BELFAST

A thriv­ing fin­tech scene and char­ac­ter­ful venues await in the cap­i­tal of North­ern Ire­land, says

Business Traveller - - WHERE TO MEET - Carly Read

From palaces to ren­o­vated prisons, the city's his­tory makes for ex­cit­ing meet­ing and event venues, while big in­vest­ment con­tin­ues to boost its in­fra­struc­ture

With a tar­get of at­tract­ing £1 bil­lion of in­vest­ment by 2021, the an­nounce­ment of a new city-cen­tre travel hub and a port­fo­lio of new ho­tel open­ings, it’s no won­der Belfast is ris­ing up the cor­po­rate travel des­ti­na­tion ranks. Nes­tled be­tween hills and his­toric ship­yards, Belfast not only has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing one of the safest UK cities, but also one of the most am­bi­tious, thanks to its metic­u­lously planned Belfast Agenda, a 20-year strat­egy that aims to boost the in­no­va­tive met­ro­pol­i­tan hub’s for­tunes and push it into the dawn of a new era.

Hav­ing hosted the 2018 Royal Col­lege of Nurs­ing An­nual Con­gress, which wel­comed 4,500 del­e­gates and de­liv­ered an es­ti­mated £4.8 mil­lion to North­ern Ire­land’s econ­omy, and then the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion In­ter­na­tional Healthy Cities Con­fer­ence 2018 (3,000 del­e­gates and an es­ti­mated £1.93 mil­lion), Belfast has no trou­ble shin­ing on the in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence mar­ket.

In­vest­ment in world-class at­trac­tions, uni­ver­si­ties and ac­com­mo­da­tion has al­ready trig­gered a surge in vis­i­tor num­bers to Belfast. “The city’s re­nais­sance has been led by in­vest­ment in tourism and higher ed­u­ca­tion,” con­firms Fiona Liver­sidge of Belfast’s tourist board.

Prime min­is­ters, pres­i­dents and CEOs can be counted among those drawn to the city’s top-notch venues and – in re­cent years – its bur­geon­ing fi­nan­cial tech­nol­ogy scene. North­ern Ire­land has been build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion in fin­tech since the early 2000s, when US fin­tech firm Wom­bat opened a de­vel­op­ment cen­tre in the city. More re­cently, star­tups such as accountancy soft­ware sup­plier Lightyear and wire­less sen­sor firm Sen­soteq have both opted for head­quar­ters in Belfast.

De­mand for ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tion is at an all-time high, with oc­cu­pancy peak­ing at 81.6 per cent last year. Hote­liers at the cen­tre of in­vest­ment in the sec­tor are Bean­n­chor Group – own­ers of the five-star Mer­chant Ho­tel and the su­per-stylish 74-room Bul­litt ho­tel – and the Loughview Leisure Group, which em­barked on an £18 mil­lion ex­pan­sion pro­gramme at its Ten Square Ho­tel prop­erty, in­creas­ing from 75 to 131 rooms. That, plus the open­ing of the 119room Ti­tanic Ho­tel, kick­started a wave of ho­tel de­vel­op­ment that has seen in­ter­na­tional brands Mar­riott, Hilton and Mal­dron add their names to Belfast’s ac­com­mo­da­tion ros­ter. Jurys Inn, Hol­i­day Inn Ex­press and Crowne Plaza have also an­nounced re­fur­bish­ments to their Belfast prop­er­ties.

Con­fer­ence venues have been up­ping their game, too – the Eikon Ex­hi­bi­tion Cen­tre, with 10,500 sqm of sta­dium-like space, 26 hectares of hard-stand­ing and grass ar­eas, and 4,000 free park­ing places, is in a league of its own, and its re­cent 1GB broad­band in­stal­la­tion has boosted its fa­cil­i­ties to meet roar­ing de­mand.

The £29.5 mil­lion de­vel­op­ment of the In­ter­na­tional Con­ven­tion Cen­tre Belfast – pre­vi­ously the Belfast Water­front – has played a part in at­tract­ing cor­po­rate tourism since its com­ple­tion in 2016. Its 7,000 sqm of space make it the per­fect lo­ca­tion to host meet­ings for up to 2,000 del­e­gates. Nearby, the 1905 Assem­bly Build­ings Con­fer­ence Cen­tre may re­sem­ble a cas­tle, but its state-of-the-art AV sys­tem brings it bang up to date. The venue can hold events for 1,150 at­ten­dees.

Belfast also has an ar­ray of un­usual con­fer­ence op­tions, such as the iconic Skainos Cen­tre, part of an ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion project fea­tur­ing nine venues for up to 250 peo­ple, with free wifi through­out.

The Ti­tanic Ex­hi­bi­tion Cen­tre is an­other un­con­ven­tional choice. The 5,000 sqm venue of­fers a modern back­drop for large-scale do­mes­tic, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional galas, and pre­sen­ta­tions for up to 5,000 at­ten­dees.

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