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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

Day One: 07:35 – The Enterprise Train to Northern Ireland

I’m sitting in first class on the Enterprise Train that travels several times daily between Dublin and Belfast. I’ve just enjoyed a wonderful cooked breakfast served to me piping hot in my plush seat. My laptop is open as I type but also plugged in as there’s a socket in my seat along with high-speed broadband.

Nearby there are folks from India, Mexico, the US and Ireland. They too have all partaken of the early morning repast delivered with no drop spilt by super-skilled serving staff who know the strange rhythms of the railway. It’s early morning so folks aren’t saying too much but from the posts on Twitter and Facebook I know these guys are already super-impressed.

We’re on our way to Belfast, the 2nd largest city on the island of Ireland. We all know each other as we’re fellow directors and trustees of SITE and the SITE Foundation, the global organisation dedicated to telling the story about incentive travel and the business results that it brings.

12:30 – City Hall & Titanic

Earlier we met the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Alderman Brian Kingston and I saw Rajeev, SITE’s current president, gaze enviously at his golden chain of office. All we have at SITE to acknowledge our leadership is a plastic name badge and a wooden gavel.

 

At Titanic we were transported back more than 100 years and had our picture taken on a replica of the original Grand Staircase that features so prominently in James Cameron’s movie. We were given an abbreviated tour of the facility by Ellen who narrated the ill fated ship’s story so dramatically that grown men were reduced to tears.

Right now our lunch is being hosted by Tim, Laura and Victoria and served in The Bridge one of six function spaces available for private hire. The Titanic Suite, which includes the Grand Staircase, can accommodate up to 580 for a Gala Dinner, or 800 for a stand-up function. This place is certainly Incentive-ready.

16:00 – QUB and The Crum

Locals know that QUB stands for Queen’s University Belfast. It’s a stunning period campus designed by Charles Lanyon, a key architect of Belfast’s Victorian period. You can organise a stunning Gala dinner there for 150 guests under wood panelled walls featuring colourful portraits of alumni and former professors. The late, great Seamus Heaney, nobel laureate, is amongst those who look down upon you.

 

But now we’re in The Crum aka Crumlin Road Gaol. This too was designed by Charles Lanyon. As a prison it has a grim past, witnessing the death by hanging of 17 men, the last as recently as 1961. The tale is told brilliantly by Eoin – or was it Brendan? He is utterly engaging – and at times hilarious – as he brings to life 150 years of prison life. They’re now staging events at the facility for up to 210 guests. You can even have your wedding there too – a brand new take on the age old prison tradition of the ball and chain!

00:00 – The Merchant and The Fitzwilliam, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Back in the room now as midnight chimes. There’s  a warm feeling in my heart and ringing in my ears. We started at 7pm with drinks on the rooftop of the 5 star Merchant, our stunning host hotel. We were joined by Bill and Petra, owners of the hotel and heard their compelling story.

Bill’s commitment to CSR is hugely impressive – he operates a rehabilitation programme for former prisoners, providing training programmes and jobs across his various hospitality outlets.  I wonder if any of them served in The Crum? Both Bill and Petra sing to us so we return the compliment with a truly global rendition of “American Pie”.

 

The Fitzwilliam, another jewel in Belfast’s crown, excels itself with a rooftop repast featuring locally sourced foods, notably venison from the Ards peninsula. Just when we think we’ve reached the dizzy heights of incentive perfection there’s another twist.

The lights go dim as John McGlynn and the awesome Anuna singers take their positions to perform 2 of Northern Ireland’s most magnificent melodies, “Oh Danny Boy” (aka “The Londonderry Air”) and “She Moved through the Fair”. John Iannini and yours truly get emotional for the 2nd time today!

Day Two: 9:00 – Ulster Folk & Transport Museum

Right now I’m sipping coffee in one of Logan’s super-luxury coaches. The indomitable Eimear is at the microphone. Since early yesterday AM she has been our guide and we’re well and truly hooked by an immensely articulate, highly entertaining and extraordinarily engaging road companion.

We’ve been to Belfast Waterfront, surely one of Europe’s most picturesque convention centres located on the water within strolling distance of the commercial heart of Belfast? It’s recently been extended and can now host up to 1000 delegates for a formal dinner.

We’ve also been all over the Ulster Folk Museum thanks to a thoroughly enjoyable treasure hunt devised by the team there. We walked back a 100 years to an era of blacksmiths, bobbys and basket weavers. We made drop scones on an open fire and bought bags of penny sweets.

