Belfast Telegraph

Waterfront Hall chief Catherine Toolan: My parents may have wanted me to be a teacher... but I was no angel and made my own way

The Big Interview

By John Mulgrew

Catherine Toolan has already catered for thousands of the world's top athletes during two Olympic Games and climbed part of Everest.

Now, the Sligo woman is hoping to turn the Waterfront Hall and Ulster Hall into a profitable business in the next three to five years, and in the process to break free from its council funding.

She's been with the organisation as managing director for around a year-and-a-half.

And Catherine has also worked in some of Paris's top restaurants in her years within the events and hospitality sector.

She's from a big family, the eldest of eight - four girls and four boys - and grew up in the small village of Coolaney.

A life of working in the hospitality sector wasn't one her mother or father necessarily approved of. Instead, they were pushing her towards a career such as teaching.

"They would have been much happier if I was a teacher... hospitality brings long hours and it's very tough to make a real success of the career," she said.

"I wasn't an angel child growing up and I certainly ploughed my own furrow.

"From an early age I was part of a big family with lots of visitors, and I grew up with my mother cooking, and my grandparents, and they were always organising things."

In her teenage years Catherine had her first foray into the world of hospitality - working in the local pub.

"That's where I got my interest in working in events and hospitality. I knew I wanted to work in that industry, despite my parents' reservations."

Catherine's mother Ina formerly worked in the Irish post office, An Post, and was also strongly involved in the local parish, while her father Jimmy worked in construction, as well as doing a touch of farming.

Catherine studied hotel management in Galway, and spent time in Paris and London, working with the Forte Group.

"It was an amazing experience working somewhere like Paris. I worked in a very high-end two-Michelin-starred restaurant," she said.

"The wine cellar alone was two miles underground, and had survived World Wars and was just amazing. Chateau Petrus... you name it. And because the wines were decanted, I got to taste everything. I developed a taste for very nice wines."

Her first foray into China came while she was studying a Masters degree in management and organisation.

"That was in 1999. I spent almost six months in China studying, and it was one of the hardest things I've done," she said.

Catherine returned to Ireland, where she worked for Bewley's in Dublin.

But her last major role before joining the Waterfront last year was as vice-president of food service at catering giant Aramark in China. "An Olympic Games takes almost four years in terms of the infrastructure build at the athletes' village," Catherine said.

"I did everything from finding our Olympic office, once we started working with the organising committee to build a team. It ended up with 7,000 people at the end of the project."

And an Olympic Games churns out some big statistics, she said.

Each day, Aramark was responsible for serving 25,000 people with around 50,000 kilos of meat and other protein, more than two million bananas, and tens of thousands of eggs, with 1,200 chefs working on the catering.

"We ran 32 restaurants which we built and designed from scratch for the athletes, the media and heads of state, and the officials," she said.

"It's the biggest peace-time event in the world."

She also worked on the London Olympics in 2012, which she said was one of her top career experiences.

She returned to Ireland last year to come to Belfast and head up the newly-formed Waterfront Hall and Ulster Hall limited company, which is primarily funded by Belfast City Council.

"Belfast City Council and Tourism NI and the Waterfront Hall all thought it was important that we had a convention centre to build a business tourism strategy around," she said.

"It was important that an arm's-length company was set up, so we could operate on a commercial basis, and compete with our competitors."

Catherine believes it is "going quite well". "It's been a one-and-a-half year transition... the type of business we are doing is new."

The company has 65 full-time staff and a further 200 to 300 casual staff at peak times.

The Waterfront has hosted a series of big corporate events, as well the BBC's Good Food Show on two occasions.

"Our key driver is international association conferences, and national conferences," said Catherine. "For example, a few weeks ago we ran the International Dairy Federation for about 1,800 delegates. That's bringing delegates into the city for between six and eight days."

She said each visitor is worth almost £500 to the Belfast economy on average.

Last year the Waterfront hosted 34 conferences, and Catherine says the pipeline is "very strong" in 2018. That includes the Royal College of Nursing Congress in May, which will see 2,000 delegates arriving in the city.

The company plans to double turnover, and create "£100m of economic impact for the city" and target "50,000 delegate days".

But Catherine wouldn't break down the current balance sheet of the company, citing that turnover is "confidential" from a "competitive perspective".

"Our plan is to get support from Belfast City Council until 2020 - at that stage we will be breaking even. That's the target we are working to," she said.

She said the council funding is reducing each year, but will still be in place in the next two or three years.

"In the long-term we expect to be a fully commercial organisation," she said. "I would hope after 2020, that we would be profitable." Catherine also wants Belfast to grow and expand, with a move away from a weekend economy, and extended opening hours to help attract delegates to the city. "I think more can be done to develop a business tourist strategy," she said.

And while the city is attracting some major events, Catherine said awareness of Belfast as a place to do business is still an issue.

Speaking about the UK's exit from the EU, she said: "Brexit is what it is. As a business you have to get on with it."

She added that while Belfast hasn't directly lost out on a major event due to the vote for Brexit, or our lack of devolved government, that it is being asked "are you going to be in Europe, or are you going to be in the UK?".

Catherine said: "We have to retain the ability to be able to bid on the same footing. As far as I understand... we will be part of Europe from a trade perspective.We have to take that position, because otherwise it is going to be difficult if we are just going to be considered part of the UK."

Catherine is a big sports fan, having played Gaelic football in Galway, as well as in China.

And hiking up mountains is also a big interest for her.

"I have been lucky enough to be at quite a number of peaks, including Everest. I have been at base camp two on the China side. It was very challenging. It was on my to-do list," she said.

Catherine is also a fan of the appearance of the controversial £30m Waterfront Hall extension, a divisive structure which is now home to the bulk of the major events.

In 2015, some dubbed it the 'sore on the shore', and were less than complimentary about it.

"I think it works very well for what we need it to do," she said.

"I really like it from a visual perspective - it's quirky, and it stands out. It's challenging to create something absolutely amazing."

Belfast Telegraph

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