In conversation with the Council behind the 'Halloween capital of the world'

The Halloween traditions that we all know and love originated from an old Irish holiday dating back centuries. To explore the history and discover how it has evolved in Ireland today, LGIU’s Thomas Lynch chats with Aeidin McCarter, the person responsible for making Derry and Strabane the ‘Halloween capital of the world’.

Derry City and Strabane District Council is a local authority in Northern Ireland (NI) which is home to the second-largest city in the country and the fifth-largest on the island across Ireland. As a result, Derry and Strabane Council are responsible for a population of 150,756 and yet every year, they also welcome thousands of visitors as part of their renowned Halloween celebrations. 

Check out our Global Local: Dark Tourism with a range of additional resources good for every season.

To get us started Aeidin, could you introduce yourself and your role at Derry and Strabane Council? 

I am the Head of Culture at Derry and Strabane Council, and I have responsibility for marketing festivals and events, museums and visitor services, arts and culture and tourism. Primarily, I am focused on tourism products and development, but we manage service-level agreements with our partners who run visitor information centres.

To give you an overview of Derry and Strabane Council, there are three main directorates: Health and Community, Environment and Regeneration and Business and Culture. Within the culture directorate, we have 70 full-time staff, with around 30 core staff dedicated to festivals and events.

Derry and Strabane Council run an intensive events programme. Halloween is our biggest annual event, followed by the Foyle Maritime Festival, St Patrick’s Day, the Jazz festival and Summer Jamm in the town of Strabane.

The Halloween festival has been our biggest since its conception over 30 years ago. Whilst the pandemic years 2020 and 2021 saw limited activity, this year is the first year of full-scale activity since the pandemic.

To give a taste of what Halloween in Derry entails, the 2022 programme will run over 4 nights beginning on Friday the 28th. With events spread across the city centre, the Halloween trail extends beyond the Walled City, with the 28 installations extended across the river into St Colms Park. The pinnacle of the event is always the carnival parade on Halloween night, culminating in the 8 pm fireworks.

Since I entered the post in 2015, the event has grown due to the concerted effort to capitalise on Halloween as an international event. Working with Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland, we have increased investment into the event and raised the profile whilst also driving to increase visitor numbers and the economy.

Significantly, the Council’s work has not gone unnoticed. In 2015, the readers of USA Today voted Derry as the best place to celebrate Halloween. With Halloween in Derry bringing £4 million into the local government, the last full-scale event in 2019 saw 120,000 visitors in the region for the event. To recap, 2021 census data illustrated Derry and Strabane’s population of 150 000.

However, even now, we still feel the effects of the pandemic. With the ambiguity over international travel 12 months ago, we face a reduced lead in time for this year, which is a crucial challenge considering that about 25% of our visitors are international. Nonetheless, the target for this year is 100,000. With strong occupancy levels for this year’s event, we expect growth to return to at least pre-pandemic levels or close to it. In the long-term, Derry and Strabane Council is not stopping here, as the overall intention is to grow the event even further.

What pushed Derry and Strabane Council to strive for internationally recognised events? 

Driving for internationally recognised events is vital to Tourism NI’s strategy. Following Derry’s City of Culture status in 2013, we gained an international reputation for hosting great quality events. This is crucial given that international events are the ones that see the best economic return to our city, as well as the broader economy.

Overall, making Derry and Strabane’s events known internationally is a strategic economic decision. However, we still host an extensive range of local community events and work closely with partners such as the NI Department of Communities to run events. We fund our 10-12 larger-scale events, and we also have our community funds. However, focusing on Halloween and bringing it up internationally benefits the broader NI economy as well as the wider North West Economy in Ireland.

 You touched upon the importance of involving communities. Given that Derry is a post-conflict society, how does your Council use cultural events to help build a shared future? 

Everything we do at Derry and Strabane is on a shared basis. That extends to all facets of our society. Each event we bring forward unites the community and unites the city. That is particularly key on the community side of things, where community festivals are vital opportunities to develop great cohesion,

From an events perspective, having cohesive and inclusive events right across the city and district has always been a priority. We ensure that everybody sees the benefits by bringing those events that benefit the economy and the wider community. To have that forward-thinking international aspect to our events has been very inclusive and progressive and has done nothing but good for community relations right across the North West.

(Interview continues below)

Culture, Heritage and Local Government in Ireland: A Match Made in Heaven?

