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The Northern Irish tourism industry has moved quickly in recent times to keep up with emerging digital technologies.
Most of our hotels and attractions have good websites, well-manned social media accounts and online booking systems.
Our entrepreneurial coach companies are running influencer engagement events (like Glenara Elite Travel’s Game of Thrones Door & Food Tour) and even the littlest seaside guest houses are running beautiful Instagram profiles (like Saltwater Nutrition from Strandeen B&B in Portstewart).
But when we look to the rest of the world, there’s no doubt that we need to do more not only to keep up, but to excel online.
Tourism has now moved beyond a basic online presence and web functionality. We have virtual reality, augmented reality, gamification, chat bots, 360 video content…
We don’t need to utilise these things simply because they’re the latest New Kid On The IT Block. We should employ the technology because our “product” – our beautiful country – deserves the best global platform we can give it.
And because if we don’t, we’ll be left behind.
This month, Digital Trends reported that Australian airline Qantas had unveiled a new VR app, “Qantas VR” which will allow users to visit Australia remotely, taking part in virtual guided tours of national parks and world-famous landmarks. Of course, Qantas hopes that we’ll be so impressed with our virtual visit to Australia that we’ll book a flight to see it in person — and that functionality is built right into the app.
But it’s not just heavily-touristed countries in the developed world that are pushing ahead with a digital tourism agenda:
The Northern Irish tourism industry has been steadily boosted over recent years, from the UK City of Culture back in 2013, to the opening of Titanic Belfast, and the North Coast’s globally-famed backdrop for the Game of Thrones franchise. Then, there came the long line of world famous sporting events from the Giro bikes to the Open golf clubs.
And now – possibly – a Rugby World Cup on the horizon.
But have you ever tried to follow a succinct pathway online to plan a trip here? And I don’t just mean a day trip. I mean a full scale, long-stay itinerary from one place to the next, covering more than just Belfast (because we all know there’s much, much more to see outside the capital!)
Well I have, particularly in recent times.
Despite being a “native” of Northern Ireland, I’m married to a Kiwi. In a week’s time we will board a plane from Belfast making the permanent move as a family to New Zealand.
NZ is another country well-known for tourism. In fact it’s their largest export industry. Whether it’s for the majestic scenery or another Hollywood hit (The Lord of the Rings); we may be islands on opposite ends of this planet, but in terms of tourism, we’re very alike.
Unlike NI, New Zealand Tourism has been forced to hone its online marketing due to the fact that it is so very far away. They can’t rely on passing footfall or leaflets on the street once people land. When visitors are paying so much, and travelling so far, their itineraries need to be well-planned.
Just because Northern Ireland is relatively easily accessible, doesn’t mean that it’s easy to navigate once you’re here. A concise itinerary formed from a plethora of information beforehand is vital. We need more of our tourism businesses, even the little guys, to get online and show us their wares.
I know this, because as a family, we’ve spent months of weekends travelling and we still haven’t seen it all.
Back in June, when we made the decision to leave Ireland, we made a list of all the things we wanted to do and see. We’ve since made wonderful memories climbing trees, navigating hedge mazes at our plethora of parks and built sandcastles on our clean, white beaches. We’ve soaked up quality experiences at historical sites like Navan Fort and the Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh. We’ve stood in awe at Glenariff waterfalls. We’ve hung from the side of heritage trains in Cultra. We’ve scaled the stone walls of every castle we could find…
I couldn’t be more proud of the country I’m leaving behind, a country that I will act as ambassador for wherever in the world our future life takes us.
But I have lived 32 years in this land and still many of these experiences had eluded me. Visitors don’t have three decades to prepare for and plan to experience all that we have to offer.
It’s vital that we improve our ability to market our products and services, tell our story across cultures and languages and ensure the accessibility and ease of use for those who come into contact with any aspect of our tourism industry – big or small, by whatever channel or platform.
So Digital DNA’s Tourism event may be back for another year but their work is far from over. And I was super excited to hear about the future capabilities for the industry and learn from global leaders in their field.
My Instagram Takeover gave me an All-Access Guest Pass to hear and see as much as I could squeeze into my day. And as always, Digital DNA brought us another wave of great speakers who selflessly shared their experiences for our learning.
Lucy Von Weber relayed great insights into curating and republishing User Generated Content through her work in Wales, while Darragh Doyle brought a plethora of entertaining and thought-provoking social media examples from his years as one of Ireland’s most prolific social media managers.
Local entrepreneur Michael Beare of Finn Lough took us through the highs and lows of the family’s journey to owning the now-famous “snow globes” resort in Fermanagh where, ironically, people go to escape the rat race on a digital detox!
Trip Advisor’s Justin Reid shared fascinating stats about Northern Ireland from behind the screens; namely that we’re harder on ourselves than any other nation of visitors are when they review us (and that our attractions are more impressive to holiday-makers than our food and drink, so we may just promote the wrong things sometimes).
Maja Dimnik showed us how GLAMPro have used digital marketing solely to take a glamping resort in Slovenia and send it global, while former Accountant-turned-entrepreneur Richard Graham launched his new hyperlocal ad/social platform “Get In Here Now” right there with us in the main room.
Likewise, the workshops were packed with info and questions abounded to glean even more learning. I attended Immersive VR’s virtual reality session in the morning which showed what could be the revolutionary future of the education system as we know it. Come afternoon, I was taken on the rollercoaster journey of launching a new tourist mobile platform on the east coast of America with i3 Digital.
All in all, as another year of this Tourism & Technology event ends, we realise how far we’ve come in Northern Ireland, but there is always more to do. That’s the nature of the ebb and flow of consumer trends and ever-changing digital technologies. But the future capabilities should excite rather than scare us.
If any industry will benefit from VR, augmented reality, consumer content and a more connected world, it is surely the tourism sector.
But one thing may never change – our inability in Northern Ireland to see how great we really are, or at least to believe deep down that we can stand up on that digital world stage and compete with the best of the best whether it’s in history, culture, entertainment, sights, smells, tastes…
Life is taking me global, but I’ll always be extremely proud of how far we’ve come in this wee corner of the world.
Northern Ireland, I’ll miss you!