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A Tale of Two Cities
The Emerald Isle has not one but two world-class corporate destinations – and both have been the subject of substantial investment. Annica Wainwright reports on developments in Dublin, while Astrid Mannion explains why she’s bowled over by Belfast
Renowned for its ‘craic’ and warm hospitality, Dublin is one of Europe’s liveliest cities and a corporate destination with instant appeal. Just over an hour away, with regular flight connections from all London airports – including five daily departures from London City – the Irish capital is right on our doorstep. Yet it offers UK visitors a real sense of being abroad.
It is also one of those places people say they’d love to visit but never quite get around to booking (Dublin will always be just around the corner, right?). So, as far as business invitations go, the offer of a trip to to the Irish capital is always going to ensure a fast and positive response.
From an organiser’s perspective, you couldn’t ask for an easier foreign city to work in. First of all, everyone here speaks English – obvious, we know, but it does make a big difference – and its
accessibility makes pre-event reccies a breeze. Once in situ, we found Dublin pleasingly walkable and the range of activities impressive. Within half an hour of the city centre, you’ll find
mountain walks, stately homes, beaches, resorts and more golf courses than you can shake a club at.
Michael Foreman of London-based conference and event organiser Confab Consulting has held two recent events – a hi-tech sales conference and a pharmaceutical ‘investigator meeting’ – in the Irish capital and was impressed with what it had to offer.
‘Dublin really is a first-class destination. It has an amazing history and offers easy access from the UK and Europe, alongside excellent hotels, top-notch restaurants, plenty of things to see and fantastic service,’ he says. He confirms that his company has already laid plans for future Dublin events.
Over the past few years, Ireland has enjoyed the highest rate of economic growth of any EU member state. This has resulted in enormous investment in infrastructure and facilities throughout the country, and Dublin leads the way in polishing the conference emerald. Cranes now tower over the skyline in just about every direction you look and there’s much talk of exciting developments, particularly around the Docklands area, where the city hopes to open a National Convention Centre by 2010.
A developing story
Nowhere are the investments more apparent than in the new hotels that are popping up all over town. The Radisson SAS Royal Hotel (tel: 00 353 1 506 0706) will bring 150 bedrooms to the city centre when it opens at the crossroads of Golden Lane and Chancery Lane later this spring. It will have meeting facilities for up to 400 and a roof terrace that can host barbecues for 300 guests – perfect for summer parties.
Similarly conveniently located, close to the Jameson Distillery, is the new Park Inn Dublin (tel: 00 353 1 817 3800). It may only have 73 bedrooms but among its varied events facilities are a function suite for 250 and a 120-seater cinema-style auditorium.
The Shelbourne (tel: 00 353 1 663 4500) on St Stephen’s Green may be the grand old dame of Dublin five-stars but, having just emerged from extensive refurbishment, it’s certainly not fusty. All of its facilities, which include 265 bedrooms, 12 banqueting suites, two bars and a restaurant, have been beautifully updated. On the other side of Trinity College sits the Trinity Capital Hotel (tel: 00 353 1 648 1000), which has just invested E25m in an extension programme that’s nearly doubled its original room capacity (now 158), while adding two Georgian-style boardrooms.
Over in Temple Bar, the famous Clarence Hotel (tel: 00 353 1 407 0800) is awaiting planning permission for a dramatic redevelopment designed by Foster+Partners. The new look would extend the hotel into the buildings immediately to the left and right, as well as into the former nightclub below, adding a spa and conference facility and bringing the room count up to 140. At the heart of the new design is a sculptural ‘sky catcher’ that will pull daylight into the base of the building and includes a viewing terrace. Work on this project is expected to start at the end of 2008.
Within easy reach of the city centre, suburban additions include the 155-bedroom Park Plaza Tyrrelstown (tel: 00 353 1 827 5600), a business-focused property with a self-contained 500-capacity conference centre, and the Crowne Plaza Dublin Airport Hotel (tel: 00 353 1 862 8888), which offers no less than 2,000sq m of events space across 25 meeting rooms and a maximum theatre-style capacity of 750 delegates.
Further out, there’s fresh space available at Clontarf Castle Hotel (tel: 00 353 1 833 2321), Luttrellstown Castle (tel: 00 353 860 9500), Portmarnock Hotel & Golf Links (tel: 00 353 1 846 0611) and the Grand Hotel at Malahide (tel: 00 353 1 845 0000).
