Real life and legend mix easily in Northern Ireland. One of the province's best-known landmarks, the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim, may be the result of ancient volcanic eruptions, but most know it as the work of giant Finn McCool. Writer William Thackeray took a similar line: 'When the world was moulded and fashioned out of formless chaos, this must have been the bit left over.'
The landmark has long been a mainstay of the C&I industry, but, like many other attractions in the six counties, its appeal has been overshadowed by the unsettled political situation. While this cannot be ignored, the province is trying hard to move on. 'If groups only visited here, they would see how much there is on offer and how safe it now is,' says Belfast Waterfront Hall sales and marketing manager Andrew Kyle. 'We have excellent conference facilities, a whole host of incentives and great infrastructure - clients have to give us a go.'
Odyssey Arena marketing director Rob Vick agrees that Northern Ireland is safer than it is portrayed in the media. 'People worry about what they read in newspapers, and they never get to see the good side of Northern Ireland,' he says. 'While delegates should be careful because they're in a city they don't know, it is no different to being in any other foreign place.'
There is a feeling in the city that, this time, the peace process will hold. Belfast Visitor & Convention Bureau (BVCB) manager Kate Tunney says that people are full of hope. 'There is obviously still a long way to go with the peace process, but whereas before there seemed to be no way out, now everyone is confident there is light at the end of the tunnel. Political progress has seen the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is having a beneficial impact on Belfast's image as a city destination, and confidence is high among investors in the city's potential tourism,' adds Tunney.
Investment on the back of a tourist boom has led to a crop of new venues.
In 1999, conference business increased 26 per cent over the previous year, while the total value of tourism to the city reached pounds 116 million. In the same year, out-of-province visitor numbers rose to 490,000 - 22 per cent up on 1998 - with business and conference visitors accounting for 41 per cent of the total.
Belfast's main conference venues are the Belfast Waterfront Hall and the Odyssey Arena. Rob Vick believes the city now has all the space a conference organiser could ever want. 'If any events are too big for the Waterfront, they can come to us,' he says.
The Waterfront's largest auditorium seats from 450 to 2,247, while smaller meeting rooms are available for up to 90 delegates. 'We only opened in 1997 and, to date, have secured 650 conferences with bookings up to 2008,' says Kyle. 'And with the Hilton next door, we also have the room space right on our doorstep.'
Opening only at the end of last year, the Odyssey Arena forms just one part of the pounds 100 million Odyssey Complex. Situated on the banks of the River Lagan, the Odyssey offers flexible conference seating space for up to 10,000 delegates, as well as 3,800 square metres of pillar-free exhibition space. The new development also includes restaurants, cafes, retail outlets and an IMAX cinema.
Queens University Belfast is another of Northern Ireland's conference venue contenders. In 1998, the college invested pounds 3.5 million in the Sir Peter Frogett Centre, providing it with state-of-the-art conference rooms and audiovisual facilities.
Over the next six years, Queens will be redesigning its campus village to back up the new facilities. The scheme will add 2,000 new student bedrooms, with the first block opening in September 2001. Of these, 200 will be provided with full ensuite facilities: a first for university rooms in Belfast.
Delegates to conferences in the city have a full range of accommodation to choose from. The five-star Hilton Belfast has 195 rooms, coupled with good conference facilities. These range from the Tower Suite, which holds 15 delegates, theatre-style, to Lagan Room A, which takes 450. Nor is the commercial heart of Belfast neglected. The Italianate-style McCausland Hotel has 60 rooms and two conference suites, seating between 30 and 60, theatre-style. Nearby, the 23-room Donegall Square hotel is due to open later this year in the city centre.
Hastings Hotels operates six properties in Northern Ireland. Last year, the group invested pounds 12 million in three of its Belfast hotels: the Europa, the Stormont and the Culloden. Group managing director Howard Hastings says the company is thinking big. 'This major spend illustrates our commitment to bringing bigger, better and more luxurious hotel facilities to local clientele and outside visitors,' he says. 'These are facilities that can compete in a global market.'
The Europa offers a pounds 6 million executive bedroom wing, taking the total number of rooms up to 240. Its Grand Ballroom can hold 750, theatre-style. The four-star Stormont Hotel, opposite the Parliament Buildings, has had a general upgrade and added a restaurant. This month, its Kensington Suite is being demolished to make way for a new conference and banqueting facility, capable of seating up to 400 delegates.
This year, the group is putting pounds 6 million towards upgrading its portfolio.
On the outskirts of Belfast, the five-star Culloden Hotel now has four meeting rooms for up to 70 delegates, a wing of bedrooms and extended parking space. Conference facilities for 500 are also available. Completing the roster of Hastings properties in Belfast is the Stormont Hotel, soon to add a pounds 3 million function room to its existing meetings space.
Further afield, the Hastings Group's portfolio includes Ballygally Castle Hotel, 20 miles from Belfast on the Antrim coast, near the Giant's Causeway.
The hotel is adding 20 new bedrooms and can offer conference space for 200 people. Those with a liking for the area can arrange exclusive-use packages on subsequent visits.
The remaining two Hastings hotels are the Slieve Donard in Newcastle, located close to the mountains of Mourne, and the Everglades in Derry.
The former property offers an impressive 130 bedrooms, together with theatre-style conference facilities for up to 1,000 delegates. The more intimate Everglades, by contrast, has just 64 rooms and conference space for up to 400.
