£29.5m Waterfront revamp will turn Belfast into conference player in premier league
Belfast's Waterfront Hall is to get a £29.5m extension with the aim of putting it on the world stage as a conference destination.
Tourism chiefs behind the planned development say it will allow Belfast to compete on a level playing field for conference business which brings in major revenue to the local hospitality industry.
The extension is planned to stretch from the existing building out to the edge of the River Lagan and will provide an additional 4,000sq metres of conference, exhibition and banqueting space for an extra 750 delegates. It will also include five new breakout rooms, each with the capacity for 200 people.
But it has been cleverly designed to allow people to continue to stroll along the river bank.
The new banqueting facilities will be able to hold 1,000 people – which will be one of the biggest such spaces in Northern Ireland along with Titanic Belfast.
Alan Clarke, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, said Belfast has been losing business in recent years because of a lack of exhibition space and conference facilities.
With business delegates spending on average three times what leisure visitors spend, he described attracting these big conferences as very important economically – particularly in view of the board's goal to double revenue from tourism to £1bn by 2020.
Lord Mayor Mairtin O'Muilleoir said the new facility will be a "sea change" for the city of Belfast.
"We have a wonderful team in Visit Belfast who go out around the world and sell tourists the attractions, but conferences are where the money is and we didn't have a dedicated conference space, so they have been fighting with one hand behind their back," he said.
"Now there is a level playing field. Now they have a world-class conference centre on the beautiful Lagan River able to accommodate conferences with up to 800 people.
"This is a red-letter day, a bonanza for the hotels, restaurants and tourist industry."
Gerry Lennon, chief executive of Visit Belfast, said the new facility will mean it will be able to reach into commercial areas previously unavailable to it.
"This project will allow the Waterfront Hall and Belfast to enter a whole new market, the international conference market," he said.
"We are confident that Belfast can move from where we are to get to by 2020 into the top 100 conference destinations in the world. The impact of that in terms of the economy will be huge," said Mr Lennon.
The extension will be funded with £14.5m from the European Regional Development Fund, £11m from Belfast City Council and £4m from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
Construction is expected to start this summer and be finished by December 2015, creating up to 400 construction jobs.
The Waterfront Hall was opened in 1997 and at the time transformed Lanyon Place into a thriving new area of the city centre.