The year 2020 brought on the collapse of Ireland’s international tourism trade. International tourism brought €5.1 billion to the island in 2019. While the figures for last year aren’t yet in, the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation predicted a fall to a number below a billion, a devastating blow for the hundreds of thousands of people with livelihoods in tourism.
For tour operators like Dun Laoghaire’s Mark Doherty, last year presented some difficult options. To attempt to pivot from international clients to a domestic market was next to impossible, given both travel bans and lockdowns. The collapse of international tourism inspired Mark to unlock a new way to connect with his audience: virtual tourism.
Connect the Dots Tours of Ireland now offers live interactive webinar-style virtual tours to eager tourists from around the world. From his office in Dun Laoghaire to family sitting rooms across the globe, Mark introduces clients to the Digital Land of Céad Míle Fáilte. And his viewpoint is a reflection of his community in Dun Laoghaire Town.
Can’t Visit Ireland? Mark Brings Ireland to You
Mark doesn’t remember a time where he wasn’t deeply involved in Irish tourism. “I’ve worked in tourism all my life, from five years of age my mother had her own bed and breakfast, and I was sent in to entertain the guests while she was making breakfast.”
Having worked as a driver guide for other tour operators, Mark bought a bus and struck out on his own with Connect the Dots Tours of Ireland in November 2019.
It was an exciting time for tourism. Although the industry stalled slightly in 2019, the slow down came after eight consecutive years of sustained growth and produced revenues of €5.175 billion from international visitors. And then it came to a grinding halt.
In only a few short months. Mark’s life’s work was put on hold indefinitely. But while staycations became the focus for Irish tourism Mark decided to take another route and adopted a digital led strategy. “It was quite a risk for a technophobe,” he said. “It was certainly a steep learning curve!”
The transition from Physical to Digital
Mark began offering his first virtual tours in May 2020. These live interactive tours are delivered using Google Earth, videos, polls, slides, and of course, the stories he knows so well after years of personally driving visitors around the island. His virtual customers are diverse, and many of them have an eye on visiting Ireland as soon as it’s safe to do so. Mark gives visitors an authentic taste of Ireland before they even book their plane tickets and builds communities and connections in the process.
The virtual tours aren’t a temporary stopgap. “Before Covid, I would never have considered virtual tourism”, Mark admitted. “I enjoyed my job of guiding people on my bus tours around Ireland. Covid forced me to rethink how I could connect with my clients.”
“By adopting a technology based solution, the Connect the Dots brand is in a stronger place than we could have ever imagined, even in pre-Covid times. We are gaining revenue from sources we would never have considered. The main kind of virtual tour [client] is thinking of renting a car and they want to pick the brain of a tour guide in Ireland. But I also have corporate clients looking to organise staff events or Irish universities who want to give their international students a tour of Dublin. Virtual Tours can be for anyone with an interest in Ireland.”
“The main benefit with offering virtual tours has been to build my brand. Through brand awareness we build confidence and secure bookings. This time last year, we weren’t even listed in TripAdvisor. Today, we are in the top ten of over 400 Tours in Dublin, even though we have spent much of the last year in some type of lockdown. Our success is a direct result of changing behaviour and mindset into a digital led strategy.”
Mark’s Outlook Reflects His Dun Laoghaire Community
Mark moved to Dun Laoghaire ten years ago. He’s a Kildare man, but his wife is from Blackrock and her parents live nearby. They live in the heart of town, and their children attend the local school.
“It’s a magical town, there is so much to love about it. Every morning I walk down the pier and it gets my head focused for the day… the abundance of parks, too. There are so many playgrounds everywhere. And the best library I know of. I even like the cycle lanes though I don’t cycle nearly as much as I used to.”
What Mark loves most about Dun Laoghaire, though, seems like a natural fit for his own outlook on life and business. Like Mark and his virtual tourism pivot, he enjoys living in a town that is forward thinking with a focus on the environment and sustainability.
“Before Covid, I regularly attended the Digital Dun Laoghaire meet-ups. There was always a great buzz in the room and it was attending those meetings that spurred me on to start my own business. Dun Laoghaire is focused on the future. In 10 years time, there will hopefully be more towns following the path that Dun Laoghaire is already on. It’s a great town to work in and a great town to call home.”
For further information check out www.connectthedotstoursofIreland.com or email [email protected].