Access to Belfast is an issue for some agencies. Genesis MD Richard Heywood claims the logistics of getting in and out of Belfast make it harder to sell than Dublin. 'It's a lovely place, but having two airports makes it a bit of a nuisance, with delegates flying in from different places,' he adds.
Odyssey Arena's Vick, however, disputes this view. 'Belfast is very accessible, and the two airports only serve to increase the number of flights into the city,' he says. 'Myself and a couple of colleagues attended a conference in Manchester recently and were back in our houses before some other delegates had even reached London, let alone their homes.'
New routes into Belfast are helping to improve access further. In November 2000, Budget carrier Go introduced a route from London Stansted to Belfast International, while EasyJet is launching a service from Amsterdam to Belfast International this month, with return fares starting at pounds 47. A Heysham to Belfast SuperSeacat route has been running since March last year.
Once in Northern Ireland, visitors can look forward to some of the best nightlife in the UK. In true Irish fashion, the streets are crammed with pubs, clubs and restaurants for incentive groups to choose from. Recent developments include the Ta Tu Bar & Grill, nightclubs Milk in the Laganside area and Northern Whig in Belfast and the Apartment bar and cafe, which has a capacity of 400 seats and overlooks the City Hall. English pub chain JD Wetherspoon has bought its first city centre pub in Belfast and intends to set up 50 outlets in Northern Ireland over the next five years.
BCVB's Tunney puts Belfast's appeal down to the sheer persistence of the local C&I industry. 'Over the past few years, Belfast has had to work hard to win its share of conference business and convince buyers of the benefits of the city,' she says. 'We are now on a level playing field and can compete with top destinations such as Dublin, Edinburgh and Barcelona.'
Like most people in Northern Ireland, Tunney looks forward to the day when the Troubles will have finally receded into history and the region can compete purely on its merits as a C&I destination and remain a viable choice for buyers.
Northern Ireland's diverse range of venues can satisfy the needs of almost any group. From historic areas of Belfast to stately homes and private islands in the surrounding countryside, the choice of pace and tempo is up to the organiser.
Belfast Castle: this 19th century castle, once home to the Donegal and Shaftesbury families, has a Victorian themed garden and panoramic views over the city and Belfast Lough. Following extensive redecoration, the venue can now accommodate up to 200 guests, theatre-style, or 160 for a banquet.
Tel: 028 9077 6925
Malone House: set in the picturesque Barnett Demesne woodland, this Georgian mansion has the feel of a family residence. Its conference rooms - all of which are illuminated with natural light - can accommodate up to 150 delegates. The venue is available for hire as a banquet venue for up to 120 visitors.
Tel: 028 9068 1246
Lusty Beg Island: a 70-acre private island, situated on the banks of Lough Erne, Lusty Beg offers its guests seclusion for conferences, team-building activities, product launches or similar events. Theatre-style seating for 300 delegates can be arranged, and there are facilities to host a banquet for 150.
Tel: 028 6863 1342
Colebrook House: this private house, the ancestral stately home of the Brooke family, is occupied by Lord and Lady Brookeborough, who act as hosts for visiting groups. It has 15 bedrooms, banqueting space for up to 50 and purpose-built meeting facilities for 60 delegates.
Tel: 028 8953 1402
The Narrows: this venue, opened in Portaferry, County Down, in 1996, has 13 rooms and a full range of leisure facilities, including fishing, scuba diving and bird watching. There are two rooms for conferences, one holding 60 and the other 24.
Tel: 028 4272 8148
Dufferin Arms Coaching Inn: in the shadows of Killyleagh Castle, on the shore of Strangford Lough in County Down, the seven-room Dufferin can hold 60 delegates for a conference or 100 for a banquet.
Tel: 028 4482 8229
INCENTIVE IDEAS - Long history gives groups wide choice
A trip to Belfast need not be confined to meetings and conferences.
Delegates can take time out to explore the city and learn of its recent history or visit country venues.
Walking tours: Bailey's historic pub walking tour.
Tel: 028 9268 3665
The Troubles: a living history guide of Belfast takes groups to the western half of the city, featuring the Shankhill and Falls Roads, plus views of the political murals.
Tel: 028 9045 8484
Titanic: Belfast had one of the greatest ship-building industries in the world. Groups can visit a memorial to the ill-fated Titanic liner, built by local firm Haarland & Wolff. Contact Guidelines Tourism for details.
Tel: 028 9146 5697
Irish linen: a visit to the Irish Linen Centre in Lisburn can be arranged by the Leprechaun Touring Guide Service.
Tel: 028 3883 1236. Alternatively, the Wellbrook Beetling Mill near Cookstown fully explains the processes of linen production.
Tel: 028 8675 1735 Giant's Causeway: a trip to County Antrim's most famous attraction is a must.
Tel: 028 2073 1855. Trips can be combined with a tour of the world's oldest whiskey distillery, Old Bushmills.
Tel: 028 2073 3218
Arts and crafts: at County Fermanagh's Belleek Pottery museum, groups can view craftsmen at work before dining off china plates produced on-site for the restaurant.
Tel: 028 6865 8501
Belfast Visitor & Convention Bureau
Albany House, 73-75 Great Victoria Street, Belfast BT2 7AF
Tel: 028 9023 9026
Fax: 028 9024 9026
Contact: Kate Tunney
Website address: www.gotobelfast.com
Northern Ireland Tourist Board
St Anne's Court, 59 North Street, Belfast BT1 INB
Tel: 028 9031 5513
Fax: 028 9031 5544
Contact: Hilary Gibson
Website address: www.nitb.com.