EVEN though Shannon Heritage Managing Director Niall O’Callaghan’s initial career path wasn’t in the tourism sector, it seems it’s a life he was destined for.
His first job was washing pots in the Dunraven Arms Hotel in his hometown of Adare, one of the stalwarts of Irish tourism.
Six months after taking on the role as head of Shannon Heritage, Niall is drawing up some major strategies for the development of the company, including a master plan for Bunratty Castle and Folk Park.
“We have a very ambitious masterplan here at Bunratty Castle Folk Park which has been mentioned in the National Planning Framework as one of the most significant projects which Fáilte Ireland are working on at the moment as regards attractions.
“We’re working very closely with Fáilte Ireland in relation to that and ultimately what that, we hope will do, will enable a huge amount of more visitors to Bunratty Castle Folk Park when that masterplan is complete, which we hope then would enable further economic opportunities in the region be that through the airport or be that through hotels or anything else for that matter.
“Commercially in order to attract those people to come and visit Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, we have to make sure that we are providing world leading experiences, something that we are famous for but ensuring that that visitor of today is getting what they want from Bunratty,” Niall said.
The master plan will include the most up to date audio-visual experiences, taking visitors on a journey through time to experience what life was like in the 14th century castle, or the early 20th century folk park.
Niall studied Production Management at the University of Limerick, but had to rethink his career path as he graduated just as the Celtic Tiger was starting to bow out.
He went on to do a Masters in Marketing at University College Cork, before taking up coveted roles at Robert Roberts and Unilever in Dublin.
A stint with the IDA brought him back to the Mid-West and at just 35 year old, Niall is now making a name for himself as one to watch in the tourism industry.
“It’s been a very interesting six months where we have a lot of projects on our plate at the moment. It’s been a learning curve on a lot of fronts – obviously I’m new to the tourism industry, so I’m getting to know the tourism industry itself, and getting to know my own team and some of the challenges but also the opportunities.
“It’s been a very hectic couple of months; I’m coming at a very busy time for not only Shannon Heritage but also the Shannon Group overall.
“In the last couple of months alone, we’ve had a lot of conversations with various entities around acquiring new sites. We’ve had some structural change here in Shannon Heritage as well and we’re looking at commercial opportunities across all our sites and how we make sure that our business model is fit for needs as well,” Niall said.
Shannon Heritage currently has 900,000 visitors to their attractions every year, with Bunratty Castle and Folk Park taking a sizeable chunk of that at 400,000 visitors.
Niall is confident they can hit the coveted million visitors milestone this year, as he reckons the Banner County is on the up on the tourism front.
“There’s no doubt about it, Clare is a unique county in Ireland when it comes to tourism when you consider the breadth of attractions it has to offer.
“Clearly given the enormity of the visitors to the Cliffs of Moher every year – 1.5m people going there every year – any county in Ireland would probably bite our hand off to win that number of people coming here alone. The opportunity for Clare is huge,” he added.
Getting tourists to spend longer in the county is one of the challenges currently facing the Co Clare tourism industry.
Tour buses often come from other parts of the country, visit a single site like the Cliffs of Moher and head straight back home.
Niall is working with local entities such as Clare County Council to try and find creative ways to encourage tourists to visit another site, or even stay the night in Co Clare.
“A rising tide lifts all boats at the end of the day. I think by working together and coming up with a plan and a strategy to encourage more people to stay in Clare would benefit everybody,” Niall said.
Although Niall is keen to develop the amount of international visitors to Shannon Heritage sites, Co Clare and the Mid-West as a whole, he would love to see locals enjoying the attractions.
“One of the opportunities we have is to convince our own domestic audience that it’s not something that’s set out for North Americans, it’s a fun day out for that everybody can enjoy, whether you’re an international tourist or domestic tourist,” he added.