Does Northern Ireland have what it takes to tap into the rich vein of international conferencing? Jenny Burnside assesses our chances of winning a larger share of the business tourism market
The international conferencing and events scene is big business. The Financial Times, The Economist, leading trade organisations and the private sector are all spending big and earning bigger on the foot traffic they get to their exhibition spaces, keynote speeches and panel discussion sessions.
Besides being profitable, these events are also good for the organisers’ and speakers’ profiles, with many a statesman or businessman using their speech to unveil new business ideas, research or to make a political statement.
With the recent announcement of an extension to the conference facilities at Waterfront Hall and a concerted effort from the Northern Ireland Tourism Board to market us as somewhere for the business traveller as well as the leisure tourist, how is the province situated to compete?
Rachael Downing, a director at the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau (BVCB), says that business tourism accounts for around a third of all overnight stays in Belfast. Having gone from a very low base a decade ago, with overnight stays at around 190,000, we have seen relatively steady growth to 450,000. However, that figure is down from a 2008, pre-downturn peak, of 659,000.
Janice Gault, head of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, says it has so far been a tough first quarter.
One big conference attended by a couple of thousand delegates every month would go a long way to improving the hotel occupancy rates.
Generating more business footfall through business tourists and getting back up to that 2008 peak is a key strategic aim for the BVCB. A conference of around 500 delegates, who stay in hotels for three nights, is estimated to be worth around £750,000 to tourism.
Ms Downing adds that business tourists spend three times more than leisure visitors.
“Also, business tourism is not seasonal — it’s all-year round — so it helps to boost the local economy. There is also the potential that people will return here for a leisure trip.”
But what exactly are the challenges? With conference programmes now longer and more complicated — venues need to be able to accommodate several breakout sessions of a few hundred delegates at the same time and cater for large evening events — it seems our infrastructure needs a facelift.
Ms Downing says: “We are very proud to have a wide range of unique, purpose-built venues, and quality has never been a problem. But emerging trends have challenged our current infrastructure.”
With more than 15 years’ experience in high-profile event management, Lesley Maltman, of the Eventor, explains: “There is a lack of exhibition space within Northern Ireland's major conference venues and limited accommodation provision in some cities.
“The social programme element of conferences is strong but there is still a lack of venues for conference dinners for more than 800 people.”
The new extension to Waterfront Hall, which is due to be completed in 2016, will enable it to cater for bigger conferences and events.
Ms Downing says: “The Waterfront has contributed £300m spend to the local economy so far and it is anticipated that the conference facility will bring in £39m per year.”
Part of the appeal will also come from the Waterfront’s Belfast city centre location with it close proximity to transport and good-quality hotels.
Ms Maltman adds that Northern Ireland has a number of factors in its favour. “It is compact and easy to get around, the two Belfast airports offer good access to all parts of Northern Ireland, especially from the UK. That makes it easy from a logistical point of view for event organisers.”
Ms Maltman points out that a number of major events are taking place across Northern Ireland this year and next — including Derry-Londonderry City of Culture, the Titanic Festival, Clipper racing and the launch of the Giant’s Causeway visitors’ centre — which will generate publicity abroad and attract tourists, some of whom are likely to return to Northern Ireland at a later date for business or leisure.
Northern Ireland has to compete with the new Convention Centre Dublin (CCD), only 90 minutes’ drive away. The new CCD features an outstanding atrium, has a 2,000 seat auditorium, 4,500 square metres of exhibition space and dining facilities for 2,000. It is located just 20 minutes from Dublin airport.
However, Ms Downing is not fazed by CCD competition for international and European business. “Between 70 and 80% of our business is from the GB market, so that is where our focus is and there is good direct-flight access.”
Ms Downing continues: “Many conferences operate on a circuit of cities like Manchester and Birmingham, but now that there is a lot of focus on Belfast tourism and investment, and we have a bit of a curiosity factor, we are emerging as somewhere new and interesting to go, and that is the market where we think we have huge potential.”
Given the relatively long lead times in planning conferences, boosting business tourism via this route — and thereby helping to fill Northern Ireland’s coffers and its hotel beds — will need to be a long-term objective.
The latest bid on the BVCB’s books is currently 2021, with events for the Waterfront’s opening in 2016 now being booked and coordinated with a marketing plan.
The opening of the Titanic visitors’ centre will also provide a fitting venue for gala dinners and evening events.
The trick will be to sustain the cash flow and infrastructure investment surge now underway, in this difficult economy.
We need this infrastructural development to enable us to grow our tourism market beyond the UK — or we face being left behind by venues such as the CCD in years to come.