Digitally Enabled Change, Data and Storytelling: the Way Forward for Tourism in Northern Ireland
Tourism NI’s head of digital explains plans for recovery
Digital development, increasing use of data and a vision of transformation for how the tourism industry gears up for the post-pandemic recovery are some of the priorities for Tourism NI as it prepares to revive Northern Ireland’s world-leading tourism status.
The recent Tourism Recovery Action Plan, launched by Tourism NI and DfE, has identified the need to support with adopting digital technologies to improve business processes and productivity, bolster online presence and revolutionise access to digital marketing platforms.
Tourism NI’s Chief Digital Officer Dave Vincent explained that the work the organisation had been doing prior to Covid-19, as well as since the outbreak of the pandemic, will enable the Tourism Recovery Plan to be effective.
However, Mr Vincent was clear that digital tools, data sets and transformational plans needed to be considered as part of all tourism business planning, large and small, over the next 18 months.
“We have been doing a lot of work to improve how we support the sector,” he said.
“But what we provide has to be seen as a business outcome as opposed to a digital outcome.
“In the coming months and years we want people to think of it as their digital strategy, not just about their digital transformation.”
This doesn’t diminish the need for creating and distributing good, compelling content on websites and social media. What Tourism NI is doing is supporting businesses through the development of the organisation’s web portal.
When the pandemic struck, a Covid-19 Business Support Hub was established on TourismNI.com to provide support to the tourism community. The ability to create the hub is part of the vision to provide more support through the site.
“Part of our development is through the use of a destination management platform. It has a host of features such as listings, offers and partnerships” explained Mr Vincent, adding: “It’s in 900 destinations around the world, and we are using it for the Discover NI site and we have provided access to all 11 council regions.
“Visit Causeway, Visit Mourne, Visit Derry, Visit Lisburn and Castlereagh are already live and more will come, meaning visitors can see the same quality and content. They will be able to look at what is in each area and book, plan and make their time here better.
“It will mean we have the first real, collaborative platform which is certainly the direction of travel we at Tourism NI want to take.”
One challenge facing everyone in the industry is the ability to gather quality data on visitors.
Tourism NI is working to further develop its own data hub and dashboard of information which will enable the sharing of data.
“We are developing a dashboard that will be on the Tourism NI site and we aim to have as much data as possible for the industry” Mr Vincent said.
“This includes questionnaires completed at airports, sensors recording activity at places like the Mournes and Derry Walls, and a range of other data that can be shared.
“We've got the sensors, they tell a story about where people are. We have also acquired credit card data, so we can tell what our key markets are spending, where in the destination they are spending and what they are spending on.
“I’ve got telecoms data, and we’re also collecting review data in real-time so I can look back on the visitor experience.”
The Chief Digital Officer explained with the aggregated datasets the service to individual businesses becomes such that they are able to look at content, see the direction they may want to go in and use it as a service platform.
“The aim is for businesses to register and get access to a range of tools. They will also get access to application forms, they can see the status of claims, grants, mentoring,” he said.
“It also means when the business has content we can share with a distribution platform, at the push of a button, have the content out on Visit GB, Trip Advisor, Booking.com, and many more. That will be even more powerful when people share their information.”
Part of what is enabling Tourism NI to action these plans is that they were in development for a period of time.
“When the lockdown happened we were ready as an organisation,” said Mr Vincent.
“Our Cloud-based services were ready to support the industry and we had the platforms ready.
“From a digital perspective, there is no difference to those we work with if we are in the office one day and working from home the next.”
He added that Tourism NI’s lead role on working groups demonstrated the value of the organisation.
“All of a sudden we had the industry talking to Tourism NI and representing the industry in surveys, getting us feedback and responding and showing the value we have,” the Chief Digital Officer said.
“Some in the industry might have thought we just sit in our offices and not understand what we do, but the journey through Covid-19 showed many what we can do with engagement and partnership.
“It showed it wasn’t just about grants, but we add value to the sector as a whole.
“Before there were aspects of what we do that were the only encounter businesses had, such as inspections and certifications.
“It has been quite transformational in terms of how we are perceived and understanding what we can do.”
Part of that has been the number of programmes Tourism NI has been able to deliver.
“From a business plan perspective there are many schemes we implemented last year,” he said.
“We were able to tackle website development turnaround, as part of my role in influencing the direction of grants.
“Quite a lot of companies received investment in a website audit, with content and videography, so we are capitalising on that for both sides.
“This means businesses can engage in digital storytelling and their videos, website, and social media work together to explain what they do. Marry that with the Destination Management Platform and the business can work better, and we at Tourism NI have more tools to attract visitors. Our work with Tourism Ireland, also, is about making the online space one which funnels people to choose a visit to the island of Ireland.”
Mr Vincent said he understood the difficulties many businesses are having, and whilst there are many resilient in the uncertainty, others are struggling, and need to tackle some of the basics of working in the sector.
However, he is keen to support those, as the next period can help change attitudes.
“What the lockdown has done is accelerate some of the thinking around the digital-first customer experience and journey” he explained, adding: “This all works towards creating a very attractive proposition for potential visitors”.
For more information on how Tourism NI can support businesses visit: tourismni.com/contact-us/covid-19-business-support-helpline