Six things I learned working on Reeks District

Carrauntoohil, Reeks District, Ireland. Photograph by Tadhg Hayes.

Carrauntoohil, Reeks District, Ireland. Photograph by Tadhg Hayes.

Over the past few years I helped put Reeks District, the new destination brand for Mid Kerry, on the map.

A lot has been achieved and now that it’s time to let it ‘breathe’, it is an opportune moment to take stock and jot down the key ingredients I believe helped make it happen.

The hope is that, in some small way, sharing these learnings will help others succeed, whether you’re looking to build a tourism destination brand, local tech or creative hub, visitor experience or other initiative to develop your area.

Before we dive into my six key take-away’s, here’s a quick summary of where we came from and what we achieved.

Where we came from

Killorglin, the main urban centre in the Reeks District, while a successful enterprise town, has always lived in the shadows of it’s more high-profile tourism neighbours  — Killarney, Dingle and Kenmare; and the region, while truly spectacular, with a name like “Mid Kerry” was never going to cut it.

Without a strong identity to get behind, most local tourism businesses were operating independently of each other and 9 times out of 10 would encourage visitors to roam outside the area rather than discover the magic on their doorstep. Mid Kerry was essentially ‘positioned’ as a place to stay and get out of.

It was therefore really no wonder that when Fáilte Ireland started production on an early version of the Wild Atlantic Way map back in 2014, Killorglin wasn’t even on it.

In many ways this was a blessing, spurring a handful of people on to form a community group that would ultimately give life to Reeks District.

When I moved back to Kerry with my wife and then eight year old son, after 20 years in marketing and advertising in London, I was curious to get involved (curiosity killed the cat?) and see how this group, then called the Mid Kerry Tourism Cluster, might help us grow our new venture — a vacation rental on Caragh Lake we had just refurbed. That was back in 2017.

What we achieved

Since then a lot has happened and below I’ll share what I learned. First off though a quick fire list of what was achieved by the group over the past twelve months.

  • Renamed and rebranded the region from ‘Mid Kerry’ to ‘Reeks District — Ireland’s adventure playground’ with a clear focus on what we called the 5B’s — boots, boats, bikes, boards, body and mind… with local providers, Killarney hotels and even estate agents now using the new name as part of their marketing efforts.

  • Revamped the visitor centre in Killorglin into one that does the wider region proud, operated by a team of community employment scheme staff and dedicated project lead (see below).

  • Launched a range of digital channels including revamped website and social profiles across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, all actively managed by a small team of volunteers.

  • Published a range of print resources including a detailed promotional map of the region which is available via our members’ businesses and the visitor centre in Killorglin, and offered to adjoining visitor centres along the Wild Atlantic Way; larger hotels in the region; as well as bigger local employers.

  • Delivered coverage worth +€1m in equivalent media value across Irish, UK and German press spanning print, online, TV and radio with publications including the Irish Times, Irish Independent, Examiner, Times (UK), Mirror, Sun, Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, The Great Outdoor Magazine, GEO and many many more.

  • Got voted as one of the top six regions for 2019 by Rough Guides, something we are particularly proud of.

  • Appointed a paid project lead, thanks to a private donation, that has enabled us to run and coordinate all these efforts.

  • Produced a range of networking events and workshops to help local businesses learn from each other — branding, flyer design, photography, social media etc..

  • Setup a virtual networking forum using Facebook Groups as a way for members to share success, ask for help and give advice.

  • Grew membership more than fivefold with a target of doubling this again by early 2020.

  • Secured the cooperation of Fáilte Ireland, key to unlocking future marketing and training support from the agency.

  • Started collaboration with Kerry Airport both on press trips and in-airport promotion.

  • Incubated other local initiatives such a Killorglin walks map and guided tours of the town, as well as a shared festival flyer for the region.

  • Developed a new and exciting adventure challenge entitled ‘The Big Five’ which will launch 1st of June.

…and I’m sure I’ve missed something.

Six things I learned

How did we do it? Well, these things are never just a function of a simple list, but for what it’s worth, here are the six lessons I learned that might, in some small way, help you succeed with your project.

1. Focus on strengths

This is probably the main one. Pull together a small team of passionate people and start to figure out what you have, where you stand out, what you deliver on better than others… and don’t just think local. Look around. Be tough on yourself. Your customers will be. Don’t just figure out ‘what it is’… but also ‘what it’s not’. In a world of near limitless choice you need to be specific about your place in it. This is really hard but so worth it. It’s the foundation for everything. It’s what you build your vision on, the vision you’ll want people to back.

Here’s a framework by a mentor of mine, elements of which we used, and you might find useful too. As he always said — ‘take the best and leave the rest’.

In our case we decided that ‘outdoor adventure’ was our thing, and Carrauntoohil — Ireland’s highest mountain — our hook. Everything then flowed from that. We had loads of debates about, for example, excluding golf or horse-riding from the 5B’s (balls and bridle anyone?) and the fact that the “Reeks District” name doesn’t reflect all the other things the region has to offer BUT again… focus is key. Not everyone agreed with all of our decisions… but we listened, questioned ourselves and then, I believe, made the best calls we could.