 

As industry professionals we saw the endless potential of the facility and could imagine very large groups – thousands of participants – immersing themselves in the charming authenticity of the Folk Park.

12:00 – Tracey Jeffery, NIFoodTours

Local, authentic food is a key ingredient for any incentive travel experience and we are striking gold here with Tracey at her home on the Ards Peninsula. Tracey is a food tour guide and she’s hosting lunch for us in her traditional farmhouse cottage, located no more than 100m from the shores of Strangford Lough.

We learn to make soda and wheaten farls and also potato bread. We then eat the fresh bread along with the delicious chowder that Tracey has made. We lather the bread with 2 kinds of local butter, one of which has seaweed in it. Then we eat traditional tray bakes.

Simple perfection!

15:00 – #whereGOTstarted

It’s down to Melita Williams. Not just the super success of this trip but the fact that a significant percentage of my leisure time over the past year has been spent watching the 6 seasons of Game of Thrones.

Now we’re at Castle Ward aka Winterfell, one of the kingdoms of Westeros, the fantasy land in which GOT explores perennial themes like goodness, power, loyalty, greed, duplicity, lust, friendship, decency, revenge – to misquote Samuel Johnson “all Shakespeare is here”.

Andrew and his team  have created a veritable “must do” experience here that, strangely, doesn’t require any knowledge of the HBO series. Here we are in mediaeval cloaks with replica swords standing around blazing braziers, happy as 9 year olds. We could have arrived here by boat or by helicopter – budget permitting – and we could stay long past bedtime, drinking, singing and carrying on.

 17:00 – Hillsborough Castle

But we’re now returning to Belfast having stopped – as you do – for champagne at Hillsborough Castle, the official royal residence in Northern Ireland. There’s a highly ambitious project afoot there involving an investment of £20m. Meanwhile you can do afternoon teas there for groups and lunches and dinners. You can even treat your CEO to an overnight there but not in the Queen’s bedroom.

I’m a bit emotional again. Eimear has done her “finale”,  a dignified, magnificently paced reading of Seamus Heaney’s masterful poem “Digging”. It reminds me of my Dad and his Dad before him:

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man. …
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it

19:00 – Culloden

We didn’t linger at Caste Ward, of course, because we had “promises to keep … and miles to go before we sleep”. Our last night together was at the stately Culloden Estate & Spa, a former Bishop’s palace. As I lie awake writing this blogpost, I’m recalling a night of supreme hospitality and congeniality around a beautifully dressed table with amazing food talking about our time in Northern Ireland and declaring it to be the incentive world’s best kept secret.

I think in particular of Caitriona Lavery, Sales Manager extraordinaire at Hastings Hotels who has been evangelising the world about the delights of Northern Ireland since the early 90s. I wonder how she feels about being an overnight success after 25 years?

Pádraic Gilligan is a former global President of SITE and currently serves as a Trustee of the SITE Foundation. With his colleagues Patrick Delaney (another former global President of SITE) and Aoife McCrum (an enthusiastic SITE Young Leader) he runs SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations, hotels and venues on strategy, marketing and training.

This visit to Northern Ireland happened in conjunction with the SITE Executive Summit which took place in Dublin on 1st February. It could not have happened without the unstinting support of John McGrillen (CEO) of Tourism Northern Ireland. A cast of thousands deserves thanks for putting this all together but in thanking Joanne Taylor (Tourism Northern Ireland), Melita Williams (Bespoke Northern Ireland, our marvellous DMC “architect” of the event) and Ken Lyons (President SITE Ireland) I trust our gratitude will be passed down the lines to the respective players. I must, however, pay special tribute to Eimear Flanagan who guided us through millions of years of history taking us right back to the formation of the Giant’s Causeway, 65 million years ago. She took us effortlessly through the vicissitudes of time, bringing us truly face to face with a beautiful place. 

DISCUSS...

2 thoughts on “48 Hours in Northern Ireland: an unforgettable incentive experience

  1. Eileen Reed says:

    Padraic, splendid report of a clearly wonderful tour. I almost felt as though I was there with you. Thank you for the inspiring stories about Belfast.

    1. padraicino says:

      Thanks Eileen – it was a real labour of love. If you and Ron come here be sure to take some time in NI with Eimear as your guide!

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