As Catherine Martin, the Minister for Tourism, arrived at the Convention Centre Dublin (CCD) at lunchtime on Tuesday for a Fáilte Ireland conference on reviving business tourism, she was met in its airy lobby by Paul Kelly, the State agency’s chief executive. They made small talk as they crossed the lobby.
“Had you a Cabinet meeting today?” asked Kelly. “Yes,” replied the Minister. “But it was just a short one.” The return of major business conferences, however, has been a long time coming in the pandemic era. Fáilte Ireland’s event was the first major gig in the city for 18 months, with 450 delegates.
Until recently, the only action the CCD saw was as a socially distanced Dáil for Martin and her colleagues.
In putting on the State-backed event just a day after the easing of restrictions, Martin and Kelly were both keen to send out the same message “loud and clear”: Ireland is back open for business, especially tourism business – and, in the guise of international conferences and events, lucrative business tourism.
It was the fastest-growing segment of the market before the pandemic upended everything. In 2019, business tourism was worth €760 million to the economy and supported 20,000 jobs. The race is on to rebuild the sector, as other cities in Britain and across Europe scramble to win back major events.
Fáilte Ireland says it is chasing up leads on close to €1 billion worth of international conferences and events that it hopes to see hosted in the Republic. Kelly says it hopes to capitalise on “pent-up demand” for global conferences, as the sector reawakens as pandemic travel measures are eased.
Martin opened the conference and told delegates that 285 international business events from before the pandemic, worth about €207 million, had been retained and rescheduled for Ireland. They include the World Library and Information Congress, which was to have brought 4,000 delegates to Dublin in 2020, and will instead be hosted next year.
The Aer Lingus College Football Classic, which was scuppered for the last two years, is also going ahead in 2022, with Northwestern University taking on the University of Nebraska at the Aviva Stadium. It is a sports event but, like a money comet, it brings with it a long tail of corporate events and dealmakers.
Fáilte Ireland, in conjunction with the industry through Irish events bureaux that bid to bring global conferences here, said it is currently working on attracting €929 million worth of events over coming years, the bulk of which would take place before 2025.
This includes €254 million worth of confirmed events, with bids pending on about €330 million worth. About €139 million worth of events are confirmed over the next year.
The long-term pipeline, if all were won for Ireland, would bring about 634,000 delegates over several years.
More than €500 million of the spend would go on hospitality. Company credit cards go far: business tourists spend an average of more than €1,600 each, three times the average tourist. The conversion rate of Irish bids to conference wins was about 85 per cent before the pandemic hit, according to figures discussed at the conference.
Kelly said attracting business tourists back to Ireland will be crucial to renewing city centres hit by declining footfall, as staff work more from home. He also said that Dublin’s large crop of foreign multinationals should help to drive business tourists to the city.
State tourism officials are also making a major play to attract to Ireland a lot of incentive travel, which is effectively industry lingo for working holidays for sales teams, provided by their employers as rewards for hitting targets.
“You can’t Zoom incentive travel,” said Kelly. A conference of incentive travel bookers is taking place in Dublin for January 2022.
Dublin may be a corporate hub, but business tourism spreads. About 40 per cent of conference wins go outside the capital, Kelly said.
Meanwhile, Martin told the conference she has just received the third report from her tourism Recovery Oversight Group, which she intends to bring to Cabinet “in coming weeks”.
She said she is in talks with the departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform for a package of further supports for the tourism sector in the upcoming Budget 2022. It may be needed for several years until the sector gets back on its feet.