Belfast is changing. Long considered as a snotty little brother to the likes of Dublin and London, today's city now lays claim to being one of the industry's destinations du jour.
A familiar story, perhaps, but this is more than just marketing talk - business tourism to the city increased by 44% in 2002/03, while the year to date has seen a similar rise. On paper, as a post-industrial port emerging from decades of political unrest, the odds are stacked against it. So why the success?
The bottom line has been an increase in awareness. Belfast may not be large, glitzy or jaw-dropping, but its redeveloped charms are accustomed to winning over first-time visitors. The Guardian and Observer's recent travel awards named Belfast as one of the top four UK destinations for a city break, while investment has seen the town centre honed into a lively hub for business and pleasure.
On the trade show circuit, a marketing presence that allows Northern Ireland to be part of both Tourism Ireland and the BACD is starting to reap dividends. "We're moving in the right direction now," explains Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau (BVCB) director Una Donnelly. "The information is finally getting through to people and enquiries have doubled since I started two years ago.
We invested a lot of time and money into both the product and drawing people's attention to it, and it's all now starting to pay off."
On arrival, the overriding impression is of a compact and spirited city with a sense of its own identity. Sturdy Georgian and Victorian buildings rub shoulders with new-build hotels and modern entertainment complexes, while the banks of the river Lagan are alive with development projects. The towering yellow Harland and Wolff cranes, builders of the Titanic and still on the skyline for posterity, form a fitting contrast to the ring of green hills surrounding the city.
Like any conference destination, Belfast has its flagship venue. The unpretentious Waterfront Hall has made a habit of drawing in plaudits since its 1997 opening. The past four years have seen it ranked by the International Association of Congress Centres as one of the world's top seven conference centres, and it currently stands as the UK's best. Waterfront Hall board chairman Paul Maskey says: "To be the UK's premier conference venue in the face of such competition means we're not standing still, but continually improving in the eyes of our clients."
The hall's tiered central auditorium can seat up to 2,200, while its business centre has 14 meeting rooms. The multi-purpose venue often finds itself tendering against the likes of Dubai and South Africa on the strength of its facilities and service standards, but while it may be Belfast's premier meetings draw it is by no means its sole offering.
This is a point emphasised by RAND chairman Peter Rand. "One of the city's real strengths is undoubtedly the quality and range of venues," he says.
"Service levels are good, too, and there's a real hunger for business that creates exactly the right attitude. There's still a major problem with perception, which is largely down to ignorance, but in my experience people are unfailingly surprised by what they see and experience in Belfast."
Across the river from the Waterfront, The Odyssey provides further options for large-scale events. The swish complex was unveiled as a millennium project and is home to restaurants and nightclubs as well as an 8,500-seat arena, suitable for exhibitions and conferences alike and the site of Bill Clinton's last presidential speech in Ireland.
Of most interest though is W5 - also contained on-site - a science discovery centre brimming with interactive gadgets and contemporary meeting space. A lecture theatre for 200 and panoramic boardroom are the highlights, while delegates are encouraged to amuse themselves with the attractions during breaks.
For those searching for something in the historical vein, there are numerous venues with heritage. Belfast Castle, a grand family home now in public use, sits in woodland above the city and can host 200 in its Chichester Room. More centrally, Queen's University provides an impressive landmark setting: a vaulted great hall is suitable for up to 180, while the usual array of lecture theatres are also on offer. City Hall, built at the turn of the 19th century after Queen Victoria deferred city status on Belfast, is a wow-inducing mix of columns, domes and marble. It is able to host up to 800 for a reception and can also be used for meetings.
For the ultimate prestige location, however, Stormont takes some beating.
Perched on the edge of town at the end of a spectacular mile-long drive, the governmental head-quarters can play host to evening receptions and dinners. Its Long Gallery can seat up to 120, while live entertainment and tours of the chambers and central lobby area can also be arranged. "It's important to us to keep the dignity and mood of the building intact," says events co-ordinator Dermot MacGreevy, "but we've seen some memorable nights here, I can tell you."
Away from planet C&I, Stormont's wider historical implications have been well documented for generations, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that the Troubles have left no mark on Belfast. Visitor safety is emphatically not an issue, but sections of the city are still far from suburban bliss.
"It's not something we shy away from," explains BVCB's Donnelly. "Visitors to the city have a real curiosity about seeing these areas, the murals and such, and we understand that. The most important thing is that people can genuinely stop worrying about safety." A tour of the Falls and Shankill, something becoming increasingly popular, is an informative, sad, but very powerful experience.
That said, Belfast's city culture has genuine appeal, offering its own understated take on the 'Guinness and shamrock' package that sells so well in the south. It counts among its many attractions the Michelin-starred Restaurant Michael Deane and the ornate Crown Liquor Saloon, the only pub to come under the auspices of the National Trust.