And it’s not just hotels that are doing the spending. Keen to keep up with the Guinness Storehouse (tel: 00 353 1 408 4800) – appropriately Ireland’s number one international visitor attraction and one of Dublin’s most popular event venues – The Old Jameson Distillery (tel: 00 353 1 807 2355) has recently undergone substantial refurbishment. Its extended banqueting space, which features impressive new technology and upgraded catering facilities, was rather fittingly relaunched on St Patrick’s Day. Also in the pipeline is a E40m expansion programme that will add five fully-equipped lecture theatres (maximum capacity 600) to the Marino Institute of Education (tel: 00 353 1 805 7700). And fingers remain crossed for the proposed development of the National Convention Centre at Spencer Dock.
Restaurants have also entered the events scene of late. Some of the most impressive venues we encountered on our recent trip fitted into this category. Fire (tel: 00 353 1 676 7200) was one that blew us away. Centrally located next to Mansion House, this tall-ceilinged space offers such a successful mix of period features and contemporary fittings that it cries out to be used for an exclusive event. It also has a adjoining event space in The Round Room, which can accommodate up to 700.
Similarly impressive is the recently refurbished Halo Restaurant (tel: 00 353 1 887 2400) within the Morrison hotel on Ormond Quay. It spreads across two levels, offering varied space for anything from small cocktail receptions to dinners for up to 90 guests.
Outside town in County Kildare, Lyons Village (tel: 00 353 1 630 3500) is the brainchild of Ryanair co-founder Tony Ryan. He has transformed an attractive stone village in the grounds of his Co Kildare Estate into a centre for Irish gastronomy. Onsite are food and wine stores, as well as a Richard Corrigan restaurant, where two private dining rooms can seat 18 guests each for formal dinner parties. Accommodation is also available.
Amphibious sightseeing tours * Cocktail-making * Fine dining * Ghostbus tours * Going to the theatre * Guided walks * Guinness Storehouse tours * Irish evenings with traditional music and dancing * Liffey river cruises * Limousine treasure hunts * Literary pub crawls * Museum visits * Musical pub crawls * Old Jameson Distillery tours * Open-top bus tours * Shopping *Skating on seasonal ice rinks * Temple Bar pub crawls * Watching a game of hurling, rugby or Gaelic football at Croke Park * Whiskey tasting
Abseiling * Archery * Canoeing * Clay-pigeon shooting * Cookery courses * Cycling * Field sports * Fishing * Golf * Hiking * Horse racing * Horse trekking * Karting * Mountain biking * North coast and castle tours * Off-road driving * Orienteering * Rail tours * Sailing * Scuba diving * Sea safaris * Shooting * South coast and garden tours * Surfing * Water-skiing * Windsurfing
Double Vision - The K Club
The organiser’s view
‘I needed to find a venue for a two-day sales conference for 100 employees and K Club came on a good recommendation. The event was incredibly easy to organise and, when we arrived, everything had been done as we instructed. I met with a representative before the event started, and throughout the conference there was a member of the team on hand to answer any queries.
‘We didn’t choose the K Club for its golf facilities, but the golfers in the party were delighted to have the chance to play on last year’s Ryder Cup course. The hotel also had excellent spa
Joy Eaton-Boyd, executive assistant, Standard & Poor’s
The guest’s view
‘We went in February, so it was very quiet and very relaxed. I was surprised – I thought it would be more corporate. The K Club had a really Irish feel – not at all stuffy. Whether it was the waiters, the managers or the guys on the golf course, they couldn’t do enough for you. It wasn’t like a posh five-star hotel where you can’t do anything.
‘For example, one group won some Champagne, which had been brought in by our company. When they took it to the bar and opened it, no one insisted that they drink the bar’s Champagne instead. Later on, a few of the party found themselves hungry after the kitchen had closed. The solution? The barmen got hold of some bacon and eggs, which they took back to one of the suites and cooked. It was little things like that that made a difference.
‘Similarly, on the golf course, the atmosphere was quite relaxed and not overbearing. The Ryder Cup course itself was superb. It was in fantastic condition. The greens played very well – in the wet
weather you’d expect it to be quite slow but once the rain cleared it was straight back to normal. For people who didn’t fancy the golf, there was a spa, clay-pigeon shooting, horse riding and a
racecourse nearby. All very in keeping with Irish country life. It was a beautiful place.’
Chris Deavin, director of sales, investment services, Standard & Poor’s
Where to Stay
This once ultra-trendy Temple Bar boutique, opened by U2’s Bono and The Edge in 1996, is starting to feel a bit dated. But its stunning Penthouse is still a top choice for incentives, while the Clarence Suite function room offers beautiful river views. Extensive redevelopment by Foster and Partners is in the pipeline.
