From court cases to event spaces . . .

ICC Belfast
Julia Corkey

What a difference a week makes. Last Saturday we were wrapping up our first large-scale fully hybrid business event since March 2020 and celebrating the successful arrival and safe departure of a well-attended Annual Congress of the European Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies.

Just one week before this our flagship venue, International Convention Centre Belfast (ICC Belfast), was operating as the Nightingale Northern Ireland courts and tribunals venue as instructed by the Department of Justice. Our flexible event spaces were used as a Covid-secure venue to help reduce the backlog of cases built up prior to and during the pandemic.

Being resilient and agile is in our nature and literally overnight we switched back to a convention centre. However, it is a whole new ball game.

The impact of Covid-19 cannot be underestimated. A thriving entertainments business was decimated overnight. A burgeoning conferencing and events calendar ground to a shuddering halt. These venues, used by thousands of patrons and delegates, stood empty.

I joined the business last year when the pandemic had really taken hold, and business and commerce had frozen. The entire sector has been reset. The journey back will be difficult, but often the most difficult journeys lead to beautiful destinations.

Events and live entertainment are back. We know the months and years ahead will throw up challenges that would have been unthinkable a mere 18 months ago – but we are ready for it.

We took the opportunity of being closed to re-evaluate and recalibrate our expectations. We have invested in our resource and now boast state-of-the-art technical production equipment to deliver world class hybrid events, where conference organisers can stream content live from any one of our spaces to delegates anywhere in the world.

We have also invested in our team – because our people are the heart of our organisation. We made a commitment to stay connected and we delivered. Our team engagement surveys tell us that our team feel more valued now than they did pre-pandemic.

The resilience shown by my team and our stakeholders who include among others include, Belfast City Council, Visit Belfast and Tourism NI, makes me proud to have taken this role.

Whilst business events may well be unrecognisable when compared to the recent past, innovation, opportunity and need are often the catalyst to success – and we know there is an opportunity to put Belfast on the map in a new era for the sector.

My team and our stakeholders have a collective desire to promote Belfast and Northern Ireland as a world-leading destination for events, because events are vital to Belfast and Northern Ireland's economic recovery post Covid-19.

The obvious challenge is that business travel as we knew it no longer exists. But business is still thriving, and that means relationships need to be built, deals need to be done and networking needs to happen. Technology is wonderful and we all work differently now – but we must remember this was borne out of necessity.

We don't know what the future holds, but we know how our customers think. They advise us that they put a huge emphasis on relationships – and the customers who have booked with us in 2022 and 2023 are booking with the intention of attracting delegates from all over the world to Belfast.

One out-of-state delegate is worth around £488 per day to the local economy which means a three-day conference with 1,000 delegates is worth approximately £1.5 million. That's new money injected into Northern Ireland.

Imagine a time when Belfast and Northern Ireland can host hundreds of these events a year? Imagine the impact on hotels and pubs? Imagine the impact on our golf product and world class visitor attractions?

Impact is our driver. If we can collectively deliver this, Northern Ireland will benefit. And it all will hinge on how business gets done.

It won't happen overnight, but we are planning for the fact that business will always thrive – and good relationships are at the heart of good business.

:: Julia Corkey is chief executive of ICC Belfast | Waterfront Hall | Ulster Hall

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