Selling Ireland to the Spanish: ‘The majority prefer to stay at home, so you need to offer a strong proposition’

Wild Geese: Susan Bolger works for Tourism Ireland in Madrid

As a little girl living near Dublin Airport, Susan Bolger used to watch the planes flying overhead and dream of working in the travel industry when she grew up. In 2006 her dream came true when she moved to New York for a year-long internship with Tourism Ireland.

When the internship finished, Bolger successfully applied for a marketing assistant’s job with the agency in Spain. She loved it so much she stayed and began working her way up the ranks in various roles. In 2020 Bolger was appointed to the top job in Spain, marketing manager for the region, and she now leads a team of six based in Madrid.

“As a child, I remember flipping through the Budget Travel catalogues dreaming of visiting exotic destinations. Later, when I was commuting to my weekend job in Dublin city centre on the bus, I used to watch the airline staff getting off with their suitcases at the airport stop and that further sparked my interest in travel,” says Bolger, who lives outside Madrid in a small town called Arroyomolinos.

“It’s been a privilege to spend my career promoting Ireland abroad, and most of our work here is focused on implementing year-round B2B and B2C marketing initiatives to drive the sustainable growth of inbound tourism.

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“Our marketing programme is broad, spanning digital advertising, social media, press relations, wider publicity and business partnerships, and we work closely with a range of strategic partners including airlines, sea carriers, tour operators, travel agencies and industry,” says Bolger, who studied tourism management and began her career in car rental before her move to Tourism Ireland.

One of my dreams when making our home here was to have green grass – which is harder than one might think to maintain in 40-degree heat

Spain is Ireland’s fifth-largest inbound tourism market, with about 430,000 Spanish people visiting the State every year (excluding foreign language students) but enticing Spaniards to holiday abroad is not an easy task.

“The majority prefer to stay at home, so you need to offer a strong proposition to attract those who are willing to travel,” says Bolger. “What appeals to Spaniards about Ireland is the scenery, the culture and history and the friendliness and warmth of the people. We have a good rate of repeat business from Spain, but tourism is volatile and every year you’re essentially starting from scratch.

“Being very aware of how important tourism is to the regions in Ireland and how the industry supports around 300,000 jobs is both a responsibility and a strong motivator to give it your best shot every year. What we do has a real economic impact at home and that drives me.”

Bolger’s love affair with Spain began when she spent a summer learning Spanish in Madrid while staying with her aunt and uncle. “I experienced the authentic Spanish way of life – late-night dinners, scorching heat, aperitifs, seafood and fascinating museums.

“I also met Carlos, who subsequently became my husband or as they say here my media naranja (my half-orange or better half), and we now have three young daughters,” she says.

“Living on the outskirts of Madrid, we combine working life in the big city with a quieter life at weekends surrounded by countryside. One of my dreams when making our home here was to have green grass – which is harder than one might think to maintain in 40-degree heat.”

The list of what Bolger likes about living in Spain is long but starts with the climate and the good food and wine. “I also love the beautiful language, the relaxing siestas, the incredible scenery and the great transport and infrastructure. They are the nicest people and I love how family is highly valued in Spanish culture. The pace of life is different, too, as the days are longer.”

Traditional Spanish businesses, especially family-owned enterprises and government institutions, often have a hierarchical structure. However, this is evolving

Bolger says working for Tourism Ireland means she gets the best of both worlds: the benefits of a Mediterranean lifestyle and the ability to stay closely connected to her roots.

“I’ve had wonderful opportunities to work with Spanish celebrities and well-known musicians to create standout events that draw great attention to Ireland,” she says. “In 2022 the lord mayor of Dublin inaugurated our first Bloomsday twinning in Madrid to shine a spotlight on our literary heritage.

“We have worked on collaborations with major partners like Metro de Madrid – converting an old station into a micro-theatre telling the story of Ireland as the home of Halloween. We also organise large-scale business roadshows across Spain, where we meet hundreds of professional trade buyers and co-operate with other agencies such as Bord Bia and Tourism Northern Ireland to promote the island of Ireland.”

Bolger is now well used to how Spanish business ticks, and its quirks. “Spaniards have a different perspective on time and punctuality. Meetings often start and end later than scheduled. And many businesses wrap up early on Fridays, reflecting the importance of the work-life balance.

“Lunch breaks can be long and, for business meals, it’s very important to leave plenty of time for sobremesa, the Spanish tradition of continuing the conversation long after all the food has been eaten,” she adds. “Traditional Spanish businesses, especially family-owned enterprises and government institutions, often have a hierarchical structure. However, this is evolving, driven by a younger generation of globally educated managers and societal changes.”

With so much going for life in Spain, is there anything Bolger misses about home?

“My mam, Laura, my wider family and friends, the Irish coastline, having the craic that is uniquely Irish and toasted batch bread with real butter,” she says.