Maurice Pratt: the crazy price of ignoring tourism

Former Quinnsworth supremo takes the chair of the industry’s lobby group with a stark Brexit message for Government: act now or lose Ireland’s most vibrant sector

Maurice Pratt, newly elected chair of The Irish Tourism Industry Confederation, will lay out the challenges ahead when he meets Minister for  Tourism Shane Ross on Monday. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Maurice Pratt, newly elected chair of The Irish Tourism Industry Confederation, will lay out the challenges ahead when he meets Minister for Tourism Shane Ross on Monday. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

Karma: it can be a hell of a thing. How’s this for an example?

On Monday, Maurice Pratt, the newly elected chairman of industry lobby group the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation (Itic), will hold his first formal meeting with Shane Ross, the Minister for Transport , Tourism and Sport.

The industry is coming off the back of a record year, but faces a once-in-a-generation threat from Brexit, for which the Government appears to have no tourism plan. Ross is the Minister slumped against the wheel, snoring like a walrus.

In years past, before he was involved in tourism, Pratt was one of the best-known names in corporate Ireland. At Quinnsworth, he was the quintessential public favourite whom everybody recognised from the telly. But he later had a mixed bag of success running C&C and as chairman of Bank of Scotland (Ireland).

Through it all he was, and remains, a perfect gentleman.

Now for the karma. Before he was the Minister in charge of ignoring tourism, Ross was one of Pratt’s chief tormentors in public, especially over his roles at C&C and BoSI.

Like a tomcat on a bush, Ross regularly sprayed Pratt with unpleasantness in his books and newspaper columns: “[Pratt is] a mighty flop . . . an insider par excellence . . . a waffler . . . engages in futile activities . . . he has been rewarded for failure . . . one of the Untouchables: the people who helped wreck Ireland.”

Political inertia

I would give my last Rolo to be a fly on the wall at Monday’s meeting, when Pratt goes in, on behalf of the tourism industry, to ask Ross what he is playing at by risking the future of one of the most important and vibrant sectors of the economy through political inertia.

Does Ross’s past invective bother him? Pratt smiles, sips his glass of water and clears his throat to deliver a most diplomatic response.

“It’s all water off a duck’s back for me. I prefer to look to the future.”

If there is such a thing as an economic curate’s egg, tourism must be it. Last year it broke all records, with overseas visits up close to 11 per cent and closing in on the 10 million mark. It employs 220,000 people and is worth more than €8 billion to the economy.

It has an economic effect akin to capillary action: seeping much-needed prosperity and opportunity into those hard-to-reach parts of the country for which alternative prospects are a pipedream.

Yet it faces a potential disaster from Brexit. UK tourists account for 40 per cent of the total number coming in to Ireland and €1.3 billion of spending. Every penny of that is a pure export. But overnight, following the Brexit vote last June, Ireland became 15 per cent more expensive for British guests.

Itic has been howling about the potential danger for the best part of a year, and made a dramatic “call for action” in March with a demand for a €12 million fighting fund.

Deaf to the warnings

Ross has, for the best part of a year, seemed deaf to the warnings, although the recent news that British visitor numbers were down 6.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2017 might quicken a few pulses in his office.

What action has come from the Government since Itic’s “call for action” two months ago?

“There has really been little, if any, beyond encouragement,” says Pratt.

Brexit was the earthquake under the industry’s seafloor. Perhaps the Government is waiting for the tsunami to hit before it takes action. Itic wants it to move the industry to higher ground now by boosting foreign marketing budgets to protect Ireland’s share of inbound visitors.

Itic also wants Ireland to fight against a hard Brexit and generally wake up to the threat, as it has for the agriculture and food industries, as well as allocate a greater share of the State’s capital budget to help fund new tourism infrastructure and attractions.

We are losing our share of voice compared to competitors like Scotland

“The tourism industry’s marketing budgets have been cut. My background is all about marketing and brands. There is a thing called brand equity, and if you don’t maintain your investment, you lose your equity,” says Pratt.

“We are losing our share of voice compared to competitors like Scotland. When you’re faced with what we’re looking at for the next three or four years, wouldn’t you say to yourself ‘we need to spend more money’ to protect what we’ve got?”

Pratt complains that tourism is taken for granted by the State when compared to other industries such as agriculture, although outsiders could point to the fact that it is boosted by a special 9 per cent Vat rate.

State agencies might also point to strong growth in the US market to help ease the effects of Brexit.

Strife

But the US could easily dry up if president Donald Trump brings his nation to war, perhaps over North Korea or something else that bothers him on Twitter. It happened during both the Gulf wars and the Afghan conflict: when the US enters strife, its tourists stay home in their droves.

We have the statistics now for January, February and March and they don’t look good

What is the source of the government’s complacency regarding tourism?

“Maybe it is complacency, or maybe it is a lack of understanding of the importance of prioritisation. I’ve always admired the strength of the agriculture industry regarding its lobbying and its ability to extract funds for its development.”

When an industry looks for State money, Pratt concedes, there is always the danger that it will be accused of crying wolf.

“But we have the statistics now for January, February and March and they don’t look good. Colin Powell [the former US general and statesman] used to say that when you know 70 per cent of the information, you should act.”

Pratt insists that when he meets Ross on Monday, he will lay out the full context and challenge him to act.

