Future of meetings

NORTHERN IRELAND

RECOGNISED BY LONELY PLANET

This year Northern Ireland has been named the number one region in the world to visit by travel guide Lonely Planet and as we turn our attention towards it for our travelling roadshow, we can see why it might also make number one for event bookers and conference delegates.

Two compact and walkable cities with recently refurbished conference facilities, new hotels, top visitor attractions and breath-taking scenery mean this region has everything the MICE market needs (and more).

However, as Eimear Callaghan, Business Solutions Manager at Tourism Northern Ireland, says, despite its attributes, many visitors are yet to discover its charms.

"Northern Ireland is an up-and-coming destination and one that is very much confidently moving on.  Lonely Planet naming Northern Ireland as the number one region in the world to visit for 2018 has given us a chance to showcase what we have to offer, not just to the business tourism market and delegates on incentive programmes, but the whole range of visitor segments," she says.

"We've been a well-kept secret for a long time, but feel the time is right to be shouting about Northern Ireland now."

Laurie Scott, Director of Business Development at VisitBelfast, agrees: "As an emerging city for meetings and conferences Belfast is really capturing people's interest. A lot of people in the UK and Europe haven't yet visited Belfast, so they are intrigued by what it has to offer. It has been off the radar for so long, but people are starting to realise how ideal it is."

VENUES

You'll find Northern Ireland's main conferencing venues in its two cities - Belfast and Derry - Londonderry.

In Belfast, the Waterfront which recently re-opened following a £30m refurbishment, offers 7,000m2 of flexible event space, including a 2,000-seater auditorium, while in Derry Millennium Forum there is capacity for anywhere between two and 1,000 delegates across its 15 function spaces.

Both cities also offer a range of unique venues for corporate meetings or gala dinners, such as Belfast's Queen's University, opened by Queen Victoria in 1845 and Crumlin Road Gaol, a 19th Century Grade A listed building, which served as a prison until 1996.

"It has a very colourful history," says Callaghan. "There are many stories related tracing back to when it opened in 1896 right up until the present day.  It's very evocative."

Derry's unique venues include the Craft Village, which is based on the design of a 17th Century market -  ideal for 'Taste of Ireland' themed receptions – and the recently-opened Foyle Arena, set in the scenic grounds of St Columb’s Park, and boasting a 2,000-capacity arena with the versatility to accommodate every type of event including gala dinners, conferences and exhibitions.

WHERE TO STAY

And when it is time to call it a day (or night) the journey back to the hotel won't be long, points out Tourism Northern Ireland's Callaghan.

"In Belfast, the majority of conference hotels are within a 10-minute walk from Belfast Waterfront. Everything is really close together which is one of our biggest plus points. The hotel sector will continue to be predominantly made up of 3 & 4-star properties, accounting for 74% of the overall stock." 

Indeed, when it comes to finding the ideal hotel room for your needs, you'll find no shortage of places to stay either. Currently Belfast's hotel room numbers are growing at the fastest rate in the UK. This year will see the opening of five new hotels alone, including AC Marriott, Hampton by Hilton, the George Best Hotel and the Grand Central Hotel which will offer 300 luxury bedrooms when it opens later this year.

The additional 1,000 hotel bedrooms coming on line this year add to the large number of hotels already open – from the five-star luxury Fitzwilliam and Merchant hotels to the mid-priced Holiday Inn Express and Jurys Inn.  By 2020, there will have be £500m invested in hotel infrastructure right across NI.

In Derry there's the option of city-centre hotels, like The City Hotel overlooking the River Foyle, contemporary boutique property Bishops Gate and budget brand Travelodge. For something a little less central, yet no less accessible, try Beech Hill Country House, which is just two miles from the city centre, or, for brand fans, the Premier Inn is a five-minute drive from the city centre, or 10 minutes from Derry airport.

DID YOU KNOW?