2. Build a tight team

Make sure the people around you have different strengths but common values and all care passionately about the project. Teams need to be open and fluid with people popping in and dropping out… but ultimately trusting each other to work towards a common goal. I’m not talking necessarily about the ‘board’ or ‘committee’ or whatever labels get put on it. It’s about a broad group of passionate volunteers that bring individual strengths to the table, and the group finding a way to tap into these as best as possible.

In our case we had the makings of a great group right from the get-go with ‘formal’ committee members that cared passionately about the region which we then added to with amazing volunteers and vendors taking on specific projects (eg mapping walks), strands of work (eg copy, video, photography, social media, refurb, IT) or offering snippets of their time (eg volunteering in the visitor centre) plus loads of people advising in the background. We were also fortunate enough to get some funding to contract a fab paid coordinator to pull all these efforts together, and buy in external advice (see below).

3. Crawl, walk, run

Early success is vital so make sure when you pull together your plan, whether just for internal purposes or external, you focus on the controllables… focus on what you know you can deliver. That helps build momentum and motivation… THEN you can get ambitious and shoot for the stars. It’s a way of building confidence both in yourselves by yourselves, but also by other community members, state agencies and people you’ll want to back your project later on down the line.

In our case, although we had a ridiculously ‘big hairy ambition’, in our first year we focussed on the super simple — some digital ‘stuff’ — Google pins, blog posts; meet ups and an attempt at measuring where we were — all things we could do ourselves without a single cent of funding. With this we were able to demonstrate to ourselves, our members and agencies that we could set targets, however scrappy, and deliver. This then built credibility and enabled us to secure support for the years that followed. Here’s a link to the deck we used to talk through our plan early on which you might find useful.

4. Find an idealist

This one ain’t easy but look around your group… and beyond, try and spot an idealist with relevant skills and some time on their hands and co-opt them in. Ultimately these kind of projects need at least one person to dig in and give a ridiculous amount of their time to get it off the ground… not because they’ll directly gain from it but because they ‘believe’. Sounds very ‘hippy’ but that’s what it takes. Finding that person or people is key and it’s worth looking hard.

In our case, a few of the group definitely fell in to that category (muggins here being one of them). The toughest thing was managing burn out. Supporting each other to get through the tough times and continuing, when it’s reasonable to do so (or as reasonable as idealists can be), was super important and really helped get it off the ground. Now with a paid coordinator in place and a fantastic group of volunteers, this ‘idealist’ role is less critical but it certainly was at the outset.

5. Seek outside advice

If you’re fortunate enough to secure some funding, don’t be afraid to look outside for the best possible professional advice. It’s very likely that your project will ultimately be competing for ‘global’ visitors or talent… people that have the choice to engage with your project or look elsewhere. Make sure what you put out there — your strategy, branding or comms — competes on that stage. Too often people want to keep it local and while that’s great 90% of the time, it’s not right all the time. If you want to stand out, look outside. There really is merit in the ‘standout or go home’ attitude to these sorts of things.

In our case, we appointed a UK designer and publicist to help build the Reeks District brand and comms… both small outfits but with stacks of experience… and an external eye. We took some flack for this decision in the early days but without that outsider’s perspective, I don’t believe we would have gotten anywhere close to where we are today. Don’t get me wrong, there’s amazing local talent in the region BUT if you’re trying to sell to ‘outsiders’ it helps to actually get them in on your project.

6. Make time to step back

Last but not least, when you’re deep in the ‘trenches’, don’t loose sight of what you’re doing, particularly the broader value of your project. Odds are that the goals you set at the start get lost a little along the way, or that there’s a far bigger opportunity to deliver value with it staring you in the face. Make time to slow down and reassess where you’re at and where you’re going… ideally with someone else — a colleague, a mentor, a friend;  people that get what you’re doing but bring a fresh perspective.

In our case, while the Reeks District started out with a tourism focus, our ethos was always far broader than that — it was about creating a sense of place, getting people outdoors, making the region a better place to live, work and play. That’s something we’ve now come back to thanks to a review we did earlier in the year and has translated into how we articulate what we do, project priorities and funding proposals; a renewed focus we believe will pay dividends in the future.

‘What about funding?’ I hear you say. Well, yes. What we achieved would not have happened without the generous financial support we received BUT a) I believe we secured that support in large part because we laid the groundwork and b) it definitely helped us deliver x10 plus return on investment when we got it. 

Luck and timing also have a lot to do with success. Don’t believe anyone that tells you otherwise. That’s not something you really can control though… BUT, a bit like funding, even if you can’t control it, you can give yourself the best chance of having it happen.

Where to from here?

Well, there’s a real potential to turn this into a sustainable endeavour that will have a hugely positive impact on the region  — not just growing tourism, but making the Reeks District a better place to live and work — encouraging local people to get outdoors, giving our kids more opportunity, and helping businesses in the region retain and recruit talent.

Getting there will require a small amount of additional investment… and as I say, securing that is not something we can control. We’ve done what we can and it’s now up to others to step in and lend a hand — local agencies, employers etc.. It will drift if people don’t, and although that would be a huge opportunity missed, accepting it may is something I just need to learn. Ever the idealist.

Hope the above will help with your endeavours and I look forward to reading about your success. If you’d like to discuss anything in this post further, feel free to get in touch. Onwards and good luck!