Martin Fullard sits down with Gerry Lennon (pictured below), CEO of Visit Belfast, to learn more about the city’s aspirations in legacy and social benefit
The world changes at pace, but some places change quicker than others, and if one were to draw up a list, it’s a safe bet that Belfast would be top.
The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 will be remembered as one of the most important peace brokerages in history, ending 40 years of Troubles in Northern Ireland, much covered by the media across the world.
Since that time, Belfast has evolved into a thriving city, rich in culture, sport, business and, of course, events. The city is now one of the UK’s most popular conference destinations, and its reputation on the international stage gets stronger by the year.
Gerry Lennon was the man who helped launch Visit Belfast in 2000, as Northern Ireland entered a new chapter in its history. Now, 22 years later, Lennon is still at helm and ready to take Belfast into yet another era, one centred on social benefit and legacy, and conferences, he says, are the best way forwards.
Martin Fullard: Is Belfast fully open for business?
Gerry Lennon: We have gone from zero to a million miles per hour in such a short space of time. 2021 was probably a bit of a false start for us, as was the case for so many destinations. But now in 2022 we have just completed a series of community-based marketing workshops for tourism initiatives.
One of our big messages is that 2022 signals the start of the city’s tourism recovery and we’re really confident that within a few years tourism will return to the record levels we saw in 2019. 2022 is already a record year for our business events and cruise tourism with more than 80 conferences and 32,000 delegates expected, which is 25% more than 2019. and 300,000 cruise visitors, that’s about 15% growth from 2019, too.
There’s definitely a trend towards people wanting to explore their own neighbourhoods, and combining business and leisure. Our core growth markets in Belfast are overnight stays from Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland, and elsewhere from Northern Ireland. We’re sitting at around 80% occupancy in the hotels since April, with 85% year-to-date on room sales compared to 2019.
MF: Tell us about venues and attractions; is there anything new on the horizon?
GL: I think one of Belfast’s strengths is the fact that it is a small, compact city, but we have that ‘big city’ feel about it. We have more than 60 venues that meet all budgets and all needs. The ICC Belfast is a state-of-the-art, world class and venue and plays host to many of the largest events that come to city.
Titanic Belfast also adds an international appeal and is a key visitor attraction and more bespoke event space. We go to other venues like Crumlin Road Gaol, a 19th Century Gaol, and Hillsborough Castle, the Queen’s official residence in Northern Ireland, and of course Belfast City Hall.
There has been a quarter of a billion pounds worth of investment in new hotel stock, mainly four- and five-star rating.
Then there’s the tie-in with the popular HBO show Game of Thrones, which was filmed here in large part. The studios have been turned into a visitor attraction, and it’s a popular spot for gala dinners and more quirky, fun conferences.
There are several less conventional venues popping up now around the city, such as Banana Block and Common Market. Many of them are repurposed from derelict warehouses and similar buildings.
Business events are so important to us a city, and I’m so pleased that we have such a strong venue scene to support the sector. We go the extra mile. We make it easier for conference venues, we make it better for conference delegates.
MF: What is the Visit Belfast strategy to bring in more business events and investment; are there particular markets around the world that you want to reach out to?
GL: Let me step back a bit there and say that what the pandemic has done is to make every destination pause and rethink their plans. And one of the key things for us, and we’re not unique here, is that the realisation is that the world has changed, and that’s ok. We felt we had to bring balance back to it. We had to be clear about what tourism was going to do not just as a contributor to the economy, but how tourism can act as a catalyst for social benefit, for wellbeing, and for protecting our environment.
Visit Belfast is evolving from a Destination Marketing Organisation to becoming a Destination Marketing Management Organisation. As part of that we have launched our 10-year business tourism strategy, which will grow business tourism by 2032, and see a 30% increase in the international association conference market.
This has the potential to be worth half a billion pounds of economic impact.
Our role will be to lead the tactical sales marketing for the whole region, and in 2022 we’re targeting £40m. There are several key elements. Starting with our ambassador programme, which has been hugely successful. More than 1,100 leaders in academia, medical and business are accountable for 80% of our conferences, so it is a clear sales channel. Our job is to utilise the strengths of this channel and make it more strategic.
The clever thing about this concept is if we’re bringing 40 conferences for 40,000 delegates, why not bring 40 conferences that will go beyond pure economic impact, but also yield a positive legacy for our society?
We will do this with investment from Invest Northern Ireland, and with a framework of their vision for the regional economy, which is a vision in terms of making Northern Ireland one of the strongest small elite economies in the world. They’ve identified several sectors that Northern Ireland has a competitive advantage in, and we fit the bill.
What are the events that will help us in furthering our sector and our positioning in that sector? The advisory panels have already generated £18m of potential conference impact when it was launched nine months ago. We honestly believe this is a unique tool for targeting conferences that will not just have an economic impact but have a legacy.
In addition to that, we’ve got one of the most generous conference support schemes in UK and Ireland, anything from £5,000 up to £100,000. And that’s thanks to investment from Belfast City Council and Tourism Northern Ireland.
We’ve gone further still and have appointed a sustainability and impact manager to help conferences identify projects that when they come to Belfast, how their delegates can contribute positively towards. So not only will they have had a good conference, but will have left behind a positive legacy. It has proven to be a very powerful criteria and attraction to conference organisers for us.
We already have forward bookings worth £80m. So, we’re not coming off a small base, but with this injection, and with this tweaking of our mindset, we’re not just chasing economics anymore. Our view is that the economics are a byproduct of chasing the right conferences, for Belfast and for Northern Ireland.
MF: Tell us more about the sustainability and impact manager role and how you are shaping your sustainability agenda?
GL: This is hugely important to us: the power of events, not just business events, but the power of events generally. For us as a city, creating civic pride, creating international experiences, and economic impact is vital. We’ve seen the power of tourism.
Over the last 20 years, the economic, social and cultural face of Belfast has transformed the city into the international destination it is today. This re-imagining has been attributable in large measure to our dynamic tourism and events industry.
What we’re doing now is we’re tapping into that concept through business events with a view that it’s not just about the economy. Our ambition is that every conference that comes here will have a legacy plan. That’s what our impact manager is doing.
We’ve joined the GDS Global Sustainability Index, where Belfast is in the top 20, along with Glasgow, having risen from second to last previously.
We want 90% of our hotel rooms to be independently green certified. The council has invested in this new green certification scheme, and while it’s a challenging process to undergo, it’s vital for our wider aspirations.