Although Belfast pips Birmingham and Cardiff in the ICCA rankings, the consensus among venues and organisers is that Northern Ireland's lack of hotel rooms has held it back as a destination for association business.
Lorraine McGoran, marketing manager at The Odyssey Arena - which hosted the largest conference ever held in Belfast, for Rotary International last year - says: "As an arena we are better suited to events for more than 2,500 delegates and there are fewer events of that size coming to Northern Ireland." More than 3,000 delegates attended the conference but McGoran says events this big are the exception rather than the rule. "There are venues that can host them but the delegates will be dotted all around Northern Ireland to get the beds," she adds.
Fiona Ure at Belfast Visitors and Convention Bureau says things are improving. "Over £1bn has been invested in the Waterfront area, with operators such as Radisson SAS, Hilton and Ramada investing. Hotel rooms have more than trebled in the last decade and just last month we saw the announcement of further hotel investment. More than 500 more rooms will come online over the next 12 to 18 months," she explains.
Belfast's King's Hall will host the Riding for the Disabled Association National Conference in November. With more than 10,000sqm of exhibition space, it works best for organisations that require a flexible layout. "If they need integrated exhibition facilities, then that works well," says King's Hall sales and marketing manager Lucy Fraser. "We can turn the halls round to create larger conference space too, but that does require a bigger budget."
For organisers looking for traditional theatre-style seating, Waterfront Hall is often the preferred option. "In terms of a bespoke conference venue, we are the only one in Northern Ireland - in Ireland in fact," says its conference and business sales manager, Jennifer Patterson. The venue, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, can cater for up to 2,200 delegates and has 2,500sqm of exhibition space, which can accommodate 120 stands. The British Medical Association held its annual event there in 1999 and 2006.
Patterson believes its increased association business is partly due to better infrastructure. "In 2003 there was only one direct route from one European city," she says. In August, Easyjet announced that it would be introducing services to Barcelona, Prague and Venice, while Aer Lingus now flies to Amsterdam, Heathrow and Budapest from Belfast City airport. Ryanair also announced in July that will operate daily flights to Liverpool, Glasgow and the east midlands.
Derry, which is investing £50m in a tourism regeneration plan, has seen growth in the association market too, with the Air Pilots Association and the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore among those due to hold events next year. But Paul Mason, conference and events manager at Derry venue the Millennium Forum, says more needs to be done to change perceptions.
Mason finds that association business is very localised, coming from the city and the province but rarely from other parts of the UK. We're finding that as the infrastructure improves the conferences are starting to come, but organisers still think we are too far away. Belfast is a hotspot right now and some of that filters down to us but it's not filtering fast enough," he says.
Hotel accommodation in Derry has quadrupled since 1990 and the city now offers 587 rooms.
- The City of Derry Airport offers direct flights to Stansted, Dublin, Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester.
- £50m has been ploughed into regenerating Derry's tourism infrastructure.
- Tourism growth in Belfast has more than quadrupled in a decade and now generates £324m for the local economy.
- Ireland's only purpose-built conference centre, Belfast's Waterfont Hall, is ranked among the top 10 venues by the AIPC - the International Association of Congress Centres.
Each year, the UK's largest teaching union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), holds a week-long congress for more than 1,000 of its members. It has previously been held in Birmingham, Bournemouth, Brighton, Scarborough, Jersey and Eastbourne but as the organisers make a point of taking it around the UK and this April welcomed delegates to the Waterfront Hall in Belfast.
Alongside its main meeting, the NASUWT also hosts dinners and an exhibition with 30-40 exhibitors. General secretary Chris Keates chose Waterfront Hall to cater for all these needs. "Everything could be in one place - the auditorium for the main conference plus rooms to hold our fringe events, and the exhibition was held on two levels of the foyer areas," she says.
"The Waterfront proved to be an excellent venue. The staff were extremely helpful and friendly and nothing was too much trouble. The only improvement to the destination would be the choice of large hotels. We used the Europa as our headquarters hotel, which was excellent but other hotels could not deliver the full range of services."