Take a look around you to see just how far Belfast has come
LAST week the World Health Organisation came to town. Once every five years the organisation marks the end of a five-year phase of its work in the Healthy Cities Network with a major conference which decides the priorities of the coming half decade. Bidding to host the conference is a competitive process and Belfast overcame competition from other European cities to host the 2018 event.
More than 550 delegates registered to attend and they came from over 200 cities and 60 countries. It is estimated by Visit Belfast that the delegates who were here for four days generated a boost of more than £1.2 million for the city.
They stayed in various hotels, and in a reflection of the determination of the organisers to ensure that delegates saw more of Belfast than a conference venue, they went on site visits to north, south, east and west Belfast during their stay.
I was involved in the Belfast Healthy Cities steering group which organised the conference in partnership with WHO colleagues from that organisation's European office. It was a role which fortunately for me meant I was at the heart of the event, seeing first hand the amount of detail involved in organising such a large scale conference.
Plenary sessions, keynote speakers, panel discussions, side events, poster exhibitions, civic receptions, parallel break-out groups - every element of the four-day conference is planned meticulously and managed through a partnership approach involving Belfast City Council, the NI Housing Executive, the Belfast Health Trust and other bodies. It was a pleasure to be involved in and an eye opener of what is precisely involved in hosting an event of this size.
It was an eye opener in other ways too. In looking for a way to combine my own civic pride and a love of running, I offered to take any interested delegates on a guided running tour early on the second day of the conference, thinking I would be happy if even three or four people turned up
In the event, 18 delegates met at the Waterfront Hall at 7am and they came from Taiwan, Korea, Bangladesh, New York City, and many cities from across Europe and across our islands.
We headed up into town, up towards City Hall and along Royal Avenue where the shell of the Bank Buildings, Primark store building grasped the attention of our visitors. We ran on down High Street and stopped outside McHugh's Bar which former West Belfast MP Joe Hendron tells me is the oldest building in the city and was the base for US soldiers during the second world war.
Now I don't know if that's wholly accurate, but if it is good enough for Dr Joe, it was good enough for my 18 running tourists. After taking a string of photos at the Albert Clock, our own little version of the Leaning Tower, we crossed the newest bridge over the Lagan and had a quick look at Titanic Belfast from a distance before heading back to base.
There was a request to repeat the run the next morning when the numbers were even greater. I had by now enlisted extra volunteers from Belfast Running Club and that day we went in the opposite direction and took in the Ormeau embankment, where as the sun rose in a beautiful blood red sky, we even happened on a Curragh sailing on the Lagan.
On multiple occasions throughout these brief, guided tours our visitors stopped to exclaim the beauty of our city, to ask questions and to take pictures. It was an uplifting experience and there was sincerity among our group when many expressed a determination to come back to Belfast as tourists, and even in a few cases to run the Belfast marathon.
At the end of the first day of the WHO event I was asked at home ‘What did the delegates think of Belfast?', which was a fair question. By that stage the visitors, all 550 of them, had begun the day at the Waterfront, had a mid-afternoon session at either the Ulster Hall, Linen Hall Library or City Hall and finished the day with a reception at Whitla Hall at Queen's University.
Can you think of a better way to make a first day impression? The appearance and participation of many of the city's dignitaries including mayor Deirdre Hargey, deputy mayor Emmet McDonough Brown and other senior political representatives was a help also.
Sometimes it does take a visitor, and especially one who has never been to Belfast before, to help us realise the beauty on our doorstep. Admittedly we were very lucky with the weather last week, but I do think that even in a drizzle, we have plenty to show off, to shout about and to be proud of.
Being in the company of first time visitors who genuinely enthused at our range of civic and public buildings, including Titanic Belfast which hosted the farewell dinner, was a positive experience which made me proud to come from and to show off Belfast.
We probably take our city for granted as we go about our daily business, and that is understandable. But from time to time, it pays off to just take a look around and appreciate how far Belfast has come in recent years. And if you don't believe me, I'm happy to repeat the running tour any morning!
:: Brendan Mulgrew (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter @brendanbelfast
:: Next week: Claire Aiken