Given that city and county councils have been very active in the design and implementation of events during Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries from 2012-2022, this paper examines this role closely. Read the full briefing here.

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You mentioned the attendance as ranging between 100,000 to 120,000. How does your Council prepare Derry’s tourism infrastructure for large-scale events? 

We work closely with our partners, especially in the accommodation sector. Primarily they are the sector that gains the most, but retail and hospitality are front and centre in the beneficiaries of those numbers of people coming into the city.

From a destination management perspective, we work closely to communicate with the accommodation providers. We started last year with North West Development Group and extended our activity into Council Donegal, with funded activity in Buncrana led by Donegal County Council. From a broader North West perspective, we developed the number of bed night opportunities.

Halloween is the prime season, and we are fortunate to have this golden quarter to bring our Christmas season out in effect and have those bed nights at this time of year. From a bed night and tourism perspective, whilst other areas start to get into the quiet season, Halloween means we can extend the busy summer season and bridge it into the Christmas run-up.

Regarding infrastructure, we work closely with transport partners such as Translink to ensure additional services are available. Obviously, there are the logistics and things on the ground. We have road closures and additional parking that we make available. We have extensive traffic management and infrastructure management pieces that go on. As a Council coming out of the City of Culture, we invested heavily in major events meaning we have a dedicated festival and events team. We have specific resources within our marketing team to drive that message out there, and we are starting to see the benefits with successes at Halloween and the Foyle maritime festival.

We have built our reputation right across these islands for events of this scale and quality. We are second to none, and we hosted several unboxed events in the past year, with those coming here a testament to our investment and reputation.

Our Council’s events professionalism is something we did not have pre-2013. However, we have a formidable reputation for delivering high-quality events programmes following dedicated investment.

You referenced the impact of the pandemic. From your perspective and experience as Head of Culture, what are the key lessons and takeaways as we emerge from the pandemic? 

There were a lot of challenges, and as in any sector, we had to adapt very quickly. We moved a lot of events online, but we also had to adjust to ever-changing restrictions and keep a constant watch on what that looked like. This was the experience of every local authority, but we had to learn a lot and share a lot of information which required close working relationships with our partners.

For instance, Galway was designated to be the European City of Culture in 2020. In response to the pandemic, they adapted an innovative approach to deliver a culture programme as part of that year. We spoke with them and held several sessions about their experience to learn their takeaways. These conversations between local authorities were replicated right across these islands about how they were adapting.

So the key takeaway was the ability to adapt a significant part of our programming, and last year we extended our footprint for our awakening the walled city event. That was so successful we are going to continue it. Therefore, a key lesson from the pandemic was how we experimented with different things. Social distancing guidelines were a key example of what required a rethink of how we delivered events, and some of the solutions enhanced the experience.

A key example of this was the Christmas lights switch on. Before the pandemic, we followed a traditional format of hosting it in the guild hall and having a switch on in Strabane town. However, in response to the restrictions, we adjusted that to be a switch-on parade, with Santa parading, touring the town, and the city switching on the lights. We did that to facilitate more people and distance that out but after, we found it successful. People loved the parade, and they loved the way it worked. The event grew increasingly popular, and pre-pandemic, we were trying to find ways to get more people involved in the switch-on. Therefore, the Christmas parade was a real opportunity from the pandemic and the adjustments we had to make.

Finally, reflecting on the team, they rose to the occasion and adapted to help administrate the Council’s business support programmes and various other support roles.

Your answers above touched upon how your approach to events involves a degree of collaboration with other local authorities. How important are these working relationships for Derry and Strabane Council? 

There are several NI-wide events groups that we share information regularly with other Councils. Our ethos is that we are happy to communicate and work with anybody.

Finally, what is your personal highlight from all the events you have overseen in your role? 

Halloween, for me, is always a highlight. This city and district embraces Halloween like no other place in the world. It really is a special experience. The people of this city developed this event over 30 years ago, and as a local authority, we are the custodians of this event and programme it professionally. It is owned by the people here and made by the people here. That is what is so special about the experience. We are privileged to deliver an event of this scale and quality. We are not bringing an event to the people, we are curating this with the whole place here. That is what is unique about Halloween in Derry. It is always a highlight for us here, and we ensure it is a special experience for those who come here.

To get into the Halloween spirit yourself, check out Derry’s 2022 Halloween Programme or read Tourism Ireland to discover Halloween’s place in Irish mythology. 

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