The Gathering 2013 begins

By Ray O'Hanlon

Dublin --- It was a few days before Christmas and thoughts of "The Gathering" were stirring in the mind of Niall Gibbons, chief executive of Tourism Ireland, and the man who will be keeping an especially eagle-eye on visitor to Ireland numbers in 2013.

Gibbons, at work in his office, which enjoys a view of the well worth visiting Dublin mountains, is about as ready as he is ever going to be for arguably the Irish government's biggest pitch to the overseas Irish since the advent of jet air travel.

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As such, Gibbons is not waiting for the arrival of the New Year.

"New Year's Eve is day one of the Gathering," he said while pointing out that the work behind the year-long run of Gathering events has been ongoing throughout 2012 by virtue of missions undertaken by government ministers, himself and others to the U.S. and Canada, Australia, Britain Brazil and Argentina.

"We had a great reception in Argentina," said Gibbons who delivered the invitation to visit Ireland to that country's portion of the worldwide Irish diaspora during a recent visit there by President Michael D. Higgins.

As the year turns, The Gathering is still an idea, a plan, a goal. At year's end, Gibbons hopes that it will have been a major boost to the Irish economy at a time when it most assuredly needs one.

That boost, as much as €3.7 billion ($4.9 billion) when all is said and done, will come by way of a sustained rise during the twelve months of visitor numbers to the island.

"We're looking to upwards of seven and a half million people coming here," Gibbons told the Echo.

"Our best prospects for the kind of growth that would give us such numbers are in the United States," he explained.

Those prospects, according to Gibbons, should be enhanced by the fact that airline capacity over the Atlantic is set to increase in the summer of 2013.

New routes on stream will include a U.S. Airways service from Philadelphia to Shannon, a United flight from Chicago to Shannon, and an American Airlines service from JFK to Dublin.

And with Aer Lingus adding another long haul plane to its transatlantic fleet, Gibbons said that the expectation was for a 20 percent increase in seats over the Atlantic during the main peak summer season.

"The new flights for Shannon is good news for Shannon, and the West of Ireland," Gibbons said. The anticipated boost from North America is no accident, Gibbons stressed.

"We maintained a market presence in the U.S. when others pulled out, and we have a lot of people working hard for Ireland," he said.

As such, 2013 would build on 2012 which was the "second best ever" in terms of visitor numbers from the U.S. (2007 being the best year).

That year, 2007, there were 35,000 seats a week available over the Atlantic from all airlines flying into Ireland. The summer of 2012 saw 25,000 seats on a weekly basis.

Gibbons said that for the June to September period in 2013 it was anticipated that there would be 29,000 seats a week.

"It's a great position to be in. In terms of tours to Europe, our share of the total market is nine percent."

This, he said, was a high proportion given that Ireland, geographically, was a small destination.

The Gathering, he said, had already been given a curtain raiser with the Notre Dame/Navy football game in the fall, but the door opener to 2013 would be the New Year's Eve festival in Dublin.

The Gathering, he explained, was comprised of many "gatherings" throughout 2013. He was hopeful that by the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve the number of events in place will have exceeded 2000.

One he mentioned was a gathering in County Clare for everyone and anyone named "Clare." He laughed when it was pointed out that one prominent Clare native in New York would be on the outs with regard to this gathering. The person in question is Irish Consul General Noel Kilkenny.

Joking aside, Gibbons is acutely conscious of the fact that much is riding on the success of "The Gathering" given the hard economic times.

He sees tourism and leisure as being one of Ireland's best ways back to better times.

"In the good old days," he said with a wry smile, "it was financial services and property driving the economy. But now tourism and agriculture are again the growth sectors."

With regard to tourism, he said, there were 200,000 jobs depending on visitors to the country, many of them in rural areas.

Gibbons places significant emphasis on the importance of social media when it comes to marketing success. Social media, including facebook and twitter, is, at its heart, a tech version of word of mouth.

And Ireland has always done well when it comes to the spoken and written word.

"Tourism Ireland has 1.1 million followers on facebook," Gibbons said with a note of pride in his voice.

This is the second highest following for any tourist agency in the world. Australia scores the highest, but that's another hemisphere, and a whole other story.

And even the attractions of the continent down under gave way in recent days to the opinions of up to 28,000 business and luxury travel readers who named Ireland as their favorite holiday destination overall. the readers of Fodors Guides named "The Gathering" its top must-see for 2013.

If groundwork is a key to success, The Gathering should be seen as a success twelve months from now.

Nobody will be willing it so more than Niall Gibbons.