Over 1,000 delegates from the small and medium sized business sector across the globe are meeting in Belfast today to discuss how to maintain their competitiveness in the current economic downturn.
They are attending the International Small Business Congress (ISBC) - being held in Ireland for the first time - and the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (ISBE) conferences.
Those at the four-day gatherings in the Europa Hotel represent the cream of SME practitioners, policymakers and academics.
Professor Ken O'Neill, Professor of Enterprise and Small Business Development at the University of Ulster, who is largely responsible for attracting the conferences to Northern Ireland, said: "There are many issues affecting SMEs in the current economic climate and this is the first opportunity for experts from the sector worldwide to meet and discuss the way forward.
"Delegates will be putting forward their views on how the financial institutions and the policy makers can help the sector weather the current economic storm.
"We have a distinguished list of keynote speakers who will bring their own expertise and experience to bear on the discussions."
Among those speaking at the conference are Padraic White, former managing director of the Industrial Development Authority in the Republic of Ireland; Graham Davis, Director of Regional Economic Development, Invest NI; Professor Jim Bell, Professor of International Business Entrepreneurship, University of Ulster and Aidan Gough, Director of Strategy & Policy, InterTradeIreland.
Cllr Michael Browne, Chair of Development at Belfast City Council, said he was delighted to welcome the conference to Belfast.
He said: "Small businesses are the cornerstone of our economy and through this event we aim to encourage discussion on the latest issues in small firm growth and development which is of increasing importance in our current economic climate."
He said the presence of the conference in Belfast displayed the international reputation the city possessed in attracting high-quality, world-renowned conferences.
Graham Davis, Invest NI's Director of Regional Economic Development, said: "Northern Ireland has a proud tradition of enterprise. It is crucial that our entrepreneurial ethos continues to grow and help generate a greater number of small and medium sized businesses that can contribute to the overall wealth of the economy."
The conferences provided a platform for discussions and learning about the latest and most effective practices in small business development around the world, he added.
Aidan Gough, Director, Strategy and Policy of InterTradeIreland, said: "The coming to Belfast of students, policymakers and most importantly practitioners of entrepreneurship from across this island and beyond at this time of economic uncertainty emphasises the critical importance of remaining focused on the core determinant of economic well-being - new firms and their development".