At the close of 2019, ICC Belfast’s star was on the rise alongside sister entertainment venues Waterfront Hall and Ulster Hall.
A five-year £100M economic impact target was on course to be exceeded with 49 conferences already scheduled to be hosted in 2020 alone and over 90,000 tickets had been sold for entertainment events being held between January and March. Everyone was excited to continue the positive momentum as we entered 2020 but the reality could not have been further from the truth.
From the unexpected to the inevitable
The new year heralded many unforeseen challenges, beginning with the resignation of the then Chief Executive. Whilst the pathway to success remained clear from the perspective of the Board and Senior Management Team (SMT), consideration had to be given to the wider workforce. The departure of the organisation’s Chief Executive was unsettling and was in danger of derailing the understanding, acceptance and embedding of our new ways of working.
The reconstituted SMT were just getting into their stride when the global pandemic hit and the uncertainty already being felt across the organisation went off the scale. The time elapsed between COVID-19 first appearing on the strategic risk register and the venues being mandated shut was a few short weeks. Days before the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on the island of Ireland, plans were discussed for a campaign to target conferences scheduled for Asia and Italy, where the virus was spreading rapidly. An unprecedented situation was unfolding in real time and new information was being assessed daily by the SMT in an attempt to forecast and mitigate against the potential consequences for ICC Belfast. Clients began raising queries, team members were fielding customer queries around refunds and venues such as ours, built to host thousands, were seen as ‘no go areas’ across the globe.
Although we were operating in a vacuum with no real guidance or clarity, the SMT recognised one glaringly obvious fact - our industry was going to be the first to shut down and the last to reopen.
Despite all the uncertainty and recognising that solutions for our situation would have to come from within, the SMT came together and formulated a plan which they presented to the Board that focused on addressing three key areas:
Given that our people are at the heart of everything we do, swift action was taken to focus on the immediate priority of staying connected to them. Following the exit of the Chief Executive, work had already been undertaken by the Board and SMT to review the vision, mission, and values. This was accelerated due to COVID-19 and an interim mission statement was introduced to recognise the extraordinary circumstances faced.
Meanwhile, the eight company values remained completely valid and were used as guiding principles for decision making by the SMT and the board.
Whilst the values did not diminish the magnitude of difficult decisions forced upon the SMT, in tandem with the revised mission statement, they became an important compass to guide all of our actions going forward.
It was during this period the SMT evolved into an executive leadership team (ELT), buoying spirits and projecting a positive long-term outlook of the organisation in the weekly newsletters, virtual town halls, social events and daily stand-up calls.
The incoming Chief Executive was also integral to creating a cohesive workforce. After taking up the post in July, every member of the team was given the opportunity to connect with her on a one-to-one or group basis. All interactions were bilateral and sincere gratitude was expressed by both parties for the candid insights shared about the future direction of the company and how the team felt this could be achieved.
Regular, clear and transparent: these were the hallmarks of all communications activity. Despite frequent limitations on the information available and indeed misinformation and uncertainty in the public domain, the ELT were resolute in keeping the team updated on the significant changes and progress. This forced the ELT into a position of vulnerability as they simply did not have all of the answers to the questions being asked of them. However, instead of making impulsive decisions or issuing misleading communications, the ELT embraced this challenge and gave the team oversight of the clear timelines that they had set themselves to revert by with a comprehensive and considered update.
The ELT also recognised the importance of staying connected with the Board to ensure they were up to date on progress. Virtual meetings were held with the various Board sub committees and the Board itself which proved invaluable and facilitated rapid decision making.
In addition, contact was also maintained with our shareholder and other supporting organisations in Northern Ireland. Although partnership working was by no means a new phenomenon for BWUH Ltd., our unfaltering belief in our own ability to successfully fast track creative solutions from ideation to implementation, elevated our status as pioneers who bolstered our peers, many of whom were frozen, unable to respond beyond the immediate crisis.
As a beacon of hope for Belfast, the team remained agile and creative when responding to clients’ evolving needs and soon realised that despite all the challenges and uncertainty, they had the in-house capability to generate demand and leverage booked business to secure multi-year deals that delivered mutually beneficial commercial outcomes.
Multi-disciplinary teams were assembled that responded to client concerns with bespoke ‘Survival Kits’, the objective of which was to safeguard the revenue and economic impact from these events.
Inheriting client KPIs as our own was key, and through fully embracing and understanding the key conference objectives and taking a leadership role, the ICC Belfast team was able to provide expert advice and practical support in the areas of logistics, technical production and marketing communications.
Concurrently with ICC Belfast’s extensive client retention programme, a robust market engagement strategy was devised to convert high intent prospects. As soon as flights were grounded and in-person site visits became obsolete, the ICC Belfast team developed a virtual version to give organisers a flavour of what to expect from the destination.
