by Andrea Doyle | July 10, 2018

Hosts Global convened more than 200 industry leaders at the end of June for its Sixth Annual Hosts Global Forum. The global alliance of destination management companies took its first European conference, to Belfast, Northern Ireland, staying at the newly built Grand Central Hotel Belfast.

"Northern Ireland is an unspoiled destination that is vibrant and full of energy," said John McGrillen, CEO, Tourism Northern Ireland. "It is a small, compact city in a small, compact country that is home of Van Morrison, Liam Neeson and 26 Game of Thrones locations." 

When not in meetings or education sessions, the group got to experience this city that is on the rise and ready to compete on the global stage. Belfast mixes the historic with the modern. Take, for example, the 23-story Grand Central Hotel Belfast that swung open its doors to host the group. A contemporary reincarnation of a Victorian hotel that welcomed guests from 1893 to the 1970s, the new Grand Central exudes modern design and luxury. At 23 stories in height, the 300-room Grand Central, said to be the largest hotel in Ireland, is the seventh hotel in the Hastings Hotels Collection

"Tourism is the lifeblood of Northern Ireland. Our natural resource is our people," said Caitriona Lavery, meetings and incentive sales manager, Hastings Hotels Group. "Grand Central is a beacon of hope, and it was a brave move to open with Hosts Global. It shows the confidence we have." The Grand Central is one of five new hotels to open in Belfast in a two-week period. 

"Attendees travel to one of our key destinations for a first-hand experience while also participating in professional growth opportunities and one-on-one business meetings with our DMC members," explains Marty MacKay, DMCP, president of Hosts Global.

A first-hand experience that wowed at every turn is what awaited them in Belfast. Opening night festivities were held at the Titanic Belfast, set in the Harland & Wolff shipyard, the very spot where the ocean liner was designed, built and launched. Costumed characters led the group through interactive exhibitions that shed light on what it was like to be on the ocean liner that fateful night. The tour ended in the museum's ballroom, complete with a replica of the liner's famous Grand Staircase, as a string orchestra, Irish dancers and delicious food awaited.

The evening kicked off with a moving presentation and corporate social responsibility activity that benefited the Wave Trauma Centre, a nonprofit formed in 1991 to support people who lost a loved one or were injured in the violence that occurred in Northern Ireland during "the Troubles." Backpacks were filled with aromatherapy oil, relaxation CDs and other soothing items for those who use the services of the center. 

The dark days of the Troubles were explained at length during Black Taxi tours that many took one afternoon. Named after a fleet of six- and seven-seat London-style black taxis, the tour included both sides of the divide as well as the Crumlin Road Gaol, Northern Ireland's only remaining Victorian-era prison, the peace wall, and hundreds of colorful street murals that offered an insider's look at this tumultuous period in the city's history. 

The following evening's reception was held at the Belfast City Hall, a jaw-dropping Baroque Revival structure completed in 1906 and the focal point of Donegal Square. Guests stepped through a large wardrobe and were transported into the fantastical land of C.S. Lewis' Narnia. Attendees mingled with mythical creatures, dined on delectable bites, and enjoyed enchanting entertainment throughout the evening. 

A local Belfast experience was served up the last evening at the Dark Horse Pub where private whiskey tastings, regional cuisine and live Irish music played.

"We are beyond thrilled to serve as the host DMC for the forum. Planning this experience in collaboration with Hosts and our partners at Hastings Hotels and Tourism Northern Ireland has been a great deal of fun," said John Healy, Moloney & Kelly, an Irish tour operator which helped plan the event. "As a native of Ireland, I'm honored to introduce our clients and colleagues to the magic this destination holds." 

The timing was fitting as Belfast was named the top place to visit this year by Lonely Planet and the fact that it is the shooting location for numerous films and TV series including HBO's Game of Thrones.

"We are the hippest upcoming destination in Europe and showcased a number of our greatest offerings during the conference," said Michael Dalton, director of sales, Moloney & Kelly. 

General sessions and one-on-one appointments focused on education with topics ranging from designing better meetings to VAT and emergency preparedness. 

At the close of the conference, Hosts unveiled the location of its 2019 Hosts Global Forum happening June 27-30, 2019: Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.