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Conferencing has still got plenty of room for growth

By Janice Gault, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation

The conference market is a real opportunity for the hotel sector as delegates tend to gravitate towards hotels for accommodation, breakout events and ancillary activity.

Many properties, particularly those in larger cities, have invested heavily in space to facilitate this market.

Several hotel properties can stage an entire conference in-house, providing bedrooms, exhibition space, breakout rooms and a food and beverage solution.

Conferences are part of what the hotel industry calls the M ICE sector: meetings, incentive, conferences and events. Business visitors who fall into the conferencing element of this sector tend to visit in numbers and spend up to £488 per day.

Their economic contribution can be considerable. Recent investment in the Waterfront, which is open just over a year, has resulted in the growth of the conference market in Belfast.

In its first year of trading, the venue contributed around 50,000 delegate nights in the city with an overall economic return of some £21m.

It is important to note that not all the benefits of a conference are confined to its primary site. Delegates often add on a leisure break as part of their trip or the conference programme may include a visit to a site of interest outside the host city.

Many run partner programmes which offer a region-wide itinerary.

Another reason why the meetings and conferencing element of this sector is so appealing is that it tends to take place during the week.

Leisure breaks and holidays are more weekend-orientated. A mix of both markets is the perfect blend for the accommodation sector.

In recent times, there have been reports of considerable expansion in the hotel sector. Much of this activity is concentrated in Belfast where 1,500 bedrooms are likely to be on stream by 2019.

The hotels in the city are relying on the conferencing market to fill rooms during the week and attract a wider business audience.

The majority of the new developments are in the four-star market with a definite eye on the conferencing and business market.

This is a sector that hotels are keen to see expand and its growth is imperative to the continuing success of the hotel sector in Northern Ireland.

Official statistics indicate that this market has not grown significantly in recent years.

It would benefit from increased promotion and dedicated marketing activity to ensure that it grows to meet an expanded hotel market.

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