Tourism Ireland's Joe Byrne

By Michelle Baran
Joe ByrneThe Gathering, a 2013 celebration of Irish heritage and culture, was born out of an idea of how to help Ireland's ailing economy, but it eventually took on a life on its own, as people across Ireland enthusiastically embraced the marketing initiative. Joe Byrne, executive vice president, U.S. and Canada, of Tourism Ireland, talked with Senior Editor Michelle Baran about how the idea came to fruition and the yearlong showcase of events and festivities it has evolved into.

Q: So how exactly did the idea of the Gathering emerge?

The idea actually came from the Irish government. When they got into their financial difficulties, they called a meeting of "friends of Ireland," people who have had success, the global Irish network, and they gathered a few ideas of how Ireland might accelerate the economic recovery. Some genius said, "Why don't you have a gathering?"

Q: What is it?

It's many things. I suppose the best way of defining it, really, is a yearlong celebration of everything that's special and good about Ireland and the Irish. And another way of looking at it is it's an invitation from the people of Ireland to friends and family throughout the world to come home and to celebrate Irish culture and fun and food and music and sports in Ireland during 2013.

Q: What has been the response?

I've been in Irish tourism for more than 30 years, and in all my time I have never seen any concept that has gathered as much goodwill and genuine support as this Gathering has. There's not a town or a village or a county in Ireland that isn't organizing some kind of Gathering event or festival, and in many cases they're organizing several of them. It's what you would call a citizen-led initiative. All those people in the critical corners of Ireland have been coming up with ideas, how can they be part of the Gathering of Ireland.

Q: How are suppliers responding?

One of the big benefits has been that the airlines that are a critical part of our infrastructure have responded very well with additional services and with additional capacity for Ireland. Aer Lingus, Ireland's national carrier, is putting on an additional 15% of seats next year [from Chicago and Boston]. American Airlines just last week announced that they were introducing from next June a brand-new daily service from JFK to Dublin. The week before last, United announced that they are going to have from May of next year a brand-new service from Chicago to Shannon in the west of Ireland. So the Gathering is not just a series of things happening, it's also a business as far as airlines and the tourism industry is concerned, and the airlines have responded extremely well. ... On the back of that, we're going to see some very exciting airfares in the marketplace.

Q: What about the capacity on the ground?

There is excellent accommodation available and genuinely because of the amount of accommodation available, the value for visitors has never been better.

Q: How much could this potentially help the Irish government with its fiscal crisis?

Ireland 2013, the year of the Gathering, is actually the start of Ireland's economic renewal. Therefore it doesn't end when 2013 ends. ... The whole concept of Ireland reaching out not just to Irish-Americans and people who were born in Ireland who have emigrated but also to the extraordinary friends that Ireland has, that whole concept is going to have a legacy effect.

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly. 
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