COLLABORATION IN TOURISM
My first visit to Milwaukee was in 2011, when I joined a Donegal / Derry delegation of politicians, hoteliers, crafts people, musicians, artists and performers. The theme of the festival was “Derry and Donegal Atlantic Gateways”, led by Derry City Council and Fáilte Ireland. Our common goal was to promote the North West region as a must-visit cultural and tourism destination. We were overwhelmed by the huge level of interest and excellent opportunities that Irish Fest presented in terms of new connections and partnerships.
Having found the platform for promoting Donegal to be so worthwhile, I attended Milwaukee for the next three years and on each occasion the trip was deemed a success. New relationships were forged and visitor numbers to Harvey’s Point and Donegal grew as a result.
Of course it wasn’t all work. There was no shortage of entertainment and fun as my colleagues in the Travel Ireland section joined me in the celebration of all things Irish. I even brought my young sons Carl and James to help me on the stand and they proved to be a big hit with everyone.
MILWAUKEE IRISH FEST 2016
I have recently returned from Milwaukee Irish Fest 2016 and once again, it was a great event. Despite the odd thundery downpour on the first two days, the sun shone for the main days, Saturday and Sunday. The festival grounds were a sea of green and gold. One man asked me had I seen his wife as she seemed to have got lost in the crowd. Clearly the joke was on me when he said that I must have seen her as she was wearing green! My ten year old daughter, Christina, joined me for the trip this year and I could only marvel at her dedication to the job in hand. She researched information on Donegal and she proudly stood at the front of the stand, handing out brochures, dealing with enquiries and generally charming the Americans into booking their next vacation in Donegal!
PROMOTING DESTINATION DONEGAL
We were delighted to have the legendary Keith Corcoran with us on our stand. Keith is a writer, seanchaí and international tour guide based in Donegal and he launched his new company ‘Ireland Guided Travel’ at Irish Fest which offers personalized tours to incoming guests from North America. Donegal design was also well represented Edel Mac Bride, Studio Donegal and Rathlin Knitwear, all of whom have been flying the flag for Donegal all over the world for many years. Triona Design had a stand at the festival as well. I was proud to see Hanna Hats from Donegal Town flying off the shelves as people were stocking up on their traditional Irish attire. The White Hotel Group attended the festival for the second year and according to Megan, daughter of the late, great hotelier Jim White, bookings were flying in. Moya Brennan of Clannad fame enchanted the crowds with her magical, mystical songs of Donegal.
Milwaukee Irish Fest wouldn’t be what it is without the 4,000 volunteers who work so hard to ensure that the event runs smoothly. From the shuttle drivers to the stage managers to the people on the ground, credit to everyone who gave their time, support and enthusiasm to the 36th Irish Fest. The festival drew to a close on the Sunday evening with the traditional “Scattering”, where musicians, volunteers and festival-goers gather together to sing songs in celebration of another year of Irish Fest. I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye when everyone joined in singing “The Wild Mountain Thyme”.
Looking ahead to 2017, I believe that ‘Destination Donegal’ should be represented at Milwaukee Irish Fest. It would be an ideal opportunity to showcase our county as an excellent, exciting and relatively new holiday destination. We would extend an invitation to the many people of Irish descent living and working in the US, as well as those with Irish connections or an affinity for Ireland, to come and visit.
Perhaps our participation at Milwaukee Irish Fest could coincide with our very own “Donegal Wild Atlantic Way Gathering 2018”, given the success of “The Gathering Ireland 2013”. Our aim would be to encourage the Donegal Diaspora to return home to be part of specially organized local gatherings and events such as family reunions, clan gatherings and sports fixtures.
In co-operation with Tourism Ireland US, a series of sales calls in Chicago would also make the trip worthwhile. According to Alison Metcalfe of Tourism Ireland:
“The United States is an extremely important market for tourism to the island of Ireland and 2016 looks set to be another record year, with the most recent CSO figures showing growth of +15% in visitors from North America for January to June, almost 100,000 extra visitors compared with the same six-month period in 2015.
“Tourism Ireland is determined to ensure that growth continues and we have an extensive programme of promotions under way in the US throughout 2016. Ireland now welcomes 10% of all American visitors to Europe – particularly noteworthy given the intense competition from other destinations.”
There is an old Irish saying “Ní neart go chur le chéile” which means ‘there is no strength without unity’. Perhaps it is time for tourism stakeholders in Donegal to come together to promote and encourage more visitors to experience our beautiful county when planning a vacation in Ireland.