6-8 Wellington Quay, tel: 00 353 1 407 0800
(BR: 49 FR: 3 M: 60 D: 100 R: 120)
The Fitzwilliam Hotel
Conran-designed city centre five-star hotel with excellent meeting facilities for smaller groups (seating up to 80 theatre-style). The Michelin-starred Thornton’s restaurant is onsite.
St Stephen’s Green, tel: 00 353 1 478 7000
(BR: 139 FR: 3 M: 90 D: 60 R: 100)
Spread across four Georgian townhouses, this atmospheric five-star property may only be 10 years old but it has plenty of historic charm. Elegant function rooms are complemented by interesting spaces such as the vaulted Cellar Bar, where a glassed-in bottle display acts as a wine list.
Upper Merrion Street, tel: 00 353 1 603 0600
(BR: 143 FR: 9 M: 50 D: 50 R: 80)
Contemporary cool on the north banks of the Liffey. The Morrison got its good looks from the world-famous designer John Rocha, who’s ensured that both the luxurious bedrooms and open-plan public spaces have a calming East-meets-West feel. There’s impressive events space in the flexible Printworks suite, snug Courtyard Garden and funky Halo restaurant.
Ormond Quay, tel: 00 353 1 887 2400
(BR: 138 FR: 6 M: 240 D: 240 R: 350)
Fresh out of extensive refurbishments, the Grand Old Dame of Dublin hotels is now a haven of contemporary elegance. As the largest five-star in the city centre, it offers 265 bedrooms and 12 function suites in a stunning location on St Stephen’s Green.
27 St Stephen’s Green, tel: 00 353 1 663 4500
(BR: 265 FR: 12 M: 500 D: 350 R: 500)
The Westin Hotel Grand
Traditional five-star with unbeatable location overlooking Trinity College and close to Grafton Street. The 19th century Banking Hall lends a stunning backdrop to gala dinners.
College Green, Westmoreland Street,
tel: 00 353 1 645 1000
(BR: 163 FR: 8 M: 250 D: 168 R: 260)
Crowne Plaza Dublin Airport Hotel
Business-focused property, set in 85 acres close to the airport and the M1/M50 motorways.
Northwood Park, Santry Demesne, Santry,
tel: 00 353 1 862 8888
(BR: 204 FR: 25 M: 750 D: 600 R: 1000)
Dylan Hotel Dublin
Seriously cool new five-star boutique in a posh suburb on the edge of the city. Expect swish boardroom facilities, a stylish bar and restaurant, and bedrooms with plasma screens, MP3 players and sumptuous beds.
Eastmoreland Place, tel: 00 353 1 660 3000
(BR: 44 FR: 1 M: 12 D: 12 R: 35)
Four Seasons Hotel Dublin
Traditional five-star with flexible events facilities, set in a leafy suburb with views over the city and Dublin Bay.
Simmonscourt Road, tel: 00 353 1 665 4810
(BR: 196 FR: 5 M: 550 D: 420 R: 600)
Contemporary four-star, set within one of Ireland’s finest stately homes, 14 miles west of Dublin city centre and a 30-minute drive from the airport. It offers beautiful function rooms alongside impressive sporting facilities and a gorgeous spa.
Maynooth, Co Kildare, tel: 00 353 1 505 2000
(BR: 165 FR: 10 M: 600 D: 400 R: 380)
Citywest Hotel Resort
The largest of the lot, Citywest has a 4,000-capacity conference centre, 1,314 bedrooms and two golf courses on site. Saggart, Co Dublin, tel: 00 353 1 401 0500
(BR: 1,314 FR: 12 M: 4,000 D: 2,300 R: 1500)
The Dunboyne Castle Hotel & Spa
Stunning one-year-old castle conversion in beautiful countryside just 10 miles from the centre of Dublin, boasting 12,000sq m of hi-tech meeting space, grand function rooms and a fabulous spa.
Dunboyne, Co Meath, tel: 00 353 1 801 3500
(BR: 145 FR: 10 M: 150 D: 250 R: 550)
Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links
Stunningly located and recently extended seaside resort, set in and around Jameson House between the villages of Malahide and Howth, 11 miles from the city centre. Ideal for corporate golf days.
Portmarnock, Co Dublin, tel: 00 353 1 846 0611
(BR: 139 FR: 8 M: 350 D: 180 R: 240)
‘Much has happened in the past few years and old perceptions of the North have been rewritten,’ reads the new Visitor Guide for Northern Ireland. After a recent visit to Belfast, we realised it certainly challenges your preconceptions; the city once associated with ‘The Troubles’ is now a great destination for business and incentive travel, with new hotels, attractions, shops, event venues and restaurants popping up around town.
