UK spotlight: Belfast

3 Jun 2024 by BusinessTraveller
Belfast (credit K Mitch Hodge/Unsplash)

Northern Ireland’s capital shines with community spirit, cultural activities and a thriving creative scene. 

Belfast works harder to show visitors a good time, because we’ve always had to,” says Deborah Collins, head of Business Events at Visit Belfast. We’re sipping trendy turmeric lattes at Established Coffee, one of Belfast’s most-loved cafes. When the cafe opened in the regenerated Cathedral Quarter in 2013, all polished concrete and birch wood, it was a big deal for my hometown – a historically innovative and industrial city that had experienced decades of military occupation, economic stagnation and, indeed, rubbish cafes.

Collins’ words ring true, with international visitors a rarity during my teenage years. And yet, two decades later, we’re sat among tourists discussing last year’s One Young World Summit, which welcomed over 2,200 young thought leaders and ambassadors from 191 countries to the Northern Irish capital. Keynote speakers ranged from Queen Rania of Jordan to Rio Ferdinand, tackling topics including the climate emergency, mental health, peace and reconciliation, education and the food crisis.

In fact, 2023 was a record year for business events held in Belfast, with 92 high profile and strategic events such as UK Space (1,700 delegates), Cyber UK (1,500 delegates) and the European Association of Archaeologists (3,000 delegates). “This is worth around £42.5 million in economic impact, delivering a 35 per cent year-on-year sales growth in new MICE business for the city,” explains Collins.

The future is looking bright, too. The team has 179 forward bookings from now until 2029, equating to 70,000 delegates and 210,000 room nights. “Since 2012, we’ve seen sustained development in Belfast’s tourism infrastructure, and now for large business events we’re on par with Glasgow, Manchester, Edinburgh… and further afield [destinations] like Copenhagen. It’s exciting!”

Perhaps more than other cities, Belfast’s business tourism is reliant on personal recommendations, or a decision-maker “discovering” Belfast. “I’d say some 80 per cent of our new business comes through a connection with a local, an employee, society member or delegate who acts as an ambassador and names Belfast as a perfect fit.” This might be a doctor and member of the British Hip Society, for example, which held its 2024 annual conference at the city’s 2,000-capacity International Conference Centre, which reopened in 2016 after a £30 million transformation.

“Happily, when organisers visit on a scouting trip, they nearly always confirm the booking,” says Collins. “Practically speaking, it’s easy to get to, it’s good value for money, and it’s walkable, so there’s no hassle. In less than 20 minutes you can get from a summit at ICC or Titanic Belfast to the bars, restaurants and venues of the Cathedral Quarter.”

Tourists, meanwhile, come in their droves to visit bucket-list attractions like Titanic Belfast or Game of Thrones filming locations. Others can delve into the city’s gritty socio-economic history with a Black Taxi Tour (which takes in political murals and recounts recent history of political activism and sectarian conflict), or visit museums like Crumlin Road Gaol – which, incidentally, offers a superb event space.

The Titanic Belfast museum exterior by the River Lagan (credit: Thomas Faull)

Irish hospitality

Today’s hotel landscape in Belfast is a runaway success story, with the sector doubling in size over the past 25 years (a marker coinciding with the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement). There are over 10,000 hotel beds across the city, plus four projects underway for 2024/2025 that will add 430 rooms to the city stock.

Growing up in Belfast, it wasn’t always easy to recommend a good city-centre hotel, but change came with the opening of the Bullitt Hotel back in 2016. (Yes, most of us raised our eyebrows at the name, but apparently it’s named after the cult Steve McQueen movie rather than the violent conflict.) The 74-room hotel, which borders the Cathedral Quarter, signalled Belfast’s evolving appeal to a new breed of traveller, notably Gen Z and millennials. The design aesthetic is reminiscent of mid-priced brands such as Ace, The Hoxton and 25hours Hotels, with the property boasting a rooftop bar and open-plan bar/cafe/co-working lobby.

While Bullitt is representative of the city’s first wave of post-conflict tourism, this year’s zero-carbon ‘hometel’ opening from Lamington Group is emblematic of today’s new bleisure wave. The brand’s fourth property, room2 Belfast, joins locations in London and Southampton, and features 175 rooms with functional yet aspirational design, expansive public spaces and a variety of room categories – some of which include kitchenettes. The property seems dreamed-up to serve business travellers – from remote workers to freelancers, digital nomads and film industry creatives.

Design DNA

For Northern Irish people, it’s a delight to see Belfast regaining its status as a creative and cultural hotbed, as well as a centre for industry and innovation – a reputation that was put on ice for several decades.

After all, Belfast was once the shipbuilding capital of the world, with the Titanic constructed in 1909 at Harland & Wolff shipyards. The luxury ocean liner industry sustained Europe’s most innovative engineers and architectural designers, alongside cabinet-makers, linen weavers, potters and interior designers. This industrial history is visible today, with ornate Victorian and Georgian architecture dominating the city centre.

