A distinct destination

After 12 years of peace and stability, tourism to Northern Ireland is at last flourishing. Investment in the infrastructure of Belfast and elsewhere has been huge and impressive, benefiting both the leisure and business tourism markets. 
 
Venues are stunning, the craic is as good as it ever was and the message is going out to associations based both in Britain and abroad that the time is ripe to invite their members to share the experience. A good start has been made but winning more prestigious conferences will raise the country’s profile even further and help boost the economy.

Changing minds
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board is determined to change any negative perceptions of the North that might still linger, especially overseas. 
 
“Northern Ireland is one of the safest regions in the world, according to UN figures on crime rates,” says Claire Summers, manager of the Belfast Visitor & Convention Bureau. 
 
“Those who work in tourism, and the general population as a whole, are determined to maintain the peaceful progress that has benefited the region in recent years.” 
 
Lesley Maltman has been a Belfast-based conference organiser for 15 years, working with clients in Europe and the UK as well as locally. She represents PCOs (professional conference organisers) on the board of the convention bureau and is about to finish a two-year stint as chair of the Association of British Professional Conference Organisers. She has a broad perspective, therefore, on the region’s status as an international convention destination.
 
Maltman regards the opening in 1997 of Belfast Waterfront, the purpose-built conference and performance centre constructed while the peace process was underway, as a turning point: “But it is really in the last four or five years that the change has been phenomenal.” 
 
She describes the great ‘Team Belfast spirit’ whereby venues, PCOs, hotels and the bureau all work together: “Their leap of faith is paying off and the number of bids for events is increasing. Money is being put into familiarisation trips so people can see for themselves and once they come they’re converted.” 
 
The bureau also operates a conference ambassador programme which helps bring high-profile events to the city.

Events past and present
The main market is the UK but Belfast has hosted some interesting, if eclectic, international events in recent years. They include the World Health Organization’s International Healthy Cities Conference in 2003, the World Toilet Summit in 2005 and the World Congress of the International Association of Youth & Family Judges & Magistrates in 2006. Of the last one, Maltman says the attendance over 500 from across the globe far exceeded their expectations.
 
This year, the annual conferences of the International Peat Society and the Inner Wheel Associations of UK & Ireland were held in April. At the end of July, Sister Cities International will hold its annual conference for the first time outside the USA, with the title ‘Building Enduring Peace After Conflict’, and the Irish Society for Rheumatology meets in September.
 
Next year sees the British Psychology Society Annual Conference in Belfast and, in 2011, the city hosts the International Conference of Photonic, Electronic & Atomic Collisions. 
 
There will be great excitement in 2013 when some 20,000 participants and visitors are anticipated at the World Police & Fire Games, the first time the event comes to Britain. The successful bid, led by Dame Mary Peters, was put together by Belfast City Council and various Northern Ireland organisations and police and fire services. The spin-off by way of revenue and future conferences and events should be tremendous.
 
These bids were all won before the economic crisis. Now there are even more reasons why British and overseas organisations should consider Northern Ireland.

Stretching budgets further
With increased pressure in GB to tighten budgets and stay close to home, Belfast fits the bill perfectly as it is on the doorstep, keeping travel costs and travel times to a minimum. No exchange rate or currency fluctuations to worry about and, with day delegate rates starting at £25 per person, prices are incredibly competitive.
 
Overseas associations looking for something different have the advantage of the weak pound so there’s no time like the present to sign a deal with a venue. Even clients in the Republic of Ireland are heading north for a good return on their euros.
 
With confidence at such a high level, Northern Ireland can cash in on its many unique selling points. For a start, there’s the curiosity factor about a destination that is still relatively untapped. There is the political history, which makes cities such as Belfast and Derry so fascinating, Belfast’s maritime legacy and the Irish warmth and culture that differentiate it from anywhere else on the planet. 
 
Above all, the breathtaking scenery and dramatic coastline are legendary. The Majestic Mourne Mountains, the mythological Glens of Antrim and Giant’s Causeway and tranquil Fermanagh Lakelands are wonderful options for social programmes, delegate partners’ visits or pre- and post-conference tours. Golf is a big attraction and two of the world’s top-ten links courses, the Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, are in Northern Ireland.

The hub of the action
While smaller groups, particularly those holding corporate meetings, may opt for the solitude of a charming rural venue, larger associations choose Belfast not only because it’s the capital but it has also the accommodation and amenities they need without any additional travelling.
 
As Claire Summers says: “Despite its city status, Belfast often feels more like a big town. It’s welcoming, not overbearing and very compact. Many venues are within walking distance of the main accommodation and city centre and nothing is more than a ten-minute taxi ride away.”
 
