There’s a joke in Belfast,” says Odyssey DMC rep, Pat Crowley: “The Titanic was fine when she left.” The ship was built in Northern Ireland, so the locals are building her a museum for her 100th anniversary.
“The Titanic Belfast museum project is one of the biggest developments in Europe,” explains Marie McKown, Business Tourism Manager for Tourism Ireland. “The $150 million center will include nine galleries and a 750-pax banquet hall in Titanic-style luxury. It’s sure to be a must-see destination.”
Belfast is a capital of cool after living in the shadows for so many years. Dublin, on the other hand, remains one of the most charming cities in the world. And in the countryside, the verdant County Fermanagh is the iconic Emerald Isle postcard.
You could say that Belfast has survived its own shipwreck. After decades of “the troubles,” resolved in 1998’s Good Friday agreements, there’s been a slow, steady return to prosperity.
“The change since the peace agreements is phenomenal,” says Bill Wolsey, owner of The Merchant, a super-hip 75-room hotel in the old Ulster Bank headquarters in the arty, buzzy Cathedral district. The 80-pax Great Room Restaurant offers meals and high tea amid elaborate gildings, a cherub/flower-filled frieze, and Ireland’s largest crystal chandelier. Rooms are similarly luxe, either ornately Victorian or sleek Art Deco.
The ground-floor jazz bar Bert’s attracts a brisk and festive crowd. “Wherever there are people in Ireland, there’s music,” says Wolsey. His new Dirty Onion is a traditional music hall opposite the hotel. When pressed about his musical tastes, he sang two lovely songs a capella. Now that’s service.
One hotelier backing Belfast’s comeback is Sir William Hastings, owner of six world-class Hastings Hotels.
“Sir William’s vision has been to offer the true Northern Ireland through the warmth of our welcome, the comfort of our hotels and excellent service,” says Caitriona Lavery, Hastings Sales Manager. International dignitaries such as the Clintons call at the 272-room Europa Hotel when in town, and the friendly, voluble Lavery arranges 200-pax meetings here.
More exclusive meetings book the 105-room Culloden Estate & Spa in the Bishop’s Palace overlooking Belfast Lough. Ten minutes from downtown, it made a perfect rainy morning sipping a cup of tea by a roaring fire amid Scottish baronial architecture, Louis VX chandeliers and antique portraits.
“Meetings here are high-profile,” says Lavery, whipping us from intimate 16-pax banquet rooms to the palatial Stuart Suite for 600. We devoured our pub lunch at the 130-pax Cultra Inn onsite, with hearty favorites like Irish stew. And Lavery can call in Bushmills’ master brewer to liven things with a whiskey tasting.
For more group venues, Belfast City Hall, one of the town’s most prestigious venues, hosts 400 receptions and banquets a year. Queen’s University hosts international conferences each summer for 300-900 on its stately campus. Even Parliament, known as Stormont, welcomes groups up to 150.
The best part? The facility rental is free.
“Here in Ireland, the attitude is can-do, will-do,” explains Crowley. “It all comes down to personal relations.”
Seven miles from Belfast at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, wander the 18th/19th century houses brought here from the northern countryside. Staff in period costume are woodturning, blacksmithing and linen-making. In the Rectory, we had tea and scones just pulled from the peat-scented fire.
“We love this for a private evening for 120 or so, with a storyteller before the fire and tastings in different houses,” says Crowley. “We hire Irish dancers to teach dancing in the schoolhouse, and hoist a large tent where everyone can gather.”
In the unforgettable Transport Museum, displays range from horse carriages to Irish-built locomotives. The train room, with 60-foot arched ceilings, practically shouts “party.”
“No matter how formal the occasion, people act like kids around these trains,” says Patrick McLain, Head of Business Marketing. Arriving is half the fun, adds Crowley, who transports guests via steam train or vintage cars from Belfast.
Dublin was the second city of the British Empire for many years, so it’s a true grand European capital with elegant parks, Norman architecture and Georgian “fanlight” windows. The city’s most gracious group hotels share the same vernacular.
The 197-room Four Seasons Dublin was constructed around the old horse stables of the Royal Dublin Society, with an entire wing dedicated to groups up to 350. Two ballrooms have natural light and there are four adjoining meeting rooms joined by a patio overlooking the stunning grounds. It’s hard to believe we’re only a mile from city center.
“We use these for three parties at once,” says Sales Manager Sive Hartel. “Whiskey tastings in the first room, Irish dancing in the second, and poetry readings in the third.”
The massive rooms evoke the setting’s subtle country elegance, and the suites have kitchens good enough for Pavarotti, who makes pasta when he stays. We like the snuggly whiskey bar open as late as anyone wishes to stay.
The Shelbourne Dublin, A Renaissance Hotel continues to be the toniest spot in Ireland since its 1824 opening, following a recent $200 million refurbishment under its vaulting ceilings. Witness padded silk walls, acres of marble floors, and gorgeous local art. Yet the history is priceless.
“If you’re looking for a hotel that’s all about Ireland and tradition, you have to come,” says Michelle Quinn, the equally charming Director of Sales, as she leads us to where the first Irish constitution was signed in 1922. The Constitution Room hosts 35; the Great Room seats 380. Afterwards during champagne in Lord Mayor’s Lounge, she says, “I feel it’s the perfect place to watch Dublin life in elegant comfort. What stories the walls could tell!”
In leafy County Fermanagh, we met Viscount & Viscountess Brookeborough at Colebrooke Park, a 1,000-acre estate that’s remained in the family since the 17th century. The Viscount broke from his shooting party to tell us tales of the neoclassical mansion full of family portraits and heirlooms. For small groups it’s a fairytale gathering in the historic dining and billiard rooms, and new 70-pax conference suite/300-pax reception area.
“These family-run estates are wonderful for small corporate lunches, dinners, meetings or teambuilding,” says McKown. “Groups get a taste of country life, especially when owners share their rich history.”