A distinct destination

After 12 years of peace and stability, tourism to Northern Ireland is at last flourishing. Investment in the infrastructure in Belfast and elsewhere has been huge and impressive, benefiting both the leisure and business tourism markets.

Venues are stunning, the craic is as good as it ever was and the message is going out to associations based both in Britain and abroad that the time is ripe to invite their members to share the experience. A good start has been made but winning more prestigious conferences will raise the country’s profile even further.
    
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board is determined to change any negative perceptions of the North that might still linger, especially overseas.
    
“Northern Ireland is one of the safest regions in the world, according to UN figures on crime rates,” says Claire Summers, manager of the Belfast Visitor & Convention Bureau. “Those who work in tourism, and the general population as a whole, are determined to maintain the peaceful progress that has benefited the region in recent years.”

Events past and present
The main market is the UK but Belfast has hosted some interesting, if eclectic, international events in recent years. They include the World Health Organization’s International Healthy Cities Conference in 2003, the World Toilet Summit in 2005 and the World Congress of the International Association of Youth & Family Judges & Magistrates in 2006.
    
This year, the annual conferences of the International Peat Society and the Inner Wheel Associations of UK & Ireland were held in April. At the end of July, Sister Cities International will hold its annual conference for the first time outside the USA, with the title ‘Building Enduring Peace After Conflict’, and the Irish Society for Rheumatology meets in September.

Next year sees the British Psychology Society Annual Conference in Belfast and, in 2011, the city hosts the International Conference of Photonic, Electronic & Atomic Collisions.

There will be great excitement in 2013 when some 20,000 participants and visitors are anticipated at the World Police & Fire Games, the first time the event comes to Britain.

Stretching budgets further
With increased pressure in GB to tighten budgets and stay close to home, Belfast fits the bill perfectly as it is on the doorstep, keeping travel costs and travel times to a minimum. No exchange rate or currency fluctuations to worry about and, with day delegate rates starting at £25 per person, prices are incredibly competitive.
    
With confidence at such a high level, Northern Ireland can cash in on its many unique selling points. For a start, there’s the curiosity factor about a destination that is still relatively untapped. There is the political history, which makes cities such as Belfast and Derry so fascinating, Belfast’s maritime legacy and the Irish warmth and culture that differentiate it from anywhere else on the planet.
    
Above all, the breathtaking scenery and dramatic coastline are legendary. The Majestic Mourne Mountains, the mythological Glens of Antrim and Giant’s Causeway and tranquil Fermanagh Lakelands are wonderful options for social programmes, delegate partners’ visits or pre- and post-conference tours. Golf is a big attraction and two of the world’s top-ten links courses, the Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, are in Northern Ireland.

The hub of the action
While smaller groups, particularly those holding corporate meetings, may opt for the solitude of a charming rural venue, larger associations choose Belfast not only because it’s the capital but it has also the accommodation and amenities they need without any additional travelling.
    
As Claire Summers says: “Despite its city status, Belfast often feels more like a big town. It’s welcoming, not overbearing and very compact.”
    
Of the major venues, the Belfast Waterfront continues to be rated in the world top ten by the International Association of Conference Centres (AIPC). Its stunning architecture has turned it into a shining landmark on the River Lagan, and it is in such demand for both concerts and conferences there is talk now of expansion.
    
The huge Odyssey Arena stands proud beside the shipyards that built the Titanic. Used for major sporting events and concerts, its flexible seating configuration means it can also be adapted for events in the big league.

Iconic buildings
This year sees the welcome return of some of Belfast’s iconic buildings, such as the opulent Ulster Hall, which opened in March. The home of the Ulster Orchestra, it offers meeting spaces for 1,000 in the main hall to 100 in the more intimate Group Theatre.

Belfast City Hall will reopen in September after a multi-million-pound refit and once again be a special venue for gala evenings and Lord Mayor’s receptions. Ulster Museum will also reopen in the autumn, offering meeting and event space in the lovely grounds of the Botanic Gardens.
    
Among the international-chain hotels with conference facilities are the Ramada, which has a conference room for 900, the Radisson Blu and the Hilton, conveniently situated next door to the Waterfront.

Historic cities
The historic walled city of Derry would be the main alternative to Belfast for smaller association meetings. It has an airport with UK connections and several convention hotels, including the four-star Hastings Everglades and City Hotel Derry.

The Millennium Forum is an excellent venue as the theatre can seat up to 1,020 delegates or be reconfigured for theatre-style meetings or exhibitions – both the ceiling and the floor are moveable.
    
The Business Tourism Unit of Tourism Ireland, which promotes both countries, North and South, has plenty to smile about when selling Northern Ireland to potential association clients. There is no lack of professionalism, the infrastructure is growing and extra funding may be available to help bring in valuable large-scale meetings.

For more information
Web: www.irelandinspires.co.uk  
www.belfastconventionbureau.com

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