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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

Twitter: @NITouristBoard

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/company/northern-ireland-tourist-board 

Business

Northern Ireland Construction Company Named Winner of Prestigious Responsible Business Award

Kieran Harding, Managing Director, Business in the Community NI, Ian Henry, Director, Henry Brothers Ltd and Jennifer Cruickshank, HR Manager, Henry Brothers Ltd)

Henry Brothers Ltd has been named NI Responsible Company of the Year at Business in the Community’s 2021 Responsible Business Awards.

A panel of independent judges awarded Henry Brothers with this prestigious top award for demonstrating the implementation of a wide range of successful corporate responsibility initiatives that strategically address key issues and challenges in a way that creates value for both society and the business.

Winners in all eleven responsible business categories were announced at a hybrid Awards event, hosted in-studio by TV and weather presenter and journalist Barra Best and broadcast live across Business in the Community’s digital platforms.

Northern Ireland’s leading responsible companies were recognised for outstanding contributions to their people, the planet and the places where they operate, with categories that cover all themes in responsible business, including wellbeing, diversity and inclusion, environment, community, digital innovation, and more.

The Awards, organised by responsible business network Business in the Community, take place annually and in 2021 the event was run in partnership with JP Corry, SPAR and Department for Communities, and in association with Ulster Business and U105.

The eleven 2021 winners were:

  • Age-Friendly Business Award, sponsored by Age-Friendly Network – Bank of Ireland
  • Diversity and Inclusion Award, sponsored by Belfast Harbour – AMS
  • Education Partnership Award, sponsored by Allen & Overy – Heron Bros. Ltd
  • Environmental Leadership Award, sponsored by Heron Bros – Danske Bank
  • Innovation in Employability Award, sponsored by George Best Belfast City Airport – Translink
  • Investing in Your Community Award, sponsored by Arthur Cox – PwC
  • Responsible Digital Innovation Award, sponsored by Allstate NI – Sentireal Ltd
  • One-to-Watch Award, sponsored by Ciena – Dowds Group
  • Responsible Product / Service Award, sponsored by Translink – Huhtamaki
  • Wellbeing at Work Award, sponsored by Larne Port – Northern Ireland Water

Kieran Harding, Managing Director, Business in the Community says: “Congratulations to each of the winning organisations for leading the way in responsible business. This year has been really challenging for a lot of businesses and people in Northern Ireland, so I want to thank our winning, highly commended, and shortlisted organisations for continuing to make responsible business action a priority.

“The judging process of the Awards is robust, and the standard of entries was phenomenally high this year. All winners demonstrated true leadership in the area of responsible business and their entries are sure to inspire others in their own responsible business journey.”  

Online attendees of the event enjoyed a community digital showcase highlighting positive stories of business action for the benefit of communities during the past year.  Entertainment pieces included a performance of uplifting original song ‘Calendar’ by Northern Ireland singer Daisie Conway, and a specially commissioned poem ‘Defining Hope’ screened at the event was written and performed by Belfast-based poet Niamh McNally.

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Business

Par Equity Seeks to Double Northern Ireland Funding to £20m

Pictured (l-r) are Andrew Noble, partner at Par Equity and Ronnie Geddis, Par Equity’s regional chairman for Northern Ireland.

Edinburgh-based venture capital firm has already invested £10m in the region

Par Equity, an Edinburgh-based specialist in high-growth early-stage tech businesses, is increasing its support for cutting-edge companies in Northern Ireland to £20 million after a string of successful transactions.

Established in 2008, Par Equity has built a strong reputation for backing young, innovative companies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England’s northeast and supporting them with its growing team of expert advisors.

The company, which has already invested £10 million in a range of successful early-stage companies including Datactics, Cumulus, Plotbox and TriVirum, said the additional funds would help ambitious local firms to develop new technologies and expand into new markets, unlock other forms of funding along the way.

Andrew Noble, partner at Par Equity, said:

“We’re hands-on investors at Par Equity and, together with our network of industry experts, we’re providing that much-needed business advice as well as the financial support.  We’ve identified, and heavily backed, some excellent companies in Northern Ireland and we’re excited about unearthing new opportunities in the region over the next two or three years.”

Par Equity’s first major funding success in Northern Ireland was Belfast-based digital imaging analysis and software company PathXL in 2012. Since then, it has provided essential finance, direct support and management advice to some of the region’s most successful new companies.

In April 2021, Par Equity invested further in Trivirum, Plotbox and Datactics, leading investments rounds of up to £3.5 million. This included a £2 million investment round into data management specialist Datactics following on from its initial investment into the company in 2019. The Datactics investment round, which was supported by other existing investors, Kernel Capital and Clarendon, will see the company grow to beyond 50 employees and into profitability.

In addition to these three investments, Par Equity also provided a £1.1m bridging round in Belfast start-up Cumulus Neuroscience last year, leveraging a further £6 million of investment from the UK’s Dementia Discovery Fund.

The funds are being used to help Cumulus develop a new, industry-leading integrated physiological and biomarker platform that provides clinical trial data and AI-powered insights to accelerate the development of therapies for Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders.

Cumulus Neuroscience’s CEO, Ronan Cunningham, said:

“Great ideas can be the foundation of a great business, but without the necessary funding, the potential for growth will always be capped. We’re delighted that after just a few short years, we’ve secured the finance we need to accelerate our technology to market and address exciting new growth opportunities on the global stage.

Funding through Par Equity, the Dementia Discovery Fund, and other partners are helping us to scale-up quickly and establish ourselves as a market leader in our space.”

As one of the larger investors in Northern Ireland, Par Equity believes it can help fill a gap in the market and provide the scale of funding fast growth companies need to get to the next level, but which is not currently available through local financing options. In 2020, Par Equity appointed Ronnie Geddis as the chair of its investor network in Northern Ireland deepening its activity in the region.

“Like Scotland, we know that Northern Ireland businesses don’t always get their fair share of venture capital funding in the UK and that business often struggle to get that next level of funding they need to really scale up their operations,” said Ronnie Geddis.

As someone who has invested and been in receipt of investment in Northern Ireland, there is a clear role for Par Equity to bring its scale and expertise to Northern Ireland to help some of our most exciting businesses achieve the global success they deserve,” added Ronnie.

Par Equity has invested in more than 60 companies since it launched in 2008. Collectively, those companies have raised £266 million from investors.

Earlier this year, it secured three major awards at the UK Business Angel Investment Awards 2021, including Angel Group of the Year, Scale-up Team of the Year and Exit of the Year.

A panel of 37 judges reviewed the hundreds of nominations received across the 12 categories to select the leaders and trail blazers from the UK’s investment ecosystem.

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