One of Belfast's other major selling points is accessibility. With the daily incoming flight schedule almost akin to a bus service, flights operate to Belfast's two airports from some 27 domestic destinations - including Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh and every London hub - not to mention a handful of international locations. Indeed, as Belfast's reputation for business has taken hold, the number of airports serving it has increased.
Despite the widespread positive uptake of the city as a whole, one of the obstacles that Belfast still faces is that of asserting itself in areas where it remains an unknown quantity. Rand admits that Belfast "has to be put forward as a wild card" during proposals, while NDL group managing director Nick Deyong explains that the benefits aren't always obvious to clients. "In reality, if we were going to go to Ireland we'd probably choose Dublin instead because of its reputation," he says.
Others, however, feel the city has now been under-rated for too long.
Absolute Corporate Events (ACE) managing director Tim Gasson says: "It has a great many strengths. Ease of access, a range of good hotels, fantastic Irish hospitality, a very enthusiastic convention bureau and very competitive costs compared with the UK mainland. Many people still have an outdated perception of times past."
With further regard to Dublin, it has become a viable option for groups to incorporate both cities by organising twin-centre trips, usually spending some time in the south before taking a two-hour train ride to Belfast.
"It's incredibly easy and really gives people the chance to find out for themselves the quality that the city can offer," says Culloden Hotel general manager Kenneth Sharp.
It is also an effective way of showing that spas, luxury and fine dining are not restricted to the south. The Culloden may be one of only two five-star hotels in the city, but there is a wide range of quality four-star properties and total bedstock recently reached 3,000.
New hotels are springing up with some regularity. A 244-room Days Hotel opened this May, becoming the country's largest property, while a stylish new Radisson SAS (see box) is barely two months old. The end of November will see a centrally situated 64-room Malmaison open its doors.
Another modern property of interest to C&I visitors is the Ramada, which boasts 14 meeting rooms and a dedicated business floor. Its ballroom, the largest in the city, is capable of holding 900 theatre-style and is also suitable for exhibitions. Recent clients include Diageo and AstraZeneca.
Incentive options, in true Irish style, generally centre on the great outdoors: golf, falconry, fishing and Landrover experiences are among the most popular, while whisky-tasting around a log fire makes a heartening reward for meeting-fatigued delegates. Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Ballywalter Park and St George's markets are popular examples of gala dinner venues. Pure incentive trips are more common than might be expected, and the city has a strong choice of local DMCs.
Belfast is still perhaps the least understood city in the UK, but as a more vivid picture continues to emerge, groups can be perfectly clear on what to expect.
"To me, not only does Belfast have lots of good elements, it also has the whole package," concludes ACE's Gasson. "Both conferences and incentives are able to be accommodated with style and imagination.
Give it a go!"
FACTFILE: LEADING HOTELS
HOLIDAY INN ****
Hotel facilities: 170 bedrooms, 2 suites
Conference facilities: New £1m Olympic suite unveiled this month for up to 500 theatre-style, 300 for dinner. In addition, the Academy Conference Centre offers nine further purpose-built meeting spaces.
The lowdown: The hotel has a large health club and pool and sits a couple of minutes' walk from the 'Golden Mile' of restaurants and bars. It is clean, smart, well-appointed and relaxed.
THE HASTINGS CULLODEN *****
Hotel facilities: 79 bedrooms, 16 suites
Conference facilities: Seven meeting rooms, including a meetings wing and conference centre that opened at the end of June. The Stuart function room is due to be completely renovated by February and will accommodate more than 500 for dinner.
The lowdown: The five-star independent hotel has a cosy, hunting-lodge feel and is located on the outskirts of the city. It offers the archetypal luxury and log-fire experience alongside a modern spa and gym and 12 acres of gardens.
Website: www.hastingshotels.com RADISSON SAS ****
Hotel facilities: 120 bedrooms, 7 suites
Conference facilities: 5 meetings and events rooms, the biggest of which, the Titanium suite, can hold up to 150 theatre-style.
The lowdown: A typically sassy Radisson property, with good use of space and design. It opened in September close to town, and boasts an authentic Italian restaurant.
HILTON BELFAST *****
Hotel facilities: 195 bedrooms, 6 suites
Conference facilities: A dedicated business centre with an executive lounge and seven meeting rooms, as well as the Lisburn and Lagan suites. The latter accommodates up to 450 theatre-style.
The lowdown: The hotel is located one minute's walk from the Waterfront Hall and boasts the five-star facilities typical of the chain, including a health club.
Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau
Belfast Welcome Centre, 47 Donegall Place,
Belfast BT1 5AD
Contact: Una Donnelly
Tel: 028 9024 6609