by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
I pulled back the curtains in anticipation of waking in a room with a view and when I awoke there it was, in all its glittering morning glory, the Sugar Loaf, beautifully framed in the floor-to-ceiling window, a modest mountain by world standards, but massive to us who live in Ireland. Cocooned in the womb-like comfort of my bed at the excellent Powerscourt Hotel I thought about the previous day.
I was amongst 200 MICE industry professionals who gathered at the County Wicklow venue to discuss and debate how Ireland as a MICE destination could remain competitive in a global marketplace. In the silence of the early morning the answer was crystal clear: Ireland can remain competitive by delivering visitor experiences at the level and quality of the previous day’s event while exercising prudence around rates and constantly striving to deliver value.
With the ever-generous and much appreciated support of Miriam Kennedy and team from Meet in Ireland / Fáilte Ireland, the third annual AIPCO Business Tourism Conference was convened around the question of destination competitiveness
How can we remain competitive in the global marketplace?
Ironically, this question arose from a plethora of good news stories about business tourism in Ireland – verified increases in visitor numbers, higher levels of visitor satisfaction, better performance on ICCA rankings. But for those of us with long memories, Dublin’s rise in the ICCA ranking to thirteenth position also brought hidden dangers – unrealistic expectations, over-confidence, complacency, exaggerated rates. AIPCO’s aim was to bring the widest possible spectrum of industry practitioners together to dialogue, discuss, and debate this.
More Dialogue is needed
The hotel sector, ably represented by current Irish Hotel Federation (IHF) Chief Executive Tim Fenn, was bullish, grateful for the fragile signs of green shoots around rate and RevPar following the miserable years of skittish owners, clueless bankers and thin pickings on the business front. Along with hotelier Paul Gallagher, incoming Chairperson of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (ITIC), Tim contended that measuring competitiveness exclusively on the yardstick of price was the wrong approach. He believed that Ireland still offered great value and cautioned against painting ourselves into a corner by giving voice to negative sentiment around prices etc.
Susan Nolan, current Chairperson of AIPCO, and other contributors from the floor provided feedback from their customers who, typically, conduct competitive analyses of several destinations before selecting their venue. These customers found Ireland to be increasingly expensive. It’s all about competitive set, Susan stated, and within its competitive set Ireland is increasingly north of the mid point. While Ireland offers better prices than the UK, France and Italy, it’s not competing with these destinations for meetings, incentive travel experiences, conferences and events. Ireland’s overall brand equity and image is lower or weaker than these countries and it is not perceived to have A-list quality or appeal. Ergo: conference delegates won’t pay A-list prices.
Is Ireland an A-List destination?
But based on my experience at this year’s AIPCO Annual Conference, Ireland is indeed an A-list, quality destination. For me this was borne out in every single touch point starting with the performance of the host venue, The Powerscourt Hotel. Besides offering a truly memorable setting and great meetings infrastructure, the property handled the food and beverage aspect of the event with poise, passion and panache showcasing wonderfully creative presentations throughout the day.
PD Visuals, AIPCO’s AV partner for the event, also played a key role in helping AIPCO stage an A-list event. A simple white backdrop with three inlaid screens and matching lounge seating set the stage for an event that was all about the content. The sound was crisp and clear all day and Peter’s team liaised seamlessly with event technology provider, Sli.do who provided a hugely successful communications platform for instantaneous Q&A, audience polling and twitter feed. In fact judicious use of technology and social media was a key feature of this event which featured a dozen instant audience polls, a crowd-sourced poll on discussion topics and 1.5m twitter impressions.
The Gala dinner, too, was as good as I have experienced anywhere with a great focus on locally produced food and an inspiring curation of entertainment by Susie Sheil of Sheil Entertainment Agency. We had drummers and stilt walkers, the premiere of Tap Harp, a brand new solo dance piece to harp beats, The Key Notes doing Elbow’s One Day Like This and a mesmerising set from Kilá, augmented by the inimitable Nick Bailey on percussion. It was awe-inspiring and proved, beyond all doubt, Ireland’s A-list credentials.
Anna Maria’s Hairdresser and André’s Barcelona
So AIPCO’s third annual conference was organised and delivered to world class standards in an A-list destination and I don’t think any attendee would deny that. Other than Anna Maria Ruffini, that is. One of two international speakers at the event, Anna Maria Ruffini from Events In & Out struck a chord of realism for us all by comparing the reaction of her hairdresser to hearing that she was travelling to Dubai and Dublin – Dubai evoked a wow, Dublin got a simple oh. According to Anna Maria, Ireland as a destination is not perceived by the average Europeans as a wow, A-list destination. And therein, the rub.
We think we’re amazing, some clients agree but many think we’re just OK. So long as we’re just OK we’re not perceived as an A-list destination and thus price will have to feature somewhere in our value proposition. We’re reached a plateau as a destination and now we have to work really hard to climb up to the next level. This will involve a further refinement of our product, some additional infrastructural improvements (airport metro to downtown, for example), some additional hotel capacity, better regional accessibility and connectivity. More than anything, however, it will involve more pervasive market penetration of our messaging and brand value proposition as well as a concerted, collaborative approach. This will not happen overnight but remember André’s story about Barcelona – it became an overnight success after 30 years and events like the AIPCO annual conference can act like milestones along our way to destination success.
With his business partner Patrick Delaney, Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua, a boutique management and marketing consultancy working with destinations, venues and hotels on their strategy for MICE. He is proud to have acted as moderator and MC at this year’s AIPCO event. Huge thanks to Roger Kenny whose wonderful pictures of the event are used in this post.