by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
[THIS IS PART ONE OF A TWO PART BLOG ON BELFAST]
Throughout our years with Ovation and MCI and now with SoolNua, Patrick and I have spoken at MICE events about destination selection or why certain destinations are so popular for meetings, incentives, conferences and events. While random subjectivity will always play a mysterious and mischievous role in selection – for example, the CEO’s wife always wanted to go there – usually destinations are selected because they fulfil key criteria:
Geo-political stability (and health and safety)
Access (easy to get to)
Infrastructure (suitable hotels, venues, local transport)
Value for money
Range of visitor attractions
Mature and aligned local support structures (CVB, DMCs, PCOs etc)
There’s now a significant body of academic research that, happily, concurs with our own criteria although, interestingly, one study by Geoffrey Crouch and Jordan Louviere on the Australian convention market lists “quality of food” as the second most important reason for selecting one destination over another. So, obviously, the Aussies like their grub!
I was reminded of these criteria last week during a whirlwind 24 hour visit to Belfast. I was reminded, too, that at some stage in the evolution of a destination’s appeal there’s a tipping point when the efforts, toil and multiple frustrations of that uphill journey reach their peak and suddenly it gets easier. A destination can become an overnight success after 20 years of hard struggle and Belfast is at the cusp of that tipping point right now.
Here’s how improvements in infrastructure and in the range of visitor attractions have helped the city in its appeal as a MICE destination.
Hastings Group’s Europa Hotel has stood on Great Victoria Street for over 40 years and, perhaps more than any other structure, has witnessed the vicissitudes of Belfast’s march to destination prominence. It has been bombed 28 times but only closed its doors once to allow for an £8m investment by the Hastings family in the early nineties. The investment has continued apace and now the hotel boasts 272 guest rooms including 92 executive suites.
Always the innovator, Dr Howard Hastings OBE, Managing Director of the group has recently introduced an impressive food provenance campaign across the 6 hotels in the group with the tagline “Who made my breakfast?” An attractive booklet is provided alongside your breakfast menu providing details of the producers of everything from the Apple Juice (Philip and Helen Troughton) to the Porridge Oats (White’s Oat Mill). Each hotel also has its own herb garden.
Over the past 20 years many new hotels have sprung up in the vicinity of The Europa creating a significant cluster, suitable for hosting mid to large sized conferences. These include the Days Inn (250 guestrooms), the Park Inn (145 guestrooms) the Holiday Inn (170 guestrooms), Jury’s Inn (190 guestrooms) – all good 3 star properties – and the jazzy, design-driven Fitzwilliam Hotel with its funky retro telephones and trendy colour pallet of limes and chocolates in its bedrooms.
Also on Great Victoria Street, directly across the road from The Fitzwilliam is a hidden gem conference facility that can cater for up to 1000 delegates theatre style. The monumental Spires facility dates from the early 1900s and was built originally to house the Assembly Hall for the Presbyterian Congregation in Northern Ireland. The ground floor has now been mostly leased out as an attractive shopping mall – proving, perhaps, that God and Mammon can both be served – while the original Assembly Hall, the Minor Hall and countless additional breakout space remain as spotlessly clean, beautifully maintained meeting space.
This cluster of sleeping and meetings rooms offers mid sized conferences of 1000 delegates an efficient, very cost effective solution in a truly up and coming destination.
New Visitor Attractions
The famous Field of Dreams tagline “if you build it they will come” is surely proven with reference to Titanic Belfast, the multi-million pound investment that has gifted the city with a wonderful new visitor attraction while opening up an edgy new multi-purpose development site in the Belfast docklands. The visitor attraction is bringing in an average of 4000 visitors a day which ranks it amongst the top 5 sites on the island of Ireland after a mere 3 years in existence.
The facility was developed not only to tell the story of Belfast and its link to the most famous ship ever built but also to provide much needed additional venue space and capacity in the burgeoning city. It does this especially well with spectacular conference and banqueting suites, one of which replicates the famous staircase on the ship itself and caters for 580 banquet-style. You can hire the entire facility on a buy-out basis for 2000 guests.
Pat and I had a great catch-up over a sumptuous afternoon tea with former Ovation team members Laura Cowan, who now heads up the Business Sales at Titanic and her colleague Victoria Beatty. It was clear that Laura and Victoria had brought some of the Ovation events legacy to Titanic as they recalled some truly creative events that they helped to create with character actors and opera singers.
A more recent addition to the Belfast visitor attraction landscape, and certainly no less impressive, is the fully restored Crumlin Road Gaol, known locally as The Crum. Again the facility operates as a stand alone visitor attraction but also as a private venue with great meeting and event space. The facility served as a gaol right up to the mid 1990s and underwent considerable disfigurement over the decades as it adapted to twentieth century security requirements. It has now been restored to its original early Victorian splendor (if such terms can be used to describe a prison!) following the plans of Sir Charles Laynon, who also served as Chief Architect for Queen’s University, Belfast.
Pat and I took the guided tour with Brendan (on this adjacent picture that is not Patrick or I and the lady in the centre is not Brendan) whose commentary on 150 years of prison life was variously erudite, wry and emotionally engaging. He did a super job with a diverse group of local, national and international visitors, raising hairs on the back of your neck as he recounted the shocking barbarity of capital punishment, practiced at the goal as recently as 1961. He dealt with recent history sensitively and fairly never eschewing the funnier, more bizarre stories. As a venue it offers some great space for smaller meetings as well as a fine flexible space with balcony in what was formerly the prison chapel.
Titanic and The Crum are great additions to Belfast’s increasingly compelling story offering both unique insights into Belfast’s complex history and quality meetings and events space for meetings and dinners.
This is part 1 of a two part report on Belfast as a MICE destination. Read Padraic’s previous post on Belfast here
Padraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at Soolnua, a boutique agency helping destinations, hotels and venues to maximise their business from the lucrative MICE sector.