The Big Interview: Caitriona Lavery
Caitriona Lavery, sales manager at Hastings Hotels, tells Stuart Wood the story of Belfast’s transformation, and how the MICE industry is helping the city to write a new chapter in its history.
Caitriona Lavery was born in Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles. Throughout her many years in the industry, she has seen Belfast transformed into a thriving destination, with the 2012 construction of tourist attraction and MICE venue Titanic Belfast, as well as an extensive redevelopment of the city’s riverside.
As sales manager for Hastings Hotels, Lavery is tasked with selling not just her hotel, but the destination of Belfast to the world. In this Big Interview, she tells us how the city changed its image, and why Liam Neeson is the perfect dinner party guest.
Where did you grow up, and what drove you to the MICE and hospitality industries?
I grew up on a farm about 35 miles south of Belfast. It was idyllic and a great place to live, especially as it was during the very dark days of our Troubles. My family was huge - I had 76 first cousins, so we were always planning family parties and events which I loved to help with.
I was in horse-riding classes with a lady named Claire Falkner, whose father was Brian Falkner, the ex-prime minister of Northern Ireland. She became a good friend although she was older than me, and then went off to work in Germany for Messe Frankfurt. When she came home, she started an event management company – which was an unusual thing to do in Northern Ireland at the time. We weren’t really doing events then.
The company was named Project Planning International (PPI), and I joined in 1991. It was one of the founding members of the Association of British Professional Conference Organisers (ABPCO). Claire was very well connected through her family, so the company was involved in a lot of very high-profile events, such as US president Clinton’s visit to Northern Ireland, and the Peace Process conference with former prime minister John Major.
I transferred to Hastings Hotels in 1997, after deciding I wanted to use my experience to sell venues for events, rather than booking them for my clients. I’m now the sales manager, and have been here for 23 years. What we’re really trying to do at Hastings is sell the destination of Belfast, before we sell the hotel.
The Titanic Belfast has been a very successful project for the city. How can a destination update its image, while staying true to its history?
The Titanic has been the catalyst for tourism in Belfast since its opening in 2012. It boosted confidence in our destination. I think people know that the Titanic was built in Belfast, but this helped us connect to our history. Although the original Titanic project ended in tragedy, the Titanic
Belfast is a monument to our city’s ambition, and our ability to rise out of dark days.
Alongside the construction of the Titanic, recent years have also seen continued investment in new and unique attractions around Belfast, as well as in our hotels and conference products. These provide the ‘hard asset’ that a destination needs to raise its profile in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
I think Belfast’s true strengths continue to lie in our people, and the raw ambition to welcome and look after visitors. That is our image - our people, and their character. There are so many stories to be told.
I was recently giving a presentation to a very young group from an agency, and when I mentioned Northern Ireland’s dark days and the Troubles, I realised there were blank faces in the audience. We’re talking to a new generation now, whose perception of our city isn’t clouded by its history. It’s a new chapter for Belfast.
Do you think Belfast is equipped to deal with the growth in tourism and visitors in a sustainable way?
I think we are. We haven’t peaked yet. Belfast is an evolving city, and we can learn from others mistakes. It is a walkable city centre, with great visitor attractions. We’ve also got a very young population – 46% of everyone living in Belfast is under the age of 30. We’re a city on the rise, and will be learning from the millennials as we grow.
How do you foresee the UK’s Tourism Sector Deal, and Brexit, impacting Belfast?
I don’t think Britain’s Tourism Sector Deal, or Brexit, will impact Belfast strongly going forward. If people feel they’ve got a good destination, a good experience, and the price is right, I don’t think tourism will be affected.
We have seen a bit of a dip in conferencing during recent months, however, with the outcome of Brexit still up in the air. People are afraid to make decisions, and organising a conference is a big decision. That feeling of uncertainty lingering in the air is awful, and we’re hearing that across the industry. But we continue on. Who knows what’s going to happen?
As someone who has worked in the hospitality industry for a long time, you must understand the importance of hosting. Who would be your three dream dinner party guests, dead or alive?
Michael Palin, Graham Norton, and Liam Neeson. Palin is a brilliant comedian, and his travel programmes are amazing, too. Liam Neeson is a homegrown star, being from Northern Ireland. He’s also quite easy on the eye! I think that would be an interesting dinner party…