Business

Brendan Mulgrew: Belfast still has more to offer...

Businessman Gareth Graham (left) and John Walsh from Belfast City Council getting a tour of Belfast's newest hotel Room 2 along with new openings manager Michelle Thomas. Picture: Darren Kidd/PressEye
Businessman Gareth Graham (left) and John Walsh from Belfast City Council getting a tour of Belfast's newest hotel Room 2 along with new openings manager Michelle Thomas. Picture: Darren Kidd/PressEye Businessman Gareth Graham (left) and John Walsh from Belfast City Council getting a tour of Belfast's newest hotel Room 2 along with new openings manager Michelle Thomas. Picture: Darren Kidd/PressEye

WHEN I was young a trip ‘into town’ was a huge deal, it was something which was looked forward to and carefully planned. It didn’t happen all that often so when it came round it was a special day, even if it did involve going through the security gates at the top of Castle Street and being searched at the entrance to each shop; that was something we just took for granted.

The trip might have involved shopping for new clothes, something to eat in a cafe and if we were lucky it went beyond window shopping at Leisureworld and we actually went inside this magical place and pick a toy.

Later, into my teenage years, going into town meant meeting friends, going to Makin’ Tracks, Caroline Music and all the other record shops. By this stage most of the old independent cafes and restaurants had been replaced with first Wimpy, then Burger King and McDonalds, but we were more interested in the bars by this stage anyway.

More recently it has meant going for an evening meal or lunch, a social drink or a coffee, mixed in with some shopping. The security gates are long gone now, just like the record shops and there is no doubt that the experience of visiting a city centre has changed, probably forever.

If we are to retain the value and even the role of city centres in modern culture and life, we need to plan their future development carefully and in line with evolving trends, technology and the living and retail habits of the 21st century.

That is a challenge. It is not unique to Belfast or Northern Ireland, and post-Covid it is also an opportunity to reconfigure our infrastructure to take account of how we now live, work, travel and socialise. There is much talk now of 15-minute cities, of transforming the high street offering and enticing people into town centres to work, to socialise and to spend. It is a challenge and it can also be embraced as an opportunity.

In the face of change some things are constant, and thankfully a quality product, well priced, will always find a market. Successful cities need their visionaries too and through my day job I am fortunate enough to work with some of them.

In one small footprint in the centre of Belfast local businessman Gareth Graham has transformed a collection of stale 1980s commercial buildings into modern, attractive centres of commerce and hospitality which have lifted the profile of our city and which say something about what Belfast can become. One such building is Merchant Square on Wellington Place which now houses PwC in what is their biggest office outside London, and is home to 3,000 staff.

Across the road on Queen Street is Belfast’s newest hotel, room2, which opened for bookings just a few weeks ago and provides 175 bedrooms across nine floors. I was fortunate enough to have more than one preview of the hotel as it went from office block to building site to a ‘hometel’ where guests can check in for a night, for a month or even for a year. The fit out of room2 is special, it looks bright, energetic and confident. There are locally sourced furnishings, art work and even cutlery, cups and saucers. Take a glance in next time you are passing and you will see what a fantastic addition we have to our city centre offering.

The big test of course is demand. Is there a need for what is on offer? And yes the demand is there. Last weekend every room in the new hotel was booked over Friday and Saturday night and that is without any major events or concerts taking place in the city.

BRENDAN GALLAGHER
BRENDAN GALLAGHER BRENDAN GALLAGHER

So without this new hotel where would those guests have gone? There is no sense or trend to suggest that hotel occupancy overall is down, and in fact demand clearly remains very high. Before Covid hit it was predicted that Northern Ireland would have more than 10,000 hotel rooms, but that growth has slowed down now, stalled by the pandemic, costs and planning barriers.

Of course, we need the right master-plans, strategies, targets and a planning regime fit for purpose. Experience shows that we still need more hotels, more reasons for people to come into our cities, and an offering that, when they do arrive, leaves them with the type of memories I have and a reason to return.

:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast