US tourists answering Ireland’s ‘clarion call’

After the success of The Gathering, the boss of CIÉ Tours International forecasts new records being broken this year

This is the busiest time of the year for Brian Stack. In early January it is "as if a switch goes off", he says, and CIÉ Tours is inundated with calls about holiday tours in Ireland for about three months.

The touring company, wholly owned by semi-state CIÉ, normally has 75 per cent of its business booked by St Patrick’s Day. The company, a $100 million (€74 million) enterprise, is responsible for bringing the most people to Ireland as the latest tour operator sending visitors across the Atlantic.

In 2013, the year of The Gathering, the country's tourism marketing initiative to attract people to Ireland, CIÉ Tours carried 50,000 passengers, including 43,000 from the United States. The remaining passengers travel from Europe and Australia.

Stack describes the initiative as “a clarion call” and a “reason to go”, making 2013 the best year for tourism to Ireland from America ever and the best year in terms of revenues and profits for CIÉ Tours.


“The Gathering has been great. The reason why it is great for us is that when you focus publicity on something and advertising dollars, this grabbed people’s attention,” he says.

“I cannot say that many of our passengers attended many of The Gathering events but they went to Ireland because they felt that this was a good time to go,” says Stack, speaking in an office in the Park Avenue building in New York that also houses the Irish Consulate and Enterprise Ireland’s offices.

Even though The Gathering made it a bumper tourism year, Stack is forecasting new records being broken in 2014. He is aiming to bring between 15 and 20 per cent more tourists to Ireland this year.

CIÉ Tours spent $300,000 (€220,059) on advertising The Gathering and brought in a $7 million (€5.1 million) return on the investment. Stack says that the touring company gets back $40 (€29.3) for every dollar spent on advertising.

The company has been around for 82 years. Last year it made a big deal of a married couple who met on a CIÉ Tour in 1963 and returned on another of the company’s tours in 2013. The company put them up in the Shelbourne Hotel to mark the occasion.

Stack’s only criticism of The Gathering is that it should have lasted longer given the success of the campaign.

“In retrospect, they actually shouldn’t have put a year on it. There is no question that there is a knock-on effect for 2014,” he says.

“ Maybe by 2015 there will be some other concept that will attract people. All you need is to get a hook to get people going.”

Anyone driving the country roads and main thoroughfares will know the ubiquitous CIÉ Tours logo as coaches ferry hundreds of passengers around Ireland’s main tourist attractions from the Guinness brewery in Dublin to Bunratty Castle in Co Clare.

As a specialist in coach tours, it is unsurprising that 65 per cent of CIÉ Tour passengers are women and 65 per cent are over 55 years of age. Visitors travel from across the US, with 40 per cent from the east coast and 30 per cent from the midwest.

Ancestral connections
"What is it that they want to do? Usually on the top of their list is that they want to go to Ireland," says Stack.

The company's most popular tour, out of 22 on offer, is the trip that combines a visit to Ireland and Scotland. Many US tourists from the south of the country are opting for this tour because they have ancestral connections with Northern Ireland and Scotland. In future years, Stack sees potential in a direct route flying from Houston in Texas to Ireland given the growth in visitors from the south.

“I suspect that this is an area they [the airlines] would look at down the road. It is not served right now. There are all sorts of connections from there but there is something nice about getting to the airport and flying direct,” he says.

Stack has been living in the United States since 1977 when he crossed the Atlantic after being transferred by the Irish Tourist Board to its New York office.

He left the board in 1983 to take on the role of vice president of marketing for a large resort in Key Largo, Florida called the Ocean Reef Club.

He subsequently set up his own marketing company representing Doyle Hotels and Mount Juliet in the US, the Beverly Wiltshire hotel in California and the St James Club resort in Antigua.

By the late 1980s, CIÉ Tours was loss-making and had become a headache for the semi-state’s parent company back in Dublin, leaving the board of the company weighing whether to close it.

CIÉ chairman Paul Conlan and Aer Lingus chief executive Martin Dully had a conversation about hiring Stack to take over the running of the company. Stack had worked with Dully at the airline.

“Paul said, ‘Brian, here is the situation – this company is going down the toilet, do you think you could do something with it?’ I said, I think we could do something with it,” says Stack.

“Luckily, not because of me but because of the people I managed to hire over the years, we have made money every year since 1990. Even after September 2001, we still made money.”

Remarkably, in the internet age, almost 80 per cent of CIÉ Tours passengers come through travel agents, whom the company is happy to pay for a 30-minute referral from a customer.

Marketing campaigns
Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving in the US, is typically a big sales day for companies but not for CIÉ Tours, even though 22 per cent of passengers book online with the company.

“It is not something that they would do on a whim,” he says. “They would have to think about it and try to get advice on it. For two people to go on one of our vacations, for the average passenger it is probably going to be about 10 per cent of their income.”

Stack says American tourists know more about Ireland now than ever before due to Tourism Ireland’s marketing campaigns.

They know how sophisticated the food has become in Ireland, for example, and their knowledge makes them eager for a bit more time when they are travelling across the Atlantic.

“We still have a 97 per cent satisfaction level or better with our passengers,” he says.

The currency exchange difference between the euro and the dollar doesn’t figure in sales, says Stack. US customers buy their tours in US dollars, with the company buying through euro a year in advance.

Irish hoteliers
"They pay one price to a travel agent or whoever and that is it. All of the rest of the time anything that they spend on presents or drinks they just put on a credit card. The exchange rate is not a factor with our passengers," he says.

Prices in Irish hotels have been “very keen”, says Stack, as the sector struggles to recover from the problems of overdevelopment and oversupply during the property bubble years.

He hopes that Irish hoteliers don’t try to make their money back in a number of years by cranking up prices after a record year for tourism.

Stack was recently appointed president of the Ireland-US Council, an organisation founded in 1963 to promote business ties between the countries. He has served as vice-president for a long time. His appointment is fitting for a man who runs a company whose business straddles the two countries.

"It is a very well-respected organisation that attracts a lot of people who are interested in the business relationship between Ireland and America," he says. "We are very connected to Ireland in our business, so it just makes sense to do this."

CV: Brian Stack
Brian Stack
Job: President and chief executive, CIÉ Tours International
Family: Married to Anne-Marie, he has two children and five grandchildren
Home: From Dublin originally, now living in Rye, north of New York City
Works: Morristown, New Jersey, with a satellite office in Manhattan, New York
Hobbies: Golf, theatre, reading and travel
Education: O'Connell School, Dublin; Salford College, Manchester
Career: He worked for Aer Lingus in the UK before joining the Irish Tourist Board in Dublin and New York. He worked for the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida, as vice president of sales and marketing. He became president of CIÉ Tours International in 1990. He was recently named president of the Ireland-US Council, a 50-year-old business group promoting ties between the two countries.
Something you might expect: He has worked in tourism throughout his career.
Something that might surprise: Stack used to teach people how to drive and was involved in car rallying in the early 1960s.