Furthermore, contrary to many people’s perceptions of Belfast being a dangerous city, a UN survey recently revealed that Belfast has the second lowest crime rate in the developed world after Tokyo.
Indeed, one of the first things we noticed when we arrived was the friendliness of the people. In Belfast, the locals are genuinely proud of their city and are keen to share their feelings with you. Their hospitality makes it easy to warm to the place and you immediately feel welcome.
Combining the above with Belfast’s relatively compact nature, we’re not surprised it has become such a popular destination for business tourism. Belinda Hawthorne, one of the conference and sales managers at Belfast Visitor & Convention Bureau, explains: ‘We’ve had a lot more stability in the last decade and Belfast has gained more global access.’ Its two airports have daily scheduled flights from London’s four main airports, as well as daily flights to and from most British regional airports, several European cities, as well as New York, Toronto and Vancouver.
Thanks to substantial recent government investment, Belfast is now an exciting mix of cosmopolitan city and striking countryside plus world-class conference and events facilities. While many may not think of Belfast as a luxury destination, its numerous five-star hotels, excellent restaurants and sleek bars and nightclubs mean it’s now a city on a par with others in this league in Europe. Belfast’s history makes it even more intriguing: ‘Because of the curiosity factor, delegates are more inclined to come to an event or corporate trip that’s held in Belfast,’ says Hawthorne.
Brian French, the conference and events manager for RCN, is based in London and regularly organises events in Belfast. He explains the city’s appeal: ‘I’ve organised conferences in Belfast since the 80s and so much has changed since then. Everywhere you go, the investment is evident – it has become a really vibrant city. As a UK conference buyer, I think Belfast is incredible value for money – organising the same event in London would have cost twice as much. The accessibility is fantastic as well, since Belfast has two airports and flights are often more reasonable than train fares.’
Renaissance of a River
The redevelopment of Belfast’s waterfront around the river Lagan started about 15 years ago, acting as a catalyst to the regeneration of the city. Waterfront Hall (pictured above, top left) was completed in 1997. Five years later it was voted the second best conference centre in the world by the Apex Awards. Europe’s largest waterfront development, the Titanic Quarter, is also destined for the banks of the Lagan. The site will transform the former shipbuilding land where the Titanic was built with apartments, hotels, and restaurants.
To meet growing demand, room availability has trebled over the last six years with the addition of some impressive hotels. In the centre, these include the sleek Radisson SAS Hotel and the cool, Gothic-style Malmaison, which both opened in 2004, and the brand new luxury five-star hotel The Merchant that launched last year. This May will see the opening of the Premier Travel Inn, while a Golden Tulip Hotel is due to open in 2008.
Growing events potential
Last year also saw the opening of some exciting new events spaces in Belfast. In March, the government gave the go-ahead for a £300m regeneration of the run-down Cathedral Quarter. Due to complete in 2011, the area has already witnessed some changes. It’s now home to The Merchant Hotel, including the newly opened Black Box Theatre (tel: 028 9024 4400), an unusual events space that’s helped enhance the Cathedral Quarter as a cultural centre.
Meanwhile in the middle of the city centre the Grand Opera House (tel: 028 9024 0411) has recently launched a new events space called The Baby Grand, a multi-functional venue that’s already played host to performances, conferences and fashion shows for up to 250 people.
Belfast’s more established venues are also great for events. Favourites on the list iwnclude The Odyssey Arena (tel: 028 9076 6000), home of ice hockey stars, the Belfast Giants, which also features W5 (tel: 028 9046 7700), an interactive science and technology centre, an IMAX theatre, bars, restaurants and cinemas.
And don’t forget Belfast Castle (tel: 028 9077 6925), set 120m above sea level on the slopes of Cave Hill, and the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum (tel: 028 9042 8428). An unusual backdrop for events, the outdoor museum and its indoor galleries offer delegates the chance to relax by strolling into the past and exploring how people used to live. Groups of up to 400 people can be accommodated for dinners and cocktail receptions, while daytime corporate events, incentive visits and fun days can range from 100 to 8,000 people.
Perhaps the best way to kick off an event is to split delegates into smaller groups and go on a Black Taxi Tour (tel: 028 9064 2264). We found this was an excellent way to get to know the city, with no part of its history left untold. From the historic dockyards where the Titanic was built to the more recent murals of West Belfast where we received an unbiased insight into the city’s troubled past. Other sights along the way included the impressive Queens University buildings, the affluent South Belfast quarter, the majestic City Hall, and the city’s own 15m leaning Albert Memorial Clock Tower.
