by Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
Despite changing demographics and new generational preferences the filter for destination selection still pivots around crucial infrastructural categories like hotel, formal and informal venues and unique destination experiences. I recently re-visited Belfast and was hugely impressed by how far it has come as a MICE destination in a relatively short time.
At the European Cities Marketing (#ECM14) Conference hosted in the city under the highly professional eye of Anne Doherty of Happening Conference & Events, the ever ebullient, suave and debonair Gerry Lennon of the CVB shared how Belfast has strategically re-positioned itself following many years in the tourism wilderness:
We re-built our profile on three pillars: political stability, infrastructural investment and a zealous focus on marketing.
The infrastructural development is particularly pertinent to the meetings and events arena and over the past number of years some truly unique assets have been built.
Titanic Quarter and the Titanic Experience
On its website Titanic Quarter is described as “one of the world’s largest urban-waterfront regeneration projects”. Built on 185 acres this mixed development includes residential, retail, educational and tourist facilities with pride of place going to the Titanic Experience, a truly awesome visitor attraction the tells the story of Belfast as an industrial city along with the fascinating tale of the Titanic, built and launched in Belfast in the early twentieth century. The Titanic Experience is unique to Belfast and allows the city to piggy-back its own brand proposition on a powerful human story with universal emotional appeal. Housed in an iconic structure to echo the towering hull of a ship, the façade is finished in three thousand three-dimensional aluminium plates that glisten and sparkle in the subtle Belfast northern light. It’s an inspiring structure that symbolically conveys the city’s ambitious as a destination. Thankfully the designers provided for amble meetings and events space within the facility including space for Titanic inspired Gala dinner celebrations.
The Merchant Hotel
I first stayed at The Merchant soon after it opened as a hotel in the mid 00s. Originally constructed as the HQ for Ulster Bank way back in the late 1850s, the ediface is Italianate, typical of the early Victorian era, with sumptuous stucco interiors by local Belfast artisan George Crowe. In 2010 it underwent an elaborate extension which increased the guest room count to 67 and provided for meetings facilities and a luxury spa. The Merchant today endows central Belfast with a signature 5 star hotel experience to rival any city. The opulent Victorian banking hall interiors have been magnificently re-purposed as public spaces and the Victorian theme continues throughout the original, pre-extension guest rooms. The new wing is Art Deco and fine contemporary art curated by the Gormley Gallery hangs throughout.
Cathedral Quarter and St Anne’s Square
I enjoyed a whirlwind tour of Cathedral Quarter with Melita Williams of Bespoke Belfast, a boutique DMC offering exclusive experiences for business and leisure. Melita is Welsh but has a native-like passion for her adopted city and a highly cultured nose for sniffing out new and unusual hidden gems. First stop was Muriel’s, a gastro-pub and member of the World Gin Club, located in a former Milliner’s. It has a cluttered, shabby-chic interior with antique display cabinets. Knickers and Bras of various shapes and hues hang from clothes lines than criss-cross the ceiling. So now!
Next stop on Skipper Street, close to The Merchant, was The Spaniard, another tiny drinking emporium, this time specialising in Rum. There’s a Salvador Dali inspired corner here with colourful ephemera and bric-a-brac. Under the same ownership as Muriel’s the same eclectic style prevails here.
Around the corner, meanwhile, at The Duke of York, you can find the largest collection of Irish whiskeys on the island of Ireland including some very rare, and expensive, Dungourny. We had a nice chat with Karen Sheppard there who conducts tutored whiskey tastings and was recently featured in Vanity Fair magazine. The Duke of York hosted the first gig by mega-rockers, Snow Patrol, a fact record on the commemorative plaque outside the venue.
Close by St Anne’s Square houses a plethora of different style restaurants all with al fresco terraces. One part of the square is occupied by The Metropolitan Arts Centre, popularly known as The MAC, a flexible exhibition and performance space on several floors catering for up to 350. The MAC is a great edition to the city providing great space for events at a city centre location.
When you add these new visitor opportunities to the existing stock in the city – the iconic Europa Hotel – celebrating its twentieth anniversary under the ownership of the Hastings family in 2014 – and the magnificent custom-built Waterfront Hall – soon to receive a £30m extension – then it’s easy to understand why the city was able to attract such mega-MICE business as the World Police and Fire Games and the MTV Awards. And once these events opt for Belfast, success is guaranteed. MTV declared the Belfast edition to be their “best party ever” while WPFG2013 were described as “the friendliest games ever”.
Padraic Gilligan was in Belfast to attend the European Cities Marketing event. With his partner Patrick Delaney, Padraic is Managing Partner at SoolNua, a boutique consultancy offering marketing and training input for MICE.