Last night's meeting of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council considered whether or not council should be represented at "Irish Fest" in Milwaukee next year. It was determined by the Chief Executive that this item should be taken "in committee" in order to prevent any Councillor publicly debating the issue after the decision was taken as to do so would be deemed to be in contravention of the Councillor Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct is not a mechanism to restrict the freedom of political thought or speech and so, recognising the potential consequences, I have published below my assessment of Council's representation at "Irish Fest" which was first sent to council officers on the 16th October 2016.
Any evaluation of marketing spend based on Council’s investment in attending the Milwaukee Irish Fest should consider a number of issues given the cost of attendance and the requirement to achieve a return on marketing investment of 30-40 times the value. In this case a clear return of £300000 - £400000 based on the cost to council of attendance in the region of £10000.
The first issue is whether Milwaukee Irish Fest represents the best opportunity to attract tourists to the Mid and East Antrim area. Mid and East Antrim has no historical or cultural connotation at this stage and building the brand will take a number of years. The Irish Fest is just one of a number of festivals held over the summer to boost the Milwaukee economy
Milwaukee hosts a variety of primarily ethnically themed festivals throughout the summer. Held generally on the lakefront Summerfest grounds, these festivals span several days (typically Friday plus the weekend) and celebrate Milwaukee's history and diversity. Festivals for the LGBT (PrideFest) and Polish (Polish Fest) communities are typically held in June. Summerfest spans 11 days at the end of June and beginning of July. There are French (Bastille Days), Greek, Italian (Festa Italiana) and German (German Fest) festivals in July. The African, Arab, Irish (Irish Fest), Mexican, and American Indian events wrap it up from August through September. Milwaukee is also home to Trainfest, the largest operating model railroad show in America, in November. (Wikipedia, 16/10/2016)
Tourism and travel makes up a small proportion of the festival experience and while 147,000 visitors seems a significant number this must be considered in the context of the USA potential. The Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee attracts over 1,000,000 visitors, college football games attract 100,000 spectators with as many as twice this number congregating in the immediate area just for the fan experience.
There is no way of estimating how many of the 147,000 visitors have any intention of visiting Ireland, Northern Ireland or Mid and East Antrim in the near future. This year some 3600 pieces of literature were handed out. If each person who engaged with Mid and East Antrim representatives was given a leaflet then over the 36 hours of the event representatives spent on average 1 minute engaging with potential visitors. There has been no evaluation of the quality of interaction nor of the impact in terms of commitment to visit Mid and East Antrim.
The council committee decision to support this years attendance noted the potential of creating a database of contacts, essentially those who had expressed an interest in the area and/or coming to Northern Ireland. Those elected reps attending felt that e-marketing was not a way forward for the council and collecting emails was difficult. A simple solution would have been to use the status of the Galgorm Hotel and Spa and offer a prize of a days spa experience for 2 to those who emailed a special email address established by the council. In this way those promoting the area would have had another attraction to promote without any hassle in collecting names, addresses or emails, given the very limited engagement time.
It was noted that contact was made with a Dublin based tour operator and with the marketing manager of the Titanic experience. While perhaps useful, it is to be expected that engagement with all tour operators and all major attractions to develop joint initiatives will form a core element of the work of the professional tourism staff employed by council. An effective and efficient use of their time will mean that such meetings are facilitated here in a structured manner rather than at random in the US.
One of the main points in evaluating attendance at Milwaukee has been the contention that success cannot be measured given that people plan their holidays 1 or 2 years ahead. This is understandable in the context of this years event, however, this is not the first year that Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has attended this event and before that Larne Council attended. While anecdotal evidence suggests one or two people who attended Irish Fest have visited the Mid and East Antrim there is certainly no evidence of the £1,000,000 tourism spend by US visitors drawn to area based on marketing at Irish Fest which would be an indication of success.
In moving forward, particularly in the context of a co-ordinated approach to marketing supporting the tourism strategy there a number of issues to be considered. What events do Tourism Ireland and/or Tourism Northern Ireland attend in the US to promote tourism in Ireland? Are these events considered more or less effective at attracting tourists than the Milwaukee Irish Fest?
Tourist marketing has moved on from handing out leaflets at festivals, with the rise of travel bloggers, social media, sites such as trip advisor and even e-marketing all delivering better contact with those planning to visit the area. Councils approach to all of these will also depend on the potential to improve the product and the ability to package such products into a sellable proposal. Investment of £10,000 over a range of platforms and initiatives has the potential to generate tangible benefits to those businesses relying on tourists to maintain their viability. Relying upon the return on investment from representation at Irish Fest will not sustain any business.