Over in the regenerated docklands and Titanic Quarter are signs of today’s stakeholders. Glass and steel buildings are home to advanced manufacturing, FinTech, MedTech, health sciences and the digital and creative industries.

Smaller businesses, meanwhile, flourish in former warehouse or factory spaces, such as the Portview Trade Centre in East Belfast. This former spinning mill has thread together a community of start-up enterprises and artists’ collectives, alongside microbrewery Boundary Brewing, Detroit-style pizza joint Flout Pizza and Belfast’s first urban mushroom farm – Hearty Growers.

“This is a city where creative and entrepreneurial people can take a bit of a risk, without sky-high rents… and with a really supportive network of small business owners, creatives and entrepreneurs,” explains Terry Vaz, co-founder and CEO of Hearty Growers. Vaz, who grew up in Goa and moved to Belfast eight years ago, speaks highly of the city: “I couldn’t be happier here in Portview, and being here has already led to some really interesting collaborations.” Indeed, I first came across Vaz at one of his mushroom cultivation workshops at Boundary Brewing. Then in April, I was blown away by his live fungi installation at Sonorities Festival – an electronic and experimental music festival in Portview’s event space.

Equally effusive is Ryan Crown, creative director of Crown Creative, a hospitality design and branding agency based between New York and Belfast. We meet at Neighbourhood, his Cathedral Quarter cafe, to discuss how perceptions of the city have changed over the years. “I have to admit that when I moved back to Belfast from Brooklyn four years ago, I kept the move a bit on the down-low, preferring to tell clients I was still based in Brooklyn,” he laughs, shaking his head. This is a lingering shyness or misplaced shame that everyone from Belfast can relate to; I certainly do.

“Anyway, I don’t do this any more,” says Ryan. “Everyone knows that the talent and creativity in Belfast is amazing, and I’m absolutely proud to say we’re based here, in the heart of one of the most dynamic culinary and hospitality scenes on the planet,” he enthuses. (Funnily enough, Vaz used to supply the goods for Neighbourhood’s cult breakfast dish of mushrooms on toast.)

“It’s exciting to see a younger generation with the confidence to set up a business out of a shipping container or hole-in-the-wall hatch, because they know if they bring a good idea to Belfast, the community will help them fly.”

Another more practical advantage is Belfast’s warm international relations. Post-Brexit, Northern Ireland finds itself uniquely within the British domestic and European Single Trading area for goods (see explainer box). “We’re also seeing real collaboration and support across the North-South border, which is new and really encouraging,” adds Crown.

Neighbourhood Cafe - provided by Crown Creative

People power

If business travellers are first drawn to Belfast for its industrial dynamism, compact size and shiny new structure, it’s the city’s people that leave a lasting impact. “One of the most exciting offerings we’re developing for business travellers is the chance to work with schools, universities or community groups,” says Collins from Visit Belfast.

“Hosting a large-scale event is no longer about just making sure we have event space and brilliant nightlife venues for exclusive hire – and we sure have that – but it’s about connecting travellers to the community.”

When the European Association of Archaeologists held its four-day annual event in Belfast in 2023, Visit Belfast facilitated a public festival of archaeology in the grounds of Queen’s University. Delegates from last year’s British Society of Soil Science, meanwhile, held soil workshops in Belfast schools.

Travellers can also volunteer with Grow NI, a charity which works with four community gardens across the city. “Post-conflict Belfast, while still scarred, has the energy, generosity and humour to build and support these communities, and it’s positive that the work of community groups is now receiving international widespread recognition,” says community gardener Claire Peacocke. Belfast has a reputation for fostering pioneering community initiatives, offering visitors a window into the city’s cultural and social character.

As Collins sees it, Belfast’s community spirit and cultural heritage makes the city a truly unique offering, catering to a new wave of business travellers seeking a deeper experience than simply attending meetings and events. “As I said, we just work harder.”

Post-Brexit Belfast

  • Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but also shares an unmanned land border with the Republic of Ireland, and therefore the European Union. The terms of Brexit (such as a UK-EU hard border on the island of Ireland) directly contradicted various crucial terms of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which successfully de-escalated 35 years of sectarian violence.
  • Amidst a rise in political tensions following the UK’s exit from the EU in 2020, agreements were eventually made by all jurisdictions that grant Northern Ireland full market access to both Great Britain and the EU. This makes Belfast particularly appealing to investors who wish to trade goods freely with both EU and GB markets.
  • Under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement (comprising the Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework) Northern Ireland is de jure inside the UK customs territory but de facto under the EU customs code. This means Northern Ireland remains in ‘dynamic regulatory alignment’ with the EU Single Market in respect to goods while also retaining ‘unfettered access’ to the UK internal market.
  • Irish citizens who live in Northern Ireland are guaranteed ‘no diminution’ of their rights as EU citizens despite being outside the EU territory and Northern Ireland is still a recipient of dedicated EU PEACE and INTERREG funding.

Words: Anna Hart

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The cover of the Business Traveller June 2024 edition
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