It’s not just Belfast’s distinctive venues that have attracted such a wide corporate market however. The city plays host to some impressive leisure activities too. Less than 30-minutes from the city centre takes you to the depths of fine countryside. Worth the trip for the golf alone, other outdoor activities within easy reach include fishing, horse racing, hang gliding, power kiting and hiking (see Activities box).
Our highlight was the Land Rover Experience (tel: 0870 26 444 57) at the stunning Clandeboye Estate just 12 miles from Belfast. And if that doesn’t do it for you, you can always turn to one of Belfast’s greatest indoor activities: enjoying the company of colleagues, a pint of Guinness and the craic at one of its numerous watering holes!
Archery * canoeing * caving * climbing * clubbing * concerts * dining * diving * fishing * golf * hang gliding * hill boarding * hiking * horse riding * horse racing * jet skiing * Land Rover Experience * lighthouse touring * mountain hiking * mountaineering * museum visits * off-road driving * power boating * power kiting * pub tours * scuba diving * shopping * sightseeing * skydiving * spa treatments * surfing * taxi tours * tennis * theatre * walking * watching ice hockey at The Odyssey Arena * waterskiing * white water kayaking.
A Belfast resident for 15 years, Caitriona Lavery is a sales manager with Hastings Hotels, an independent and locally owned hotel group whose portfolio includes the Culloden Estate & Spa. Here, she offers the lowdown on her local stomping ground.
Why should companies come to Belfast on a corporate or incentive trip?
Because of our three P’s – the people, the place and the pace. And, of course, for the craic! I have known a few visitors to miss their flights because they’ve had such a good time…
What activities would you suggest for a group visiting Belfast for the first time?
There is so much to do in and around the city. If you only have one day, then a walking tour is a must. Many interesting sites and facts associated with the city are world renowned – tangible and intangible – such as the Titanic, CS Lewis and the recent political history. If you have more time, take a tour of the new and the old Belfast – our city has transformed itself so much over the last decade. I’d also recommend going to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. Afterwards, make sure you visit the pubs and restaurants and mingle with the locals.
What ideas would you suggest for a return visit?
Just half an hour outside the city you can be touring round the Ards Peninsula en route to St Patrick’s County and onto the Mourne Mountains. Or, if you fancy a round of golf, we have many world-class championship courses on our doorstep, including the world-famous Royal County Down Golf Club regularly played by the rich and famous including the likes of Bill Gates, Michael Douglas, Tiger Woods and Prince Andrew to name a meagre few!
Where to Stay
A luxurious property located next to the Waterfront Hall, offering impressive conference facilities, as well as an indoor swimming pool, sauna, solarium and gymnasium.
4 Lanyon Place, tel: 028 9027 7000
(BR: 195 FR: 8 M: 500 D: 270 R: 500)
Gothic-style hotel done out with dark interiors and Dali-esque furniture, featuring a small gym, an atmospheric restaurant, bar and private dining room.
34-38 Victoria Street, tel: 028 9022 0200
(BR: 64 FR: 2 M: 16 D: 20 R: 30)
Belfast’s newest five-star hotel situated in the former headquarters of the Ulster Bank, with opulent bedrooms, a stunning private dining room, excellent service and a luxurious ambience.
35-39 Waring Street, tel: 028 9023 4888
(BR: 26 FR: 1 M: 18 D: 18 R: 30)
Radisson SAS Hotel Belfast
Opened in 2004, this striking property in the centre of the regenerated urban area, has a funky interior and hi-tech meeting rooms.
Cromac Place, Ormeau Road, tel: 028 9043 4065
(BR: 120 FR: 5 M: 150 D: 120 R: 250)
Ten Square Hotel
Belfast city’s first five-star boutique hotel, located behind the City Hall with chic and comfy Asian-style bedrooms, three sizeable and elegant events spaces and a buzzy restaurant, The Grill Room.
10 Donegall Square South, tel: 028 9024 1001
(BR: 22 FR: 3 M: 100 D: 130 R: 250)
OUTSIDE CITY CENTRE
Culloden Estate & Spa
One of Northern Ireland’s leading five-star properties, Culloden overlooks Belfast Lough and the Country Antrim coastline. The property boasts one of the region’s biggest function suites.
Bangor Road, Holywood, tel: 028 9042 1066
(BR: 79 FR: 8 M: 800 D: 590 R: 2,000)
Galgorm Resort & Spa
Stunning country house hotel set in 85 acres of lush parkland that is due to unveil its newly refurbished facilities this summer, including a new spa, an auditorium and two new restaurants.
Fenaghy Road, Galgorm, tel: 028 2588 1001
(BR: 86 FR: 7 M: 500 D: 600 R: 500)
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Spring 2007.