The Monday Interview: Seamus Heaney, executive chairman, Cork Convention Bureau

Business tourism is a burgeoning industry, worth €11.5m to the Cork economy in 2016. Pádraig Hoare hears from the Cork Convention Bureau that it can be worth infinitely more in the future

The Monday Interview: Seamus Heaney, executive chairman, Cork Convention Bureau

Business tourism is lucrative and according to the Cork Convention Bureau, it can become a staple of the local economy for generations to come.

Some 8,000 delegates coming to Cork to work and then play brought €11.5m with them in 2016, according to Fáilte Ireland’s analysis. That is set to rise to €12m in 2017 with 20 conferences and events taking place before the end of the year.

Founded in 2007, public-private partnership Cork Convention Bureau is at the heart of kicking, scratching, cajoling and persuading to bring as big a piece of this enormous pie as possible to Leeside.

With Fáilte Ireland targeting €157m worth of business tourism in total for Ireland in 2017, Cork Convention Bureau sees it as its mission to exponentially bring Cork’s €12m slice higher in the coming years.

Its fifth annual expo for hospitality and tourism operators in the Cork region, Keep Cork Meeting 2017, takes place in Devere Hall, UCC on Wednesday.

Executive chairman Seamus Heaney, business development manager Evelyn O’Sullivan, and trade liaison officer Anne Cahill see the Keep Cork Meeting 2017 event as an opportunity for hotels and other tourism service providers in Cork to showcase their work to the corporate market.

That market is set to get a whole lot bigger with the launch of the first ever direct transatlantic flights from Cork to Providence in Rhode Island, while new access to Switzerland and Germany will open up endless possibilities in Europe, said Mr Heaney.

“The load factor coming back in from Rhode Island to Cork is going to be crucial. So far, inbound is far exceeding outbound — that’s amazing. Everyone needs to be aware that Americans are coming and we need to be American-ready. I was a sceptic when first told about Providence but the more I looked at it, the more excited I became. It doesn’t just open up Providence and nearby Boston, but the whole of New England — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, even Maine. The market is huge.

“Many Americans and Canadians don’t want to come to Ireland from O’Hare or JFK if they can do it from smaller, easier airports. We’ve got to get business people from New England into Cork and keep them here,” he said.

Michael Magner, Vienna Woods Hotel, Minister of State for Tourism and Sport Patrick O’Donovan, and Seamus Heaney at the launch of Keep Cork Meeting 2017.

Michael Magner, Vienna Woods Hotel, Minister of State for Tourism and Sport Patrick O’Donovan, and Seamus Heaney at the launch of Keep Cork Meeting 2017.

The same goes for European business tourism, he added.

“Regional access coming from Europe is the way forward. Just because an organisation is headquartered in Brussels, that doesn’t mean they are all coming from Brussels. There are 2,500 of them based in Brussels but the delegates are based in regional cities. We’re very lucky to have Cork Airport and we must capitalise on that,” he said.

“Sniping on the sidelines may be the easiest thing to do, but the graft that goes into getting business delegates into Cork is massive,” said Mr Heaney. “Our hotels pull out the stops, as do Kevin Cullinane and Niall McCarthy in Cork Airport. So do the city and county councils — it goes completely under the radar but both chief executives couldn’t do enough for you. You have business owners all over the city and county who will do everything they can to assist — some top class people in the likes of Clonakilty or Coachford ar Mitchelstown or wherever — as do Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland.

We’ve got to match that ambition and drive with world-class infrastructure if we want to offer world-class business tourism,” he said.

That infrastructure means a better road from Cork to Limerick, the long-awaited convention centre in Cork and a 300-bedroom hotel close to the city centre that can accommodate hundreds of delegates at one time.

“The county is as important to us as the city. A large scale hotel and the convention centre in Cork is the big dream. It has to be a commercial decision, obviously, but a 300-bedroom hotel close to the city would be incredible. It does put you on the back foot sometimes. Everywhere we go internationally we are being asked about the convention centre. The world is a small place. In Canada last year, it was the first thing we were asked. If we had a date on it, the good news can be spread very quickly,” he said.

Hosting business people is not just about a bedroom and meeting rooms, he said.

“We’re in the MICE business —meeting, incentive, conference, events. We all know what a meeting or a conference is. Multinationals bring a lot of bed nights into Cork and we’re very grateful. But some look at our hotels and see a bed factory. We want them to experience the best of Cork,” he said.

Analysis shows the economic value of a business tourist was approximately €1,600 per delegate in 2016, up from €1,500 in 2015. Mr Heaney says that figure can grow and grow.

“It’s like the old adage — if you build it, they will come. We want to build it, we want them to come, we want them to stay, we want them to have a memorable experience and we want them to come again.”

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