by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
[THIS IS PART 2 OF A TWO PART DESTINATION BLOG ON BELFAST]
When Patrick and I started Delaney Marketing Consultants back in the early 90s our sales trips to the US usually involved a tale or two. One story, which became our unique selling proposition, involved our 10 children:
“You better give us the business” we’d claim, “as you don’t want to have it on your conscience that 10 tiny mites went without breakfast cereal”.
If it didn’t always get the business at least it usually got a laugh.
Another story, not so easy to tell, and certainly not at all funny, involved Belfast’s troubled times and the residual resistance in the US to confirm business to Ireland based on what was relayed on TV screens there.
“What’s going on there?” they’d ask “how could it be safe to bring an incentive group to a country where people are killing each other?”
The best I can say about our response – to my eternal shame – was that it was evangelical, falling somewhere in the middle between the one about Pontius Pilot washing his hands of all guilt in the matter of association with Jesus’ crucifixion and the one about the cock crowing three times to signal Peter’s denial of Him.
“That’s a different country” we’d intone “it’s as far from Killarney to Barcelona as it is to Belfast”.
Our visit to Belfast last week brought us back to those early years principally for the fact that, to quote Yeats from not entirely dissimilar circumstances, “All’s changed, changed utterly”. It set us thinking about Belfast as a MICE destination and about what story we might tell now if we were visiting meetings and incentive agents in North America. For when you consider the city and how it has grown and developed in recent years there are many stories that could be told, many “positionings” that would set it apart from its competitors, many unique reasons why you might want to hold your meeting or event there.
Belfast – a city on the water
Belfast’s geographical location as a city on the water is deeply embedded in her past and is now emerging again as the city continues to define itself and refine its identity. The ambitious investment in the re-generation of the port area – now the Titanic Quarter – links the city’s past, present and future with the creation of an iconic visitor attraction located right on the water’s edge. With beautiful irony it presents Belfast over 100 years ago as a bourgeoning, bustling coastal town to congregations of national and international tourists whose very presence in the city today is driving a renaissance in this economic prosperity.
Still in the port area the purpose built Waterfront Hall has recently been approved for a £30 million extension. This will add much needed additional space for banqueting and exhibitions and allow the city compete for bigger conferences and events. The upgrading of the facility will be complete by 2016 and will integrate the convention centre and the adjacent Hilton hotel creating a seamless delegate experience.
Work is also being carried out on Belfast Lough to improve berthing facilities for the increasing number of cruise ships that are now including the port on their voyages. The ease of access for cruise visitors to a growing array of attractions in the immediate port area strengthens the impact of Belfast’s story. So Belfast is a port city, inextricably connected to the water and with such a strong tradition in shipbuilding that the most famous ship ever launched was built there. As they all say in Belfast “She was grand when she left here”.
Belfast – the peace dividend
In Spring 2014 we were reminded that the “troubles” hadn’t quite gone away. Demonstrations over the right to fly certain flags brought trouble to the streets again and, for a while, we wondered were we back in the 80s again? Thankfully good sense prevailed and, spurred on by VisitBelfast’s highly creative “Backin’Belfast” social media campaign – which generated over 20m Twitter impressions – soon the pubs, restaurants and venues were buzzing again.
There are two points to be made here – first, the “troubles” are part of Belfast’s story and cannot or should not be denied. The main plotline of this story, which involves extraordinary risk taking in the name of peace by the leadership on both sides, must be highlighted. The occasional distracting sub-plots involving flags and marches must never be allowed to prevail over such a powerful over-arching narrative. What we have politically and socially in Belfast today could not have been dreamed of 20 years ago. We must never forget this.
The second point is the “troubles” are an intriguing, fascinating part of Belfast’s story that visitors want to hear about. The “Black Taxi” tours have prospered on this fact and, in the process, have given the city a very unique visitor attraction. The recent re-opening of Crumlin Road Gaol as a visitor attraction adds another, compelling chapter to this story. Let’s hope the renovation of the Court House, located directly across the road from the Gaol and linked to it by subterranean tunnel, can shortly add another twist to the unfolding plot.
Belfast – a hipsters haven
A third emerging story for Belfast fuses the industrial and conflict elements to create a multi-layered, buzzy, edgy place with strong appeal to Gen Y travellers who want to feel a destination, not just see it. This is evident all over the city, no less so than the Cathedral district where you’ll find more bona fide hipsters than in Shoreditch or Brooklyn. There’s a vibrant confidence about the place with new restaurants, cafes and hang-out spots popping up all the time. Melita Williams of Bespoke Northern Ireland met Patrick and I for breakfast at Harlem Café (an uber-cool spot next to the Ulster Hall) and gave us a great update on what’s new around the city. The highly successful HBO series, Game of Thrones, is principally filmed at Titanic Studios in Belfast and is spearheading a veritable explosion of what Melita termed “Screen Tourism” that will make Belfast “the Hollywood of Europe. Already Titanic Studios has been extended by another 100,000 square feet and the city is projecting a return of almost £300m on its original £30m investment.
Amongst the new places to eat in the city Melita highlighted Shiro Restaurant, Ox, The Dirty Onion, The National, Saphyre and Shu. She also told us about new micro-breweries that are opening and advised us to seek out Shortcross Gin, Northern Ireland’s first premium craft gin. Besides the obvious culinary merits of these establishments all have great websites indicating a clear understanding of how customers make choices today.
Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner with Patrick Delaney at SoolNua, a boutique consultancy offering marketing and training for the MICE sector.
Patrick and Pádraic would like to thank many people for making them so welcome in Belfast over 24 hours last week – Caitriona Lavery and James Mc Ginn at the Europa Hotel (Hastings Hotel Group), our friend and former MCI / Ovation colleague Lesley Maltman of The Eventor, Gerry Lennon and Rachael McGuickin at Visit Belfast, Melita Williams of Bespoke Northern Ireland, Laura Cowan and Victoria Beatty, former colleagues at Ovation Northern Ireland, now at the Titanic Belfast.