“Last year the numbers were good, but now we have Brexit. The State needs to understand that there is cause and effect. If the Government takes the decision not to invest now, there’s the cause. When the tourism numbers taper off in a couple of years, that will be the effect.”

Pratt’s greatest fear, he says, is that if tourism’s growth and its still-untapped potential are stymied by a failure to deal adequately with Brexit, “the industry will look back in anger”.

“All we can do is put the case,” he says.

Two-year stint

Pratt was elected last month for a two-year stint in the chair of Itic. He also chairs one of Itic’s constituent bodies, B&B Ireland .

Although his dream job as a teenager was “director general of Bord Fáilte”, his arrival on the tourism scene was relatively recent.

Shortly after he quit C&C in late 2008, he got a call from the then minister for tourism, Martin Cullen, asking him chair a tourism renewal group that was producing a mid-term report. It piqued his interest.

Six months later, he got a call from “the next tourism minister” (Mary Hanafin) asking him to fill a one-year vacancy on the board of Tourism Ireland.

I think Irish B&Bs are the perfect tourism product interface between people and place

Following that, Itic approached him to chair a group examining opportunities for Dublin in the tourism market, and he was also drafted to chair a central marketing partnership between the group and Tourism Ireland.

In 2015, he was appointed chairman of B&B Ireland. To outsiders, he seemed an odd choice: Pratt’s permanent suntan and corporate pedigree suggest he might be an unlikely candidate to rock up at the door of some Seaview B&B for a night’s accommodation followed by a fry-up and Sqeez orange juice.

“People asked me why I was joining a sunset industry. But I think Irish B&Bs are the perfect tourism product interface between people and place. I took it on because I’ve done lots of big business stuff, and I wanted to apply my skills in a smaller sector.”

Ageing profile

The biggest challenges facing B&Bs are the ageing profile of the sector’s members and the competitive threat posed by new distribution platforms such as Airbnb.

“Airbnb is completely unregulated, yet our members have to pay for things like public liability insurance and registration. But Airbnb is there and our members have to deal with it. We will lobby for a fair balance of regulations. But we will also look to grow the trade business from inbound tour operators that B&B Ireland provides to the sector.”

But no matter what else Pratt does in his career, to anybody over the age of 35, he will always be the public face of Quinnsworth and Crazy Prices.

Marketing is Pratt’s thing. After doing a marketing certificate in college followed by a short stint in telecoms, he joined the advertising industry as a media buyer and planner.

He worked in advertising from 1973 to 1982, including six years on the Quinnsworth account. The supermarket group was owned by Associated British Foods, which also owns Penneys/Primark.

“One day they called me and said it is about time you worked for us.”

He became marketing manager, then marketing director and number two to boss Don Tidey, who preferred a lower profile after his IRA kidnap. Pratt gained national fame from its television adverts, imploring shoppers to buy Quinnsworth’s yellow-pack products.

He became chief executive in 1996 shortly before Tesco bought the business, and stayed on to run it for the British giant for five years.

Strategic errors

He left in 2002 to run Bulmers cider maker C&C, overseeing its marketing brand transformation and storming of the UK market. In the frothiest years of the boom, however, he made strategic errors, such as wasting cash on share buybacks and building too much capacity on the back of illusory boomtime growth.

He quit in 2008, after 37 years as a corporate executive. He remains bruised by the brutal nature of his exit – you can hear it in his voice when he recalls it.

“The first 35 of those 37 were great. The last two were tougher.”

He also chaired BoSI for four years from 2006 to 2010, from gravity-defying peak to subterranean trough. The bank ran, screaming, from the Irish market. In Pratt’s defence, BoSI started lending like crazy long before he joined its board. He says he has “trapped the learnings” from his involvement.

His other current business interests include a role as chairman of pharmacy wholesaler Uniphar, which is eyeing a flotation. He also chairs Nursing Homes Ireland; Boyne Valley Foods; fantasy sports site PlayOn; The European Movement; and he sits on the board of Business in the Community and a new wellness venture led by former Merrion executive John Conroy.

If you don’t take the risk, you won’t get the reward. We need to be ambitious

It’s a long list of interests to juggle. But Pratt seems willing and able.

He wants to keep the focus for now on tourism, however. He wants the State to take back tourism now to reap the rewards in future. Pratt is a marketing man to the tips of his fingers. He intends to sell his message to Ross.

“We need to think long-term. If you don’t take the risk, you won’t get the reward. We need to be ambitious. Sometimes you need government to make the big calls.”

The battle for the leadership of Fine Gael, and hence the State, appears to be between Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar. The latter is a former minister for tourism and, as the one who introduced the 9 per cent Vat rate, someone attuned to the demands of the industry.

If Varadkar becomes taoiseach, he could be the industry’s friend. Does Itic have a dog in the fight?

“I don’t mind who the next taoiseach is, because the message doesn’t change. Neither does the opportunity.”

CV: Maurice Pratt

Age: 61

Lives: Dublin

Family: Married to Pauline, with five adult sons. Two sons got soccer scholarships to the US while a third is there on a golf scholarship (“But they don’t get their sporting prowess from me – their mother’s father was Peter Farrell, the former Everton captain and Ireland international.”)

Something about him you might expect: He says he stays in B&Bs at home and abroad “whenever I can”.

Something about him that might surprise: “I do not drink alcohol.”