As no commercial business was immune to the effects of COVID-19, amidst the innovation and emotional growth that was happening, the ELT were faced with the daunting prospect of ensuring income generation to cover costs and avoid redundancies, which were widespread across the events industry and beyond. We therefore needed to explore opportunities that could generate income from sources outside of our industry. As a result, in January 2021, to ensure the long-term sustainability of the business, the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) took up a nine-month tenancy at ICC Belfast, which became a COVID-Secure nightingale venue.
I am delighted such an important asset, as the ICC Belfast undoubtedly is, has been put to use in this way and I am grateful to its leadership team and staff who have not only provided the venue but who have worked very closely and effectively with NICTS, the judiciary and the legal profession to provide a safe space for courts and tribunals users
Naomi Long, Minister for Justice
The need to meet, network, collaborate and create didn’t go away during the pandemic – it became greater than ever. So too did the demand for hybrid solutions that allow organisers to harness emotional connections and sensory motivators to deliver maximum impact in a notoriously competitive industry. In June 2020, the first post pandemic hybrid event was successfully delivered on behalf of a longstanding client, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, opening the door to a previously untapped revenue stream that promised vast potential.
Significant investment in hardware and software fulfilled the burgeoning demand for the broadcast conferences, product launches and award ceremonies that have followed. Technological enhancements made at ICC Belfast included everything from the HD LED Wall to Glisser, a hybrid delegate platform allowing remote and in-person delegates to have the same influence on events via Q&A, polls and gamification.
As the demand for digital events grew, so too did the team’s ambitions. A successful application to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Organisation Emergency Programme led to the launch of ‘Live from the Ulster Hall’ in December 2020, catapulting a 158-year-old concert hall into a new era of streaming and on-demand content. This project brought music back to the Ulster Hall, providing home-grown talent the opportunity to engage their audiences via digital platforms and earn an income through the introduction of a paywall.
The team’s passion and sense of pride when creating live experiences was unwavering and whilst the venues remained mandated shut, these events were its vessels.
In partnership with our ticketing provider Tessitura, when forced to create a ‘new normal’ we developed the functionality of gated content through our websites that transported customers from their living room to standing in the middle of the Ulster Hall. What was achieved in six weeks would have ordinarily taken 12 months. The hunger to cultivate a sense of normalcy and provide hope and joy at the end of a truly terrible year was what drove this project forward at such speed.
The learnings gained from ICC Belfast’s pivot to virtual solutions were invaluable and provided a solid foundation from which further developments could be made that were tailored to the venues’ entertainment offering. The Waterfront Hall and Ulster Hall are now fully hybrid and an enhanced ticketing platform with a provision for digital events that has been specifically designed to ensure a straightforward customer journey.
The evolution of three hybrid-by-design venues provides event organisers with a platform to keep audiences engaged whilst staying apart in the short-term and expand the reach of future events by recruiting virtual attendees based globally.
The reopening of ICC Belfast, Waterfront Hall and Ulster Hall was overshadowed by many false dawns and uncertainties. When faced with the prospect of reopening with a requirement for physical distancing still in place between patrons, the team looked again to the technological advancements offered by our ticketing partner, Tessitura, to sell tickets in ‘bubbles’ following the implementation of batch refund functionality. The ability to offer this functionality greatly assisted lobbying efforts for a full reopening. In demonstrating the mitigations and COVID-Secure measures in place, the ELT once again ensured all stakeholders, internal and external, could look upon the venues as a catalyst for growth as the entire city began to rebuild.
Rather than be consumed by the pandemic, the ICC Belfast team chose to co-exist alongside it and use it as a catalyst to drive change, reinvent the business and embed the company values. We were determined to emerge from the pandemic as a stronger business with a reputation for innovation that led by example. Whilst hindsight affords us the opportunity to choose what we could have done differently, the results achieved and feedback garnered, supports the actions the executive leadership team took and their foresight to ensure a long-term, sustainable business. Key highlights from this time include:
16% increase in overall employee engagement levels
94% of stakeholders claimed there was nothing more ICC Belfast could have done in response to the pandemic
Less than 100 hours elapsing between permission to reopen at capacity being granted and the first act taking to the Ulster Hall stage
The learnings since the beginning of the pandemic will shape the short, medium and long-term direction of travel for ICC Belfast and our sister venues. In October 2021, over 18 months since the initial closure in March 2020, the ban on full capacity events at ICC Belfast, Waterfront Hall and Ulster Hall was finally lifted.
Where there was once a gaping chasm between the leadership team and the wider ICC Belfast cohort, there is now “real unity”. We are proudly heralded as industry disruptors, ready to challenge the status quo and evolve through self-reflection to reach new goals.
Rebuilding what was lost during the pandemic isn’t the plan. The executive leadership team has reimagined this business and what its people can achieve. In the darkest of times, everyone banded together. Now, the possibilities are endless, and the future looks bright for a city that stands on the precipice of brilliance as the entire team demonstrates their commitment to building back better.