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Belfast Waterfront boss Toolan goes from one Olympian task to another

By Margaret Canning

Published 01/09/2016

Catherine Toolan at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast
Catherine Toolan at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast

An Irish businesswoman who fed tens of thousands of the world's greatest athletes at two Olympic Games will now be dishing out her delicacies to delegates at Belfast's premier conference centre.

As the new Waterfront Hall managing director, Catherine Toolan will earn a mouth-watering £100,000 - but is also expected to generate a whopping £100m for Belfast city over the next five years.

The Sligo woman will be leading a staff of 300 at the Waterfront, which recently unveiled a controversial convention centre, as well as the Ulster Hall.

As the Waterfront Hall continues to attract thousands of delegates to international conferences in Belfast, Catherine will be falling back on her experience of catering for around 16,000 athletes and 10,000 officials at the Beijing Olympics of 2008 and the 2012 London Games.

For the last 10 years, Ms Toolan has been managing director of international catering giant Aramark's special projects.

The job meant providing the food for the Beijing and London Games, although she was involved only in the early stages of last month's Rio Olympics.

"On a peak day at the London Olympics, we were preparing 100,000 meals," she said.

"That makes it the biggest peace-time catering operation in the world.

"And while that's on a much larger scale than the Waterfront catering, the principles are the same. It's about good planning, good infrastructure and having the right people in the right place at the right time."

The Waterfront has a capacity of 2,000 delegates and this week has been hosting 1,500 animal science delegates for the annual meeting of the European Federation of Animal Science.

And last month, it hosted the World Credit Union Conference, which attracted 2,000 people.

The Waterfront reopened this year after a £29.5m refit and extension - but the box-like shape of the new conference centre did not meet with universally positive reviews.

The centre, designed by Todd Architects, has been dubbed the Box on the Docks and the Sore on the Shore. But Catherine, a graduate of Galway Institute of Technology, University College Dublin, and Tsinghua University in Beijing, said that feedback from those visiting the centre had been good.

"Architecture and buildings can pose questions and challenges for some people, but I personally think it works really well," she added. "So far, we've had really good feedback from delegates and clients about the capabilities of the venues and the city as a whole.

"People are surprised at how friendly and exuberant it is."

And she said the city centre location of the Waterfront Hall was also impressing delegates. "If you're used to larger convention centres in the US, they are normally huge big spaces outside city centres," Ms Toolan explained. "But we are in the city centre in a great location in a building that stands out."

And while she is currently staying in a serviced apartment in the city centre, Ms Toolan said she was on the hunt for a new home in Belfast. In the meantime, she is enjoying the city's cultural attractions.

"I am a great fan of theatre and drama, and with the MAC and the Lyric theatres, there's a very vibrant scene in Belfast," she said. "And the big benefit of now living in one place, instead of travelling all the time, as I was before, is that I'm able to enjoy that."

Belfast Telegraph

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