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Destination guide: Belfast and Derry-Londonderry

Across the Narrow Sea

Over the last few years Northern Ireland has become famous as a key filming location for the hit HBO show Game of Thrones (hence our delectably witty [print] headline). In 2018, the region’s on-screen portfolio received another boon after the hit sitcom Derry Girls won legions of fans. Derry Girls is set in the early nineties, a time when sectarianism in the area was more prevalent; this is a far cry from the area we know today. The area has been totally regenerated and is now becoming a popular destination for conferences and events.

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The historic city of Derry-Londonderry is renowned as one of the finest Walled cities in Europe. Named by Lonely Planet as a ‘Top 10 City in the World’ and winner of the inaugural ‘UK City of Culture 2013’, which offers conference facilities combined with rich heritage and a buzzing social scene with a keen mix of contemporary venues nestled among over 400 years of history. 

The Historic Walled City is compact and easy to navigate on foot. The city has a range of venues including flagship venue the Millennium Forum. The Forum is located within the ancient City Walls with space to accommodate up to 1,000 delegates, extensive exhibition space in its piazza area and free Wi-Fi. Adjacent to the Forum is the newly opened St Columb's Hall – an example of historic venue restoration. Originally built as a temperance hall in 1886 St Columb’s has undergone Phase I of a £3m regeneration plan and has quickly established itself as one of the city’s finest unique venues. 

Just a short stroll away is the centrally located City Hotel which has an entire floor dedicated to conferencing with a capacity of 350 delegates and a new VIP floor with 12 luxury suites ideal for keynote speakers and valued guests. Its close proximity to the Millennium Forum and St Columb’s Hall has created a ‘Conference Quarter’ enabling all three venues to work in partnership to host larger conferences and events. 

The Hastings Everglades Hotel is part of the renowned Hastings brand and has the capacity to accommodate 450 delegates for banqueting in its new £1.2m Ballroom. 

The neo-gothic Guildhall is the city’s Civic building and home to one of the largest collections of stained glass in Ireland. The Guildhall is the perfect venue to officially welcome your delegates to the city with a complimentary drinks reception hosted by the Lord Mayor and its opulent Main Hall has a capacity of 220 for a gala dinner. 

How has the events industry benefitted the area in recent years?

Since the city’s year as UK City of Culture in 2013, the MICE market has grown rapidly, particularly within the medical and academic Association sector, largely driven by the Visit Derry Conference Ambassador Programme. Derry's Ulster University Magee Campus is home to CTRIC, a leading research & innovation centre within the fields of Stratified & Translational Medicine. Magee is just 1 of 170 MEG neuroscience labs worldwide and the Campus’ Celtic Studies department placed 2nd in the UK in the 2014 REF ratings. Altnagelvin Hospital recently opened a state of the art £50m Radiotherapy Unit and is also home to a leading Cardiology Unit.

An increase in venue and accommodation capacity has enabled the city to bid for and accommodate larger conferences, most notably a recent successful bid to host the 30th World Congress of the International Association for Suicide Prevention which will attract an estimated 800 delegates to the city in 2019, generating approximately £1.5m to the local economy. 

Aoife McHale, business & leisure officer says: “Derry-Londonderry’s MICE sector is growing rapidly thanks to continued investment in the destination, a strong medical and academic Ambassador Programme and an unusual mix of contemporary and historic venues that bring a different dynamic to a conference or event. People buy from people and we place a real emphasis on creating an atmosphere to inspire those connections. The team at Visit Derry will work with you every step of the way to craft memorable, exclusive and authentic programmes ensuring a #LegenDerry experience for clients.”

Belfast

Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in April 1998, overnight stays in Belfast have more than tripled from 500,000 a year to over 1.5m, with tourism spend rising to £335m from £84m during the period. 

Tourism now contributes around 6.6% of Northern Ireland’s GDP and up to 8% of its employment. In Belfast alone, the tourism sector supports more than 18,000 jobs.

Belfast is indeed a city resurgent, and it hasn’t gone un-noticed by conference organisers. The city has long been feted by those in the know. The Guardian newspaper labelled Belfast as the Best UK City in 2016, National Geographic voted it as the Rising Star of 2017 and now Lonely Planet have awarded it Top Place to Visit in 2018.  

In May 2018, Belfast Waterfront, the city’s leading conference and exhibition centre, is hosting the RCN Congress and is ready to welcome more than 5,000 delegates from across the UK. According to Catherine Toolan, managing director of Belfast Waterfront, RCN Congress is eagerly anticipated by both the venue and the city. She tells CN: “The RCN Congress is the premier event in the nursing calendar so we’re delighted that Belfast Waterfront has been chosen as the host venue. 

“Our unique space will be dynamically tailored to facilitate everything from the opening ceremony and RCN award ceremony, to debates on emerging industry trends and issues and even ‘Laughter Yoga’ workshops. Our city is eagerly anticipating RCN delegates and everyone in our bars, restaurants and hotels to taxi drivers, cafes and even our market stall traders will welcome delegates with open arms.  

“This conference alone is estimated to deliver £4.8m of economic impact for the city. The people of Belfast understand the importance of business tourism, and our local businesses are geared to showcase Belfast as a unique, vibrant and energetic city.”

Backing up Toolan’s assertion that Belfast is resurgent, the Eventist Group has recently announced that it will now be operating in the city, bringing their famous Christmas Party ideas with them.

“Belfast’s events industry has seen exponential growth in the last few years, which has created a real buzz and helped to further boost the city’s profile,” says Jon Noonan, group sales director, Eventist Group. 

“Having been on our radar for a while, we have been looking forward to taking our events to the Northern Ireland market, but it was imperative for us find the perfect venue before making our move into Belfast. The opportunity to partner with the fantastic S13 is incredibly exciting for us, especially having seen the success of their T13 site in the Titanic Quarter. We have identified a gap in the market and believe our packaged Christmas parties are absolutely perfect for the Belfast market.”

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In a vote of confidence for the city, in April 2018 AC Hotels by Marriott opened the doors to its first hotel on the island of Ireland in Belfast.

The all-new 188-bedroom AC Hotel Belfast cost £25m to build and brings 80 jobs to the city. 

It is situated on the waterfront in the heart of Belfast Harbour’s landmark City Quays development, with excellent transport connections and close proximity to the city centre and Belfast Waterfront.

“Belfast has established itself as a leading business, hospitality and tourism destination and we are delighted that Marriott International is entering Northern Ireland with the opening of AC Belfast,” said John Licence, VP Premium & Select Brands Europe, Marriott International.  

AC Hotel Belfast is among the city’s largest hotels and will offer a services including a fitness room, library and meeting facilities. In addition to the 112-seater ‘Novelli at City Quays’ restaurant, the AC Lounge, a creative hotspot by day and social hub by night, will serve tapas-inspired small bites and the AC signature Gin & Tonic. 

While there is a lot of new construction in the city for the events sector, there is still some striking examples of historical venues.

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As the official residence of the Royal Family in Northern Ireland, Hillsborough Castle is situated just outside of Belfast and is well versed in hosting grand events. This impressive Georgian mansion boasts a variety of atmospheric indoor and outdoor spaces, with 100 acres of kept grounds and a number of ornate State Rooms. Following a refurbishment programme, these spaces will once again be available from August 2018.

As one of six venues in the Historic Royal Palaces portfolio, Hillsborough Castle benefits from UK-wide marketing activity that draws on the strength of the six palaces’ offerings while highlighting their individual personalities and one-of-a-kind spaces. 

With its proximity to Belfast and storied history, Hillsborough Castle provides an historic environment for conferences and events.