In the evening, Belfast‘s enormous City Hall with its domes and turrets is resplendent under the bright lights. People throng the streets. They are rushing to dates, spilling out of pubs, or waiting in small groups outside the restaurants on Howard Street for a table to become available. There’s no doubt about it, the phenomenon of the inner city being dead after everyone has left work does not apply in Belfast.
"Belfast is full of life", says Melissa Devine, Sales Manager of five-star hotel The Merchant. "Restaurants and bars are full every evening, and there is simply an unbelievable joie de vivre." This is not just because the population enjoys socialising. There's also lots going on in the hotels, according to Devine: "On a Monday in February in Belfast, our rooms will be fully booked and there will not be a table available in the restaurant."
In actual fact, the occupancy figures lie at over ninety per cent. "Corporate business has really exploded in the last two years", explains Deborah Collins, who is responsible for MICE at Visit Belfast. The conference business brings forty million pounds, and a lot of guests, into the city every year. This resulted in the city's hotels having a higher occupancy than those in London in 2017.
18 new hotels in 18 months
To handle the demand, 18 new hotels with a total of 1500 rooms will have opened by the end of the year. The city of 330,000 inhabitants will then have 5145 rooms available. In addition to the Titanic Hotel Belfast in the former docks which opened in 2017, the new hotels include a Hampton by Hilton, an AC Marriott on the banks of the Lagan, and the Hastings Grand Central, which will reopen its doors in the city's tallest building in June. The historic building closed during the "troubles", when the conflict between pro-English Protestants and republican Catholics turned Belfast into an inhospitable place, and it stood as a distant memory of better times for decades.
You would no longer suspect that the capital of Northern Ireland was for a long time the underdog of the United Kingdom, weakened by civil war and the demise of the once thriving shipping industry. Quite the contrary. Belfast is booming. As a filming location of the hit series "Games of Thrones", the area surrounding the city suddenly became famous with television audiences around the world; the special effects were also created in the Titanic Studios in Belfast. The travel guide publisher Lonely Planet even chose the city and the nearby Causeway coast as the world's most important tourist destination in 2018. None of this is a gift from the heavens, but rather the result of painstaking work and big investments. More than a billion pounds has been put into the city since 2007. Other than the fleet of new hotels, the money has gone into projects such as the re-designing of the waterfront. The dilapidated shipyard has been turned into the fashionable Titanic Quarter with apartment and office buildings, a film studio, marina and the multimedia Titanic Belfast museum. Its opening in 2012 was a high point in the city's development. More than four million people have visited it since then.
Iconic backdrop for iconic brands
The former shipyard, which built the Titanic and its sister ships, is also home to the city's most spectacular event venue within the 12,000 square metre museum. "Titanic is the world's most famous brand name after Coca-Cola," claims Sales Manager Laura Cowan proudly. "But it stands for much more than just a famous ship. Belfast's history as the birthplace of large luxury liners, and the rebirth of the docks symbolise innovative spirit, creativity and the will to stand our ground." Cowan believes that many companies can identify with these values: "they see Belfast as an iconic backdrop for iconic brands."
At the same time, Belfast is a symbol of the power of constructive dialogue. In 1998, the peace talks between the opposing parties resulted in the Good Friday Agreement. Life returned to normal, and the city that had hosted the successful negotiations was finally able to shape its future.
Cool, funky and compact
"Today, we are seen as a destination with potential. People recognise our strengths," says Deborah Collins. "We have great locations, culture, gastronomy, a vibrant night-life." However, one particular bonus is the cross-sector commitment of everyone involved. "We all work together to prepare for every event: taxi drivers, concierges and restaurant managers are informed about what is going on before conferences so that they respond to their guests at the event and welcome them." The mayor likes to invite participants to a cocktail reception at the City Hall. Collins: "Only a small city can offer such a personal reception."
The concept is working. In recent years, Belfast has played host to top-class international events: the MTV Awards 2011, the G-8 summit 2013 and the World Council of Credit Unions 2016. In autumn 2017, Belfast was awarded the International Conference on Composite Materials (ICCM) 2021, the largest gathering in the world for the composite materials industry. By doing this, the city beat off competition from Venice, Lausanne and New Orleans, and finally established itself as a global player.
"Unbelievable things have happened in a short time," says Siobhan O’Sullivan, Sales and Marketing Manager of the five-star Fitzwilliam Hotel. "When I moved here seven years ago, Belfast was a different city. Then along came Titanic Belfast, the first events, and 'Game of Thrones' – and now be are being overrun. Belfast is cool and funky." The city also offers some very tangible benefits: "We have two airports, with direct links from Amsterdam, Paris, Milan, Barcelona, Brussels and numerous English cities. At the same time, Belfast is very compact so you can get everywhere on foot."
The positive mood is noticeable everywhere. "Belfast has become very international," says Patricia Murtagh, Business Development Manager at Hastings Hotels, which in June will open its fourth hotel in Belfast - the Grand Central. After years in California, Murtagh is impressed with the elation in the air: "The people would never have believed that the city would ever be so hip. Their enthusiasm about it is infectious." There have also been rapid developments in gastronomy. Belfast boasts two Michelin stars, one for the small, rustic Ox, and the other for Deanes EIPIC, and it has a varied, creative restaurant scene.
From the tender of the Titanic to the Queen‘s castle
The event venues are also varied. The Waterfront Belfast conference centre, which was built in 1997, was given a thirty-million pound extension in 2016. It now boasts more than 7000 square metres of event space, flooded with daylight, and enjoys a view of the river, quay, city and mountains. The major locations also include the SSE Arena, which was built in 2001 in the Titanic Quarter, the Eikon and Titanic trade fair centres, the Assembly Buildings in the city, and Queen’s University.
The SS Nomadic, tender for the Titanic and the last preserved ship of the White Star fleet, offers an unusual, historic backdrop for events. Belfast Castle, a stately home on Cave Hill now owned by the city, combines modern facilities with a palatial atmosphere. Hillsborough Castle, which is twenty kilometres outside of the city, is the official residence of the English monarchy in Northern Ireland. The rooms, in which the Anglo-Irish agreement was signed and where the Queen stays during her visits, are not only particularly attractive - they have also proven their worth time and again as the setting for constructive talks.