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There are 26 Game of Thrones filming locations in Northern Ireland, including the Titanic Studios in Belfast, The King's Road, Winterfell, The Wall and Dragonstone. The series is filmed and produced by HBO in Ireland.

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Shirt making was one of Derry's main industries from the 1830s until relatively recently and at its peak the city was dubbed the shirt making capital of the world
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In Northern Ireland the traditional cooked breakfast is known as the Ulster Fry and includes soda bread, potato farls and black and white pudding alongside the staple sausages, bacon and fried eggs.

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Northern Ireland is the golf capital of the world and has produced three golf Majors winners – Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell.

AFTER HOURS

Belfast may be a relatively small city in comparison to others around the world, but the space has been well-utilised and offers a range of places to eat, drink and relax in after hours.

"When meetings have finished, there is an immense variety of things to do, from visiting the theatre, indulging in some retail therapy or eating out. The city has a fantastic food and drink scene," says Scott of VisitBelfast.

That food and drink scene includes not one, but two Michelin-starred restaurants – Deanes Eipic and Ox. The former is owned by Northern Irish chef and restaurateur Michael Deane, who many say has revolutionised dining in Belfast.

There are currently seven restaurants in the Deanes stable open across the city, from the high-level Eipic to buzzy Italian-themed Deane & Decano, increasing your chances of gaining a table at your desired eatery.

For a lively evening, head to the Cathedral Quarter, once the merchant area of the city, home to numerous whiskey storehouses and now a bustling collection of restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

OUTSIDE THE MEETING ROOM

While conference venues, hotels and eateries are the bread and butter of events organisation, it is the incentives and the post-conference experiences on offer in Northern Ireland that place the region in another league, believes Callaghan. 

"Over the past 10 years we've had over £100m investment into visitor attractions and we really have a whole range of immersive experiences pre- and post-conference for delegates to enjoy," she says.

They include the Causeway Coastal Route, voted one of the top five coastal trails in the world and a drive that takes visitors to the Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland's only World Heritage site.

Fans of the hit TV show Game of Thrones are also well-catered for with 26 Game of Thrones locations situated across the region to visit.

"We have Throneys coming in from all over the world to engage in 'set-jetting'," says Callaghan. "The TV show has really helped put us on the map."

If there isn't time to head out of the city, event bookers should check out Titanic Belfast, the world's largest Titanic visitor experience.

"It really tells the story of the Titanic, not just about the ship, but how Belfast came to be such a maritime super-power. The story is told through nine interactive galleries, including one focusing on the investigations from both sides of the Atlantic."

BOOKING INCENTIVE

If the above hasn't yet given you the incentive to investigate Northern Ireland as a destination for your next meeting, event or conference, then this next piece of information might....

Unlike many other marketing bodies, both VisitBelfast & Visit Derry allow conference organisers to apply for funding to help with marketing of their event, rather than simply using it to pay some of the venue costs.

By allowing funding to be used for marketing purposes, VisitBelfast believes it is a greater help.

"We've made our Conference Support Fund more flexible, allowing conference organisers to use the fund for marketing purposes and help attract more delegates to their conference," outlines Scott of VisitBelfast.

With so much to offer the MICE market, as well as financial help for marketing, surely there is no reason for Northern Ireland not to be top of the list for your next event.

Don't forget to come and visit us at The Meetings Show on stand I401.

HOW TO GET THERE

From the mainland UK, 233 flights fly into Belfast International Airport (30 minutes from Belfast city centre) each week. A further 56 fly into George Best Airport (10 minutes from Belfast city centre) from London Heathrow Airport.

From Europe, 139 flights fly into Belfast International Airport and 24 flights fly into George Best Airport each week.

20 flights a week fly into Derry Airport from the UK each week. The Airport is a 95 minute transfer from Dublin Airport.

The majority of flights from the U.S. and the Middle East fly into Dublin Airport, which is a 90 minute drive from Belfast.