Belfast must make a stand
As Convention Centre Dublin celebrates its first anniversary, the spotlight is on business tourism in Northern Ireland. Rebecca Kincade spoke to the experts to identify the province’s potential and establish the Government’s role
In June of this year Belfast played host to the international World Seed Congress, which saw more than 1,400 delegates arriving from 61 countries around the world. The three-day conference, which was held at the Waterfront Hall, St George’s Market, Custom House Square, the King’s Hall and the Hilton, was a prestigious international event which in previous years has been hosted by cities of the calibre of Berlin, Prague and Copenhagen. It is estimated that during the conference Northern Ireland benefitted to the tune of more than £1.6m in revenue, with 4,200 bed nights across the city.
Anne Doherty, managing director of Happening Conferences and Events which organised the congress, said: “Northern Ireland is recognised as a top tourist destination in its own right, with a deserved reputation for hospitality, history and tradition, and some of the world’s finest scenery and golf courses.”
While the conference itself was a success, the organisers found that they faced a number of issues, which highlighted that the city is not ideal for events of this scale.
“We had problems with the numbers that the Waterfront could cater for and when we were using St George’s market as a trading floor we had serious limitations with both the set-up time and the lurking smell of fish. We also had a large marquee constructed in Custom House Square to cope with the numbers which was very costly.”
Due to the lack of suitable space, Ms Doherty feels that Northern Ireland is not in a position to stand out on the national and international conference market.
“Belfast needs a venue, which can provide extensive space on one site so that we can compete with the likes of the convention centres in Dublin and Liverpool.”
Adrian McLaughlin, general manager of The Merchant Hotel, regularly hosts conference delegates from all over the world. He also believes that a large exhibition centre would be welcomed by decision makers, not only in order to facilitate large delegate numbers but also in order to generate greater revenue.
“Greater exhibition space offers the organisers valuable revenue streams by way of increased product sales stands. This can be the difference between profit and loss and is becoming more and more important for conferences,” he said.
Mr McLaughlin, however, has been reassured by the efforts already being made by Belfast City Council, which is in the process of evaluating an exciting project for central Belfast, having identified this gap in the business tourism market.
Janice Gault, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, believes that a large number of factors have played against the business tourism sector over the past five years, and that more needs to be done in order to secure Northern Ireland as a major player in the international market.
“Although Northern Ireland has a lot to offer international conferences, the number of conferences we have attracted has actually fallen in recent years with increased competition, the CCD in Dublin and less conferences taking place in general. At the NIHF we believe that a large-scale conference venue would be a real investment.”
MCI is an event management company with offices all over the world and fully understand what it takes to attract business tourism on an international level. Dawn Wilson, account director, MCI Belfast, is optimistic about what Northern Ireland has to offer, acknowledging that it has developed significantly as a destination for conferences of all sizes.
“Our clients are repeatedly impressed by Belfast. I believe Northern Ireland does have sufficient conference facilities to host major events. However, congress business will often involve large numbers of delegates, upwards of 1,000 people. “While we have venues which can accommodate the meeting needs, there are few venues in Northern Ireland which can accommodate diners in excess of 500 people.”
For Ms Wilson, investment in this area is crucial as business tourism can often provide a very lucrative source of return customers. “Research has shown that business tourists are four times more likely to re-visit a destination than leisure tourists. It is vital that the Government invests time and resources in further developing our conference offerings in terms of integrated exhibition-meeting space and overall capacities,” she said.
The Northern Ireland Tourism Board and its close partners at the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau are both confident that Northern Ireland is taking clear steps to improve itself for events of this nature. Susie McCullough, director of marketing and events, NITB, said: “We would argue that both local and national government are investing in this area. Belfast City Council developed the Waterfront Hall, which is now one of the best venues in the world, the £97m Titanic Northern Ireland building will open next year with considerable public finance which will provide an events and banqueting venue for up to 1,000 guests as well as offering an authentic and unique visitor experience.
“A destination has to be able to offer a mix of public/private, small/large, purpose built/|unique and unusual venues to succeed and Northern Ireland has developed a proven record of being able to host top-class events and conferences.”
Bridgene McKeever, group sales and marketing manager at McKeever Hotels, said around 40% of the hotel's trade comes from business tourism and although spend per person has fallen, it remains busy. “If the economy turns around we should see things pick up again in the near future,” she said.
While there is clearly a call throughout the industry for further investment to improve the facilities we have to offer, there is no doubt that steps have been taken over the past five years to raise the profile of Northern Ireland as a conference destination.
Theresa Morrissey, financial and commercial director at the King’s Hall Complex, struck a more cautious note.
“The economic downturn has had a significant impact on the conference and events industry. I believe that the industry will continue to operate in this challenging environment for some time.”
She said the industry’s booking cycle means that it entered and emerged from economic downturns later than other sectors.
“We have seen a decline in a number of consumer exhibitions, particularly those focusing on luxury items and property. “Organisers are now more conscious of their budgetary constraints and seek to reduce length of tenancy, size of space and services consumed.
“However the King’s Hall Complex is optimistic about the future and can confirm that the number of visitors attending events at the complex has been quite resilient despite the economic climate.
“We are keen to add extra value through providing marketing opportunities. As organisers become more risk adverse we are willing to consider joint venture projects, sharing the risk and inputting our professional skills.”
As other cities make improvements and raise the bar, it will now be up to the Government and other bodies to ensure that Belfast can hold its own in this competitive market.