Kilkenny’s winning attitude rises above pandemic challenge

Last year’s overall winner Kilkenny found a creative way through the pandemic and embraced the true spirit of Begin Together.

Conducting oneself with grace during difficult times can often be one of the defining characteristics of courage. For the medieval city of Kilkenny, last year’s overall winner of the Bank of Ireland National Enterprise Town Awards, the creative and positive response to the crisis was evident in how it used its €33,000 cash prize to bring Kilkenny natives to the streets to help bolster tourism, hospitality and shopping in the town as part of an inspired ambassador programme called Kilkenny Welcome Team.

In many ways the town’s response as a winner can serve as an inspiration for the 20 towns and communities named as finalists as part of this year’s upcoming Begin Together Awards. The Begin Together Awards fund is part of wider €1m Bank of Ireland support for local enterprise and community groups this year.

“The positivity that came from the businesses and the local community out of Covid was special, everybody was there to support each other”

Fiona Deegan from the Local Enterprise Office was a key member of the local committee that led Kilkenny to victory at the NETA Awards last year.

Precision planning

Recalling the day the judges came to Kilkenny last year, Deegan said the stars very much aligned for the city thanks to beautiful weather and a city bustling with tourists and shoppers.

The key to Kilkenny’s performance that day was planning and execution and a great deal of team effort. “Everything was down to fine precision, really. We pulled together a committee of members of the community and business and we wanted to show the best of what Kilkenny had to offer. We had local groups of Irish dancers, African dancers, rowing teams racing in the river, and the streets were transformed with tourists and the footfall of local shoppers.”

As well as the scene on the day that enchanted the judges, the business spirit of the town was abundantly evident, especially in terms of the local food producers.

“They came together as a group a number of years ago to form Taste Kilkenny to promote Kilkenny as a true food destination where local produce is used on the local restaurants. The chefs, the restaurants and the hotels are supporting their local producers throughout the county. It sends a message to the local community to support the local restaurants because they in turn are supporting these producers, and so it goes full circle.”

Team Kilkenny earns its stripes

Group of several people winning an award.

From left: Marian Acremon, President, Kilkenny Chamber of Commerce); Mayor Martin Brett; Caithearleach Peter ‘Chap’ Cleere; Fiona Deegan, head of Enterprise Kilkenny CoCo; Francesca McDonagh, CEO, Bank of Ireland; Colette Byrne, CEO, Kilkenny CoCo; and Deirdre Shine, bank manager, Kilkenny & County, Bank of Ireland.

Fresh from their win last December, the local committee were keen to use their winnings to press ahead with an initiative to bolster tourism.

“The concept was that we would have local people on the street welcoming tours to Kilkenny and supporting local businesses. And so, we started that process and then Covid-19 hit. But as we are emerging from the pandemic it is now more than ever that we needed local people on the streets to welcome visitors back to Kilkenny. And that formed one part of a range of initiatives.

“So, the funding we won last year was spent on what we call the Kilkenny Welcome Team. We asked Brian Cody, our senior hurling manager to put a call out for volunteers to form part of his Kilkenny team. We had a great uptake because everybody wants to be on Brian Cody’s team. We got 20 volunteers and I was amazed at the calibre of people that applied for it.

“The team of volunteers are decked out in the Kilkenny black and amber colours and they take to the streets at weekends at key locations to provide information to people who are coming on staycations and to give them information on what is available in Kilkenny and make them feel welcome. We spent money on highly visible gear in beautiful Kilkenny colours and they have hats, t-shirts and umbrellas and they were trained in Covid-19 safety practices.

“We also a facility for them with lockers to store their belongings before they go out on the streets for a three-hour session and provide them with tea and coffee.”

Deegan said that since the volunteers have taken to the streets local restaurants and hotels have been positive in their praise.

The initiative even made national news with RTE filming a report on how local Kilkenny people were helping to boost tourism and local business in these trying times.

A positive response to challenging times

Group of three women and two men holding awards.

From left: Maurice O’Connor, Kilkenny County Council; Mary O’Hanlon, Age Friendly, Deirdre Shine; Mag Whelan, PPN; and Simon O’Dwyer, Three Sixty

The heartwarming example of Kilkenny people welcoming people on staycation belies the devastation the pandemic has visited on local businesses both in the city but all across Ireland.

“Tourism is a huge part of Kilkenny’s offering, so it was decimation for Kilkenny. But the positivity that came from the businesses and the local community out of Covid was special, everybody was there to support each other.

“We sat down, we had the City Centre Taskforce, we had the Chamber of Commerce, we had the local restaurants and retailers and we planned what we wanted to do to ensure we could reopen all of the shops in a safe way. We introduced a one-way system on the high streetand other streets in Kilkenny so we could ensure social distancing. We introduced new seating areas to support the local cafes and restaurants, we took over some car parking spaces in various areas. And this proved to be hugely positive because it allowed our cafes and restaurants to come together and actually they all worked together to ensure that it was kept clean and umbrellas were brought in at night.

“We developed the Saturday Farmer’s Market to support the food producers who were struggling to sell their produce. That was hugely positive to support local producers in a safe manner. We also introduced ‘Art on the Railings’ up on the Parade to allow our artists to sell their works as the Arts Festival was closed this year. That happens on the Mayor’s Walk every weekend and it adds a vibrancy to the city centre for people coming here on staycations.

“And we also introduced an Audio Guide. It was difficult for people to into premises because of Covid-19 so we created audio guides for the various tourist attractions where you can actually hear the story of the history behind these attractions.”

In conclusion, Deegan said that the sense of camaraderie and focus on enterprise and community has been galvanising in the face of the pandemic’s challenges.

“Everybody is working together and very united. And so we’re going to develop an umbrella brand for Kilkenny to support retail, food, shopping and investment for the future.”

Written by John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 18 September, 2020