The Big Interview: Catherine Toolan

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Martin Fullard sits down with Catherine Toolan, managing director at Belfast Waterfront to talk about Brexit, business tourism and major conference wins

There are few regions in the UK that have changed quite so much as Belfast in recent years. Some 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland capital has undergone transformation not only in the physical sense, but also in terms of business.

Business tourism, notably the MICE industry, has been a pillar of this rejuvenation. At the centre of which is the Belfast Waterfront, a multi-purpose events venue, which in 2016 opened its new conference facility. In its first year, the Waterfront brought £21m to Belfast’s economy. So what’s the secret? I sat down with Catherine Toolan, managing director at Belfast Waterfront, to find out.

Can you summarise your first year at the Waterfront?

I came on board a couple of months after we opened the new extension, and since that time we’ve run around 340 events, including 34 in our top category: associations.

We’ve contributed £21m to the city, and we’ve created 20 new jobs. The Waterfront has been there for more than 20 years, but primarily as an entertainment venue with just a little bit of conferencing. Now we’re a major conference player, competing for major events.

The first year has been spent mobilising the business, learning from clients, as well as working to build our process and procedures and, most importantly, getting our name on the map. A lot of people are aware of Belfast, but have misconceptions based on the past, so we’re working incredibly hard to get the message out that we are here and ready. We’re working with VisitBelfast, Tourism Ireland and VisitBritain to help with that.

The focus has slightly shifted from leisure tourism to business tourism, and we’re at the head of that.

How has the events industry in Belfast changed over the last few years?

Since the Good Friday Agreement 20 years ago, Belfast and Northern Ireland have evolved hugely as a region. It’s given the city a confidence to hold its head up and compete for big events. Belfast as a city is receiving more inward investment, there’s more multinationals coming to the city from the UK and the EU. We now have the infrastructure in place, including many direct flights.

It’s now part of the legacy that we’re delivering large conferences for up to 5,000.

You mention that the Waterfront conference facility generated £21m for Belfast in its first year, was this in line with target, and what is the target growth going forward?

We’re working to a five-year business plan in terms of our conference numbers, and economic impact. The impact target is £100m over five years, so in 2016 the target was £12m, which we have surpassed.

However, we have to work harder in our third and fourth years to maintain that, which is what we’re doing right now.

There remains uncertainty surrounding Northern Ireland in the on-going Brexit negotiations, is the Waterfront prepared to deal with choppy waters?

A lot of people in our industry are asking if people are preparing for Brexit. We were pretty early off the mark and published a white paper soon after the result. The key thing for us is to remain part of the conference circuit in Europe. If you look at how large conferences rotate, especially for the associations, its important that we are considered a part of Europe in that respect.

In terms of being accessible, we’ve made it clear to the government that visitors will be able to maintain direct access to the city. In terms of visas, in terms of flights, and regarding the border with Ireland, it must remain as straightforward as possible.

So far we haven’t seen any negative impact of Brexit, if anything the currency fluctuations have helped us. It is important for both sides to remember that the UK is leaving the EU and that is the decision that we have to work with and towards, and that we can keep trade as open as possible.

Are you working closely with the local authorities to ensure the importance of events in Belfast remains in focus when it comes to making Northern Ireland’s voice heard in any Brexit discussions?

If you look at how important business tourism is to any growing economy, we feel we’ll be playing a huge role in tourist revenue for the region. The aim is to be a billion-pound industry.

We work closely with VisitBelfast in terms of building up the profile of the city and what we want to sell and market beyond Northern Ireland, to EU and the rest of the UK.

We are also playing a key role in a couple of major drives for the city; we’re bidding for the European city of culture with Londonderry, Derry in 2023. We’re also waiting imminently for the decision on the Rugby World Cup 2023.

Can you tell us some of the big events you’ve got in the pipeline?

In the immediate future, the International World Dairy Conference is coming soon, and BBC Good Food is returning for a second year.

The Waterfront has bookings up to 2024. We recently went to China and won a huge conference for 2022. We took a different approach to bidding for it: we actually went out to X’ian were the conference was being held and we worked together on the bid and presented it. There’s lots of work to do, and lots of competition with new venues coming along, so we’re not going to be the new kids on the block for much longer.

Biography

Catherine Toolan boasts an enviable career, having previously worked at the Beijing Olympics of 2008 and the 2012 London Games, where she oversaw the catering for 16,000 athletes and 10,000 officials.

For 10 years, Toolan was MD of international catering giant Aramark’s special projects, before joining the Waterfront as MD in 2016.

Martin Fullard

Author

Martin Fullard

Martin Fullard: journalist, presenter, producer. Martin is the Deputy Editor at Conference News and Conference & Meetings World magazines. He leads the digital channels on Mash Media’s Conference Division as well as heading up Mash TV. He is formerly a web editor at a national newspaper in the Middle East and motoring journalist.

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