Once renowned for its shipyards – the Titanic was built there – Belfast seems to have found a new lease of life. Now a vibrant city full of energy and knowledge in many areas of endeavours, it has, in recent years, undergone major rejuvenation, resulting in a modern hub that attracts associations from all around the world.
If Belfast was once known for its strong industrial base and its oft-troubled past that has now fortunately become part of its history, it is now the shopping, retail, educational, commercial, entertainment, and service centre for Northern Ireland and the seat of many of its largest businesses and hospitals. Wandering through the streets of its historic centre, its gracious parks and its tidy residential neighbourhoods, you realise Belfast has much to offer to association planners looking for a destination with a twist.
First and foremost: everything is at walking distance. When you arrive at one of the city’s two airports (Belfast City Airport, right in the heart of the city, or Belfast International a mere 25 minutes away – and there’s also Dublin International Airport, only 90 minutes by road), you figure out quickly that you won’t lose time commuting between your hotel, your conference venue or your gala dinner. The city’s compactness makes it easy for delegates to network outside the traditional networking opportunities they are presented with since they are likely to run into colleagues and peers simply walking around…
If Belfast’s traditional manufacturing specialties, linen and shipbuilding, have declined since long, the sectors are now overshadowed by service activities, food processing and machinery manufacture.Educational institutions include Queen’s University at Belfast (also a popular conference venue) and the University of Ulster. Northern Ireland, as a whole, is a global leader in the aerospace industry with big corporations such as Airbus or Boeing working hand in hand with Northern Irish aerospace companies. Northern Ireland is also the #1 location in the world for investment into cybersecurity with the highest percentage of qualified IT professionals in the UK and Ireland.
As the middle point between America and Europe, Belfast is a major port, with commercial and industrial docks dominating the Belfast Lough shoreline, including the famous Harland and Wolff shipyard, where the well-known RMS Titanic was designed, built and launched. The site now houses Titanic Belfast, a gigantic museum that tells the story of the famous ship, from her conception in the early 1900s, through her construction and launch, to its maiden voyage and subsequent place in history. Titanic Belfast boasts the largest dedicated gala dinner space in the city.
A true renaissance
If the opening of Titanic Belfast (pictured) in 2012 may have marked the beginning of the city’s recent revival, Belfast’s renaissance was actually prompted by the Good Friday Agreement in the late 1990s, putting an end to years of violence. The fact that there is now a common effort, a unified message to attract association conferences is also helping Belfast being on the meetings map like she has never been before.
Infrastructure you would expect in large metropolises have pride of place in the city: Belfast Waterfront is the largest conference facility in Northern Ireland and can cater for 5,000+ delegates over 7,000 sqm of meeting space, right on the banks of the River Lagan in the heart of the city, with nice riverside views and easy access to transport links, hotels, restaurants and attractions. Like Dr Thomas Kauffels, the chair of European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) observed:“Belfast Waterfront’s city centre location and convenience to the region’s two airports have proven extremely beneficial to our international delegates – members can fly in and go straight to a meeting, hassle free.”In terms of accommodation, there will be 10,000 hotel bedrooms in Northern Ireland by 2020, with 1000 coming this year alone, including the Grand Central with 304 bedrooms.
Last but not least Belfast is where the first seasons of TV series Game of Thrones were shot and, in terms of pre- or post-conference tours, you can hardly do better! The famous nearby Causeway Coast is also a draw, offering something unique to the most demanding association planners or delegates.
This article was written by Rémi Dévé, Boardroom Chief Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)