It’s hard to believe that we expected to be at Balmoral Show this week. It’s always one of the best weeks of my year with plenty of connections made, new products launched and business done. Plus, there are always plenty of laughs, usually involving Paula McIntrye or Brian McDermott our compere chefs, on our cookery theatres. Like many people, all the planning and hard work leading up to Balmoral will just have to be carried forward to next year.
I do try to be a half glass full person and look for the positives in every situation. While I know it’s been difficult at times over the past couple of months, I’ve drawn great hope from the tremendous support from the community for the campaign to save lives by supporting our NHS and care home teams and for the overall battles against coronavirus. I’ve also drawn immense encouragement from the responses of our food and drink and hospitality sectors to the extreme challenges they faced during the lockdown.
And I’ve been inspired by the stories from local companies about lining up new sales, especially outside Northern Ireland,and about innovative food and drink which they’ve developed. As a family we had huge fun making individual pizzas with a kit supplied by the French Village, the innovative bakery ran by Ashley and Amy French provided both a delicious meal and an evenings entertainment.
We’ve seen food and drink producers of all sizes, and across a broad range of categories, rising to the ‘Feed the Nation’ challenge. Investing in original products in the midst of a crisis shows the confidence local firms have in their expertise and a gritty determination to surmount the challenges they are currently facing. These companies are gearing for the post-virus future.
What they are also doing is strengthening Northern Ireland’s position as a prime source of quality and innovative food and drink for consumers and the hospitality sector in Britain.
The crisis has led many to embrace the potential of new digital technologies and this has led to sales in global markets including the US, Australia and New Zealand. Gone are the days when some smaller companies in particular wouldn’t have bothered to respond to such distant inquiries.
They are now drawing encouragement from such responses and keen to deal with them. This may well be because the companies have become familiar with online business paid by card in advance by customers here. It’s inevitable that the companies here will continue to develop online sales in the future.
This important business channel looks certain to grow in both short and long terms. The lockdown has served to push many companies down the digital path faster than might otherwise have been the case. We’ve also used our own digital channels to assist and promote the companies.
Furthermore, our companies, even major processors, have further developed social media channels to increase awareness about and grow sales of products. This is a trend I expect to continue post the pandemic.
In an unexpected twist, more companies have become conscious of the possibilities of doing business outside Northern Ireland. Approaches from individual customers abroad have enhanced the confidence of many companies about the quality and originality of their products and their ability to compete effectively abroad. It has certainly widened horizons.
In Food NI, we see a need to step up marketing activities on-the-ground in Britain and indeed further afield. We’ve been supporting Invest NI in a range of business promotionalactivities especially in Britain and the Irish Republic of Ireland over the past year. We look forward to continuing to do so and to helping our companies to build on the experience gained over the past few months to translate this into even greater business both here and abroad.