Alison Metcalfe, Tourism Ireland’s Head of North America, talks about her own experiences as a traveler and the joys of drawing visitors to one of the most welcoming places in the world.
When was the first time you were a tourist?
It’s hard to say. We always traveled as a family when I was growing up. My mother in particular was a big advocate of travel as a great form of education, so I have always felt that travel was in my DNA. I would like to think that in my 20s I transitioned from being a tourist to become a traveler, with more interest in off the beaten track and local experiences. Some of my best travel experiences have involved meeting and staying with locals in a remote Fijian island and visiting a tree school in Kwazulu Natal.
Today, increasingly I think people are looking for authentic experiences when they travel that leave a lasting impression.
What is your favorite place in Ireland?
Well, that’s a difficult question! I have several favorites. We have a home in Helen’s Bay, Co. Down, and I love walking or running along the North Down coastal path through Crawfordsburn to Ballyholme. The fresh air and tranquility is so refreshing after the hustle and bustle of New York. The Causeway coastal route and the Inishowen Peninsula are also favorite spots for hiking and playing some golf.
Other favorites include the Dingle Peninsula and the Western Greenway cycle route in Co. Mayo, running from Westport to Achill Island through some of the beautiful scenery that inspired artist Paul Henry.
Favorite place outside of Ireland?
I have several. In Europe, some of my favorite spots include Provence for hiking, great food, history and the local artisanal culture. I also have a soft spot for Lisbon, where I worked for a period earlier in my career. Further afield, the Cape Winelands in South Africa and Carmel and Big Sur in California are high on my list of favorite spots.
What’s the best part about leading Tourism Ireland in North America?
Firstly, I have the privilege of working with an extremely professional and experienced team, who are passionate about delivering results for Irish tourism, north and south.
Tourism has been recognized as a key driver of Ireland’s economic recovery. Knowing that the impact of Tourism Ireland’s activity in North America, to inspire people to travel to Ireland, can make a real difference to the economic life of small towns and communities throughout the length and breadth of the island is very satisfying.
We are fortunate that Ireland enjoys a very positive brand image in the North America, so to a large extent we are pushing on an “open door” which makes my job that much easier. We are also on track to welcome a record one million Americans in 2013, so it’s very satisfying to see the work undertaken not just by Tourism Ireland but many other stakeholders finally paying off.
When did you come to the U.S.?
I came to the U.S. in mid-2007 to take up the post of Vice President Marketing, U.S.A. with Tourism Ireland based in New York. I moved from Toronto, where I ran Tourism Ireland’s Canadian market office.
What’s the most challenging aspect of promoting tourism to Ireland in North America?
Creating a greater sense of urgency among potential travelers to visit NOW, rather than sometime in the future. Ireland punches above its weight in so many areas, and this is also true in regard to travel and tourism. Millions of Americans are interested in traveling to Ireland, and our goal is to get it off their “bucket list.” It’s Tourism Ireland’s job, working with our industry partners, to put compelling, relevant and fun-filled vacation experiences in front of our target audience at the right time and in the right places within what is a very competitive marketplace.
How successful was The Gathering 2013?
The Gathering 2013 certainly struck a chord with the almost 40 million Americans of Irish ancestry as well as many more people who feel Irish in spirit. It acted as a catalyst and created a renewed interest to travel with family or friends, to enjoy one of the more than 5,000 events and festivals staged throughout the year. There is no doubt that the promotion of the Gathering has made a significant contribution to putting us on track to welcome a record one million U.S. visitors spending close to $1 billion in 2013.
How will Tourism Ireland keep the momentum going?
Since the Gathering was such a great success, we plan to build on its legacy. This will include reminding people that many of the events and festivals that took place this year will continue next year, with many becoming bigger and better. As part of this work, we also intend to stay engaged with the diaspora and key Irish American and Canadian networks, and look at ways to support them in their efforts to influence business for 2014 and beyond.
However, before 2013 is over, I would like thank everyone who organized an event, family gathering or business meeting this year and played their part in making the Gathering such a success.
Looking ahead to 2014, Tourism Ireland will continue to remind people of Ireland’s great cultural heritage, its outstanding natural scenery, vibrant cities, great food and world class golf. A major highlight for 2014 will be showcasing the new Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland’s first long-distance driving route, stretching 1,600 miles from the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal to Kinsale in Co. Cork. The new route offers an epic journey along one of the world’s most dramatic coastal landscapes, which will be brought to life through more than 150 discovery points along the way.
For American football fans, the Croke Park Classic will see the University of Central Florida host Penn State University in Dublin for their 2014 season opener on August 30, 2014. It promises to be another great sporting event, and follows the success of the 2012 Notre Dame vs. Navy Emerald Isle Classic.
Ireland will also be easier to get to next year, following recent airline announcements. These include a new year round service from San Francisco to Dublin starting in April, as well as the reinstatement of year round services from Boston and New York to Shannon, all operated by Aer Lingus. United Airlines has also announced plans to add flights to its seasonal Chicago – Shannon service. In addition, both Air Canada Rouge and Aer Lingus will operate new year round flights from Toronto to Dublin starting next spring.
Other new initiatives include campaigns to target younger travelers, as well as encouraging more people of the benefits of traveling to Ireland during the shoulder season, when everything is open, less crowded, great value and the welcome even warmer.
What’s the key to making people feel welcome?
Greeting people with a smile and making them feel at home and genuinely valued as a visitor is essential. Ireland’s reputation as a destination offering a genuinely warm welcome to visitors, especially those from the United States and Canada, is well known. This year, I think the Gathering showed the power of an invitation from the people of Ireland, not only to the Irish diaspora but to everyone with an interest in Ireland or things Irish to come and visit.
It’s the people that set Ireland apart from other destinations. They are the touchstone in bringing the many great historic and cultural experiences to life through music, literature and conversation and creating that sense of welcome.
We also have a reputation, as Tourism Ireland’s marketing line “Jump into Ireland” suggests, of inviting people to scratch beneath the surface, to immerse themselves in authentic experiences and join in with the locals. More often than not, it isn’t the check list of attractions and sights that visitors remember first when they return home, it’s the great stories they heard and people they met along the way.
As W.B Yeats wrote, “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met,” and I think this sums up the Irish welcome and experience for visitors.