John Simpson: Titanic Belfast on course to continue stunning success
The Titanic Belfast visitor centre is now recognised worldwide. The centre is one (and possibly the best known) of Northern Ireland's major tourist attractions, playing a critical role in telling the fascinating story of shipbuilding in Belfast against a background of the unfortunate, ill-fated maiden voyage of the passenger liner.
That ship was, at the time, a modern, high specification passenger luxury liner. It represented sea-going passenger services with a reputation that attracted contracts for generations of White Star liners as well as the series of Union Castle liners, the Canberra and, in wartime, major Royal Navy vessels.
The misfortunes of the Titanic are an emotional drama that is part of seafaring history.
The visitor centre has been an undoubted success. Each year, on a commercial basis, there have been more than 700,000 visitors, of whom over 80% travelled from places outside Northern Ireland.
Credit must go to the agencies which had the vision to appreciate the potential of such an investment.
The vision, the architecture and the marketing of Titanic have combined successfully.
The physical assets and the buildings are now in the care of the Titanic Foundation.
The operation of the assets is contracted to Titanic Belfast, a separate commercial business which holds a licence from the foundation.
Day to day, and year on year, success depends critically on the operational management by Titanic Belfast.
Each day on average over 2,000 people will visit the Titanic centre. It has quickly become a provider of a complex range of multi-sectoral businesses: a large professional exhibition, a learning centre, shops, cafes, conference centre, a location for major civic and commercial functions, as well as 'home' nearby to the Nomadic in its own dry dock.
The centre is a thriving illustration of a successful tourism and leisure industry.
Just to single out the critical role of the Titanic exhibition: this is an expertly presented reflection of the success and trials of the shipbuilding industry, particularly in the early years of the 20th century.
Visitors are reminded of the demanding working conditions for thousands of employees, the reliance on older engineering methods (including the infamous role of riveting the steel plates together) and the scale of the demands made on employees before the modern cranes of Samson and Goliath were invented.
The business trading as Titanic Belfast has a multi-million pound turnover, over £14m each year, and directly employs nearly 250 people.
Judith Owens, formerly director of operations, became chief executive in 2017, following the move of Tim Husbands to another post in the Irish tourist industry.
Mr Husbands has since moved on from his role as chief executive of Westport House and Hotel Westport in Co Mayo.
Titanic Belfast is trading profitably. In the year to March 2017, the latest details available, on a turnover of just short of £14m, post-tax profits before deduction of dividends were £1.4m.
The critical question for the Titanic centre is how it should ensure a sustainable continuing existence. How can the centre continue to attract visits by local people, and from where are more external visitors going to arrive? For local people, different events will attract recurring visits.
The slipways, exhibition space and special events must be part of an ambitious programme. For external visitors, the marketing appeal must extend on an international basis.
Judith Owens has an ambitious agenda. One ambition is to work in co-operation with Belfast Harbour Commissioners to improve the easy access for visitors on a short stay on the cruise liners which now bring thousands of visitors to Northern Ireland.
The planning of the special berth for cruise liners is an important development.
A further ambition is to attract to Belfast some of the now large numbers of Chinese visitors who are reaching this corner of Europe. Already, an exploratory visit to China has confirmed the increasing market expectations.
The Titanic centre has become a successful symbol for Northern Ireland's tourism.