Titanic Quarter: Unsinkable adventure
Titanic Quarter has witnessed one of the most dramatic transformations of any area in Belfast. Rebecca Kincade speaks to the CEO of one of its flagship projects
As I sat in the Titanic Quarter office waiting to interview the new CEO of Titanic Belfast, Tim Husbands, the ever-present sound of construction on the nearby iconic structure was as effective as a ticking clock in serving as a reminder that time is moving quickly towards the April 2012 launch date.
The building is already the stand-out project of the regeneration of the Titanic Quarter, eye catching for its angular features and state-of-the-art exterior. At twice the size of the City Hall, this building was always destined to make an impact on its surrounding landscape, just as the project itself is intended to make an impact on tourism in Northern Ireland.
Although based in the Titanic Quarter, Titanic Belfast is an extension of the city centre and will, economically, affect the whole city.
Mr Husbands is charged with making this venture a commercial success.
He is no stranger to negotiating the launch of similar projects, having served as MD of the Waterfront Hall for 16 years from its inception. In 2009, Mr Husbands took up the post of head of city events and venues, taking the lead in the delivery of all major events in Belfast, including the Tall Ships Festival and securing the MTV Music Awards for the City in November 2011.
Originally from England, Mr Husbands has travelled widely throughout the UK to fulfil his career ambitions, with positions in London and Edinburgh secured early, prior to his move across the water. Twenty years of living in Northern Ireland has seen him very much settled, and he states that he has now been adopted as a local.
Mr Husbands took up his post of CEO at the beginning of July, with nine months to go until the launch of the project.
“On a day-to-day basis I will have a team of around 50-60 full-time staff. I will have a full overview of roles on this project and although there is no job description for my position. I know that it is my job to make sure this project is a success.”
The project has received funding of £97m from a range of stakeholders, and the success that Mr Husbands speaks of comes with daunting targets. They are aiming for 400,000 annual visitors, of which 150,000 should be from outside NI. With their “business end”, the largest banqueting facilities in Northern Ireland which has capacity for 1,000 people, they are hoping to secure in the region of 190 events each year.
These facts and figures would certainly have some losing sleep, however, Mr Husbands assured me that at this stage he was excited and just a little bit nervous, enough to make sure that everyone was working to the best of their ability.
“Everyone is very supportive – both financially and strategically. It has been a real team effort by Belfast City Council, Belfast Harbour, NITB and Tourism Ireland to maximise the project’s potential. We have a real opportunity here, and I believe that it is Belfast’s time to reach world-class standards. At the moment Titanic is the second most well-known brand after Coca Cola, so we have a real opportunity here to tap into this market.”
Titanic Belfast will take each visitor on an interactive journey from Boomtown Belfast, through to Titanic Beneath, which will have live feeds to Professor Ballard’s expeditions to the wreckage and his other ongoing ocean explorations. It will encourage people to interpret the story for themselves.
“The Titanic story really draws you in. It is essentially a human story about the people who built the ship and those passengers and crew who were on board. The main draw is the authenticity of Titanic Belfast.
“The venue is built on the site where Titanic was constructed, designed and launched and no where else can claim that. It is fully state of the art with aspects of the ship interwoven throughout.”
While critics have been quick to question the longevity of this project, Mr Husbands recognises that one of his challenges in this role will be to make sure that there is room for it to evolve over time.
“We will be striving to keep Titanic Belfast fresh so that people who return five or six years down the line will have something new to add to their experience.
“Our temporary gallery will change every four weeks and our slipways, when completed, will offer a fantastic outdoor space for major promoters.”
With huge interest already in the construction and imminent completion, Mr Husbands has been reassured by the number of solid enquiries and overall reaction to the project.
“We have already had 97 international journalists enquiring about Titanic Belfast and our own BBC and UTV have covered the processes which have brought us to this stage. There is huge interest from the Far East and China, so we will be looking at raising our profile over there to tap into that potential business.”
As Mr Husbands’ plans take shape he will be seeking to achieve maximum international awareness, while at the same time working within our own domestic and local markets to make sure they reach their target number of visitors.
“We are working with Tourism Ireland, who are handling our marketing across the world.
“We have been working on our social media, attending trade fairs and looking at the cruise ship market, while at the same time raising the profile within Northern Ireland with Titanic ambassadors who will be speaking to communities on a one-to-one basis.
“What we do have to ensure is that the city looks after these tourists when they arrive.”
What was apparent from our conversation was that Mr Husbands was delighted with the project so far.
With everything progressing on time, and on budget, he was even looking forward to a bit of a luxury as construction is due to complete two months prior to the launch events, giving him long enough to work out any teething problems.
As I left, Mr Husbands was about to jet off on his last holiday for the foreseeable future.
But I could tell from his enthusiasm that even while away his mind will be full of ideas about how to make sure that this Titanic project succeeds, not just for himself but for Northern Ireland tourism as a whole.