“Communication was essential because there was so much panic and people were looking for competent leadership to guide them through.”Niall Gibbons | CEO of Tourism Ireland
For Niall Gibbons, that ability to manage change has resulted in a stellar career that saw Tourism Ireland, which was established under the framework of the Good Friday Agreement, market the island of Ireland as a tourist destination in Great Britain and 22 other markets with great success.
Niall will step down as CEO in April, 25 years after the Agreement was signed. He will leave behind an organisation with an annual budget of over €100 million, solid cross-border support, high engagement with the island’s tourism industry and a healthy pipeline of prospective business.
“We constantly research the markets to keep our finger on evolving trends.”— Niall Gibbons
Although the future remains uncertain, Niall’s default view is an optimistic one. “We constantly research the markets to keep our finger on evolving trends. During COVID-19, our main ambition was to keep the local industry connected with buyers overseas, so we interviewed over 30,000 people in our key markets overseas and found a huge pent-up emotional demand to reconnect,” he said.
“While other governments slashed their tourism budgets, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive maintained their investment and supported the industry,” Niall added. “That allowed us to bounce back when things got going again in 2022. We didn’t start in top gear, of course, but the tourism industry was able to respond quickly.”
For Niall, communicating through the chaos was critical. From hotels and restaurants to government agencies, he spent the duration of the pandemic figuring out what he needed to say—and saying it clearly and consistently. Therein, he says, lies the silver lining.
“Communication was essential because there was so much panic and people were looking for competent leadership to guide them through,” he said. “We did regular research briefings that drew upwards of 600 people, I stayed in regular contact with my network to see how they were coping, and I hosted a weekly CEO call with our people around the world. Although we couldn’t travel, we were better connected than ever in many respects.”
“As chief executive, people look to you for guidance, so you need to give them confidence while remaining realistic.”— Niall Gibbons
Those investments have proven their worth as Ireland now has a supply challenge where just three years ago, demand dried up virtually overnight and refund requests threatened to decimate the industry. As Niall looks ahead to a new chapter in his career, the various crises he navigated over the past two decades have provided valuable lessons that he believes can be put into practice across all industries.
“The principles of agility, flexibility and clear communication are vital,” he said. “As chief executive, people look to you for guidance, so you need to give them confidence while remaining realistic.”
And in times of crisis, nurturing your network becomes even more critical. “When fear and uncertainty take hold, things get tough. To support people, whether your colleagues or peers, pick up the phone. Ask them how they’re feeling and assure them that they will emerge in some shape or form.”
Given Niall’s focus on communication and engagement, it will come as no surprise that he was named the “most influential” Irish CEO on LinkedIn for two years running. With almost 25,000 followers, his recipe for success on social media is surprisingly plain.
“I have a mantra and that is to keep it simple,” he said. “We all do interesting work in our day and we all have the capacity to tell a story. I just got into the habit of telling my story, which is something anybody can do.”
And how would he advise fellow CEOs who want to raise their own profile in a personable way? “There’s a few things: keep the message short, focus on your work and don’t drift into other areas, and keep your personal opinions personal,” he said. “That’s all I do, but I do it regularly and it builds up steam over time. The key is keeping it brief and relevant.”
Managing Partner, PwC Ireland
Partner, PwC Ireland