Access is easy, too, she explains. “Belfast has nearly two of everything. Two airports with connections to all the main and regional UK airports and many European routes; two train stations connecting Belfast to Dublin and outlying areas and two ferry ports with services to Scotland and the North of England.
 
“Many flights are offered from the UK by low-cost airlines and an increasing number of flights are offered from continental Europe by the likes of easyJet, Aer Lingus and Jet2.”

Unique venues
Significant investment in the business and leisure tourism sector is offering conference organisers a whole host of new hotels – room numbers have trebled in the past decade – as well as venues, restaurants and ideas for social programmes. Over 3,000 hotel rooms of different standards are complemented by 2,700 rooms available out of term-time in academic venues, always useful for conferences with a wide mix of participants.
 
Of the major venues, the Belfast Waterfront continues to be rated in the world top ten by the International Association of Conference Centres (AIPC). Its stunning architecture has turned it into a shining landmark on the River Lagan and, as a multi-purpose centre, it is in such demand for both concerts and conferences there is talk now of expansion. The main tiered auditorium seats 2,223 and there is a Studio for up to 380 people, plus 14 meeting rooms, exhibition facilities, bars and restaurants. Since 1997, the centre has hosted more than 2,000 national and international conferences and staged more than 3,400 arts and entertainment events.

The huge Odyssey Arena stands proud beside the shipyards that built the Titanic. Used for major sporting events and concerts, its flexible seating configuration means it can also be adapted for events in the big league, anything from 3,000 to 8,500 delegates.
 
The W5 at Odyssey is a hands-on centre for discovery, technology and science and serves as a contemporary conference venue for up to 250 people. In addition, the Institute of Electronics, Communications & Information Technology of Queens University Belfast offers modern meeting spaces in the nearby Northern Ireland Science Park, aligned with the business and projects being developed there. 
 
The dockland area, now dubbed the Titanic Quarter, will continue to undergo massive development. The largest project of its kind in Europe, it will mix waterfront residences with hotels, restaurants, bars and leisure facilities and, quite likely, another new conference centre. In the meantime, visitors will flock there in 2012 for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

Iconic buildings
This year sees the welcome return of some of Belfast’s iconic buildings, such as the opulent Ulster Hall, which opened in March. The home of the Ulster Orchestra, it offers meeting spaces for 1,000 in the main hall to 100 in the more intimate Group Theatre.
 
Belfast City Hall will reopen in September after a multi-million-pound refit and once again be a special venue for gala evenings and Lord Mayor’s receptions. Ulster Museum will also reopen in the autumn, offering meeting and event space in the lovely grounds of the Botanic Gardens. 
 
Other options include the Old Museum Arts Centre, which has a 90-seat theatre and further space for social functions, or Queen’s University which can seat 1,250.
 
Among the international-chain hotels with conference facilities are the Ramada, which has a conference room for 900, the Radisson Blu and the Hilton, conveniently situated next door to the Waterfront.
 
Hastings Hotels
Hastings Hotels is an independent, locally owned group that operates six hotels across Northern Ireland. In Belfast, the Hastings Europa Hotel, famous as the most bombed hotel in Europe, opened a state-of-the-art conference and exhibition centre last year with 515 sq m of flexible floor space. The ballroom in the main 272-room hotel is always popular among associations for gala dinners and award ceremonies. Hastings Stormont Hotel, near the parliament, is adding 30 bedrooms to the existing 110 and has a conference capacity of 500 maximum.
 
Hastings owns the luxury Culloden Estate & Spa, which is only five miles from Belfast city centre. It has eight purpose-built conference suites and a total conference capacity of 1,000. Also out of town, the Great Hall at exclusive Galgorm Resort & Spa comprises 600 sq m of space over two floors with capacity for 500. 

Historic Derry
The historic walled city of Derry would be the main alternative to Belfast for smaller association meetings. It has an airport with UK connections and several convention hotels, including the four-star Hastings Everglades and City Hotel Derry. 
 
The Millennium Forum is an excellent venue as the theatre can seat up to 1,020 delegates or be reconfigured for theatre-style meetings or exhibitions – both the ceiling and the floor are moveable. In addition, 21 function rooms provide handy break-out and office space.
 
The Business Tourism Unit of Tourism Ireland, which promotes both countries, North and South, has plenty to smile about when selling Northern Ireland to potential association clients. There is no lack of professionalism, the infrastructure is growing and extra funding may be available to help bring in valuable large-scale meetings. 

For more information
To find out more log on to 
www.irelandinspires.co.uk or 
www.belfastconventionbureau.com

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