptable, will not last).
  • Passionate about Americana.
  • Positive change in NI will result in an increase in tourism. Political situation is just as important. NI people, storytelling, vibrancy should be celebrated.
  • Bad customer service is his most annoying factor anywhere.

Panel Discussion

Paul Mullen (NI Heritage Fund)

Kerri Sweeney (Maritime Belfast Trust)

Aeidin McCarter (Derry City and Strabane DC)

George Clarke.

  • Storytelling is vital In NI – stories need to be imported by locals and exported (especially by young people) when abroad to encourage tourists to visit. 
  • Titanic, slipways, Maritime Mile, Nomadic, Sailortown, Harland and Wolff, Titanic Distillers etc are all important to each other and can be linked to bring stories alive.
  • Local authorities have a role to play in storytelling as they can connect people to the stories.
  • Northern Ireland’s past is complex and has multiple stories and the political stories are just as important as the structural heritage.
  • Stewardship, management and passing them on to the tourists are vital.
  • The masterplan, builders, investment, planning needs to be juggled to achieve change.
  • We need to understand the buildings of the past to inspire buildings of the future, that will be Belfast in the future.
  • Recent examples are the Derry museums and historic walls and the Arney Battles, Bricks and Bridges project.
  • Recent excavation examples in England that George worked on are a Victorian water tower and an Old Mill in Northumberland.

Take Away Advice

  • Paul – believe in your ideas.
  • Kerry – work in partnership and collaboration.
  • Aeidin – seize the opportunity and thrive.
  • George – what makes a place unique 

The conference finished with Elvena Graham, TNI Chair,  summarising and providing the closing comments.

Video links, presentations and slides of the conference can be found HERE.