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Perpetual motion

January 29th, 2018 | by LCN Editor
Perpetual motion
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Judith Owens doesn’t foresee a time when the world won’t want to visit the city in which the great Titanic was conceived.

“This is forever,” says Judith Owens without hesitation.

The great ship-building heritage of Belfast’s industrial age and particularly, its intimate bond with the White Star Line’s ill-fated liner, are a legacy that serve to guarantee the city’s status as a place of pilgrimage for visitors the world over.

It’s an understandable conviction in the woman only recently appointed to head up the showpiece attraction that sits at the heart of Belfast’s maritime heritage. She replaces Tim Husbands, who left at the end of 2017 for the post of chief executive at historic Westport House in Co. Mayo.

Since the opening of Titanic Belfast in 2012, Husbands has steered the attraction on a near flawless trajectory of success. Named in 2016 by the World Travel Awards as the Best Tourist Attraction in the World, its most recent accounts – released in December – reveal that profits soared in 2017 by an eye-popping 45 per cent to £2m. There were almost 440,000 visitors through the doors on Queen’s Island between April and August, up from 360,000 for the same period in 2016.

And while all that leaves Judith Owens with an attraction that’s ideally placed to continuing growing under her care, it means that inevitably, she’s also burdened by the weight of expectation.

That won’t be an entirely new experience for her, however. She arrived at the venue five months before it opened to the public and since then, she has assisted Tim Husbands as his deputy chief executive and director of operations.

“I’m absolutely delighted to be given this opportunity,” she told LCN at the start of January. “In all the time that I’ve been here, I have always felt the responsibility of looking after Titanic Belfast itself, not just operations, so this isn’t a daunting prospect for me, it’s one I relish. Obviously, taking over as chief executive brings with it heightened responsibility, but that certainly doesn’t scare me.”

Titanic Belfast is part of a group of attractions that includes the visitor centre itself and the slipways as well as the newly-opened Titanic Hotel nearby, the Titanic Exhibition Centre and the SS Nomadic, the last remaining vessel of the White Star Line.

The visitor centre enjoyed its best year yet in 2017, with visitor figures up 12 per cent on the year before. During that time, it cemented its reputation as a sought-after venue for conferencing, exhibitions and wedding functions and it moved responsibility for catering at these events to an in-house team.

“Titanic Belfast is part of the city and I feel a responsibility to support the development and growth of Belfast much more so than in any other job I’ve done,” says Judith.

Prior to arriving in her post at Titanic Belfast in 2012, Judith was head of operations and house manager at the Waterfront and Ulster Hall for 14 years, succeeding Tim Husbands into the role of chief executive at the venues when he left for Titanic Belfast in 2011.

At Titanic, she views the experience very much from the viewpoint of the public who crowd onto the galleries:

“For many people, this is a very emotional experience,” she says. “Maybe it won’t be what they expected, but every person who comes here takes something different away with them…There are many aspects to this experience for them, it’s not just about Titanic, it’s the story of Belfast, the industry of the city and our Discovery Tour, which helps them understand the symbolism of the building, the importance of the Drawing Rooms and the slipways, all of this allows people to connect the locations they see with the story.”

Judith says that as far as she can tell, gallery four, which replicates the interior of cabins on the Titanic, is among the most popular when it comes to public reaction to the exhibition.

“We saw an increase in our family market last year…but we won’t just be standing still,” she promises. “Over the next four or five years, we’re going to be investing in our galleries and bringing in modern technology to keep them fresh and exciting so that people will want to come back. There are lots of new markets that we can develop and there are people that have been here before that can be attracted back.”

Titanic’s appeal is worldwide and Judith reports growth during 2017 in the number of visitors arriving from North America and Canada, China and Australia in particular:

“But this is still a very small amount of people when you compare it to the size of the population in those countries, so we’re looking at developing those markets further and we’re working closely with Tourism Ireland on that.”

Judith also indicates that going forward, there will be a deliberate focus on marketing Titanic Belfast not just as a visitor centre but as a destination group of venues. That will include Titanic Hotel. Built around the historic drawing rooms where the Titanic was conceived and designed, the hotel preserves much of the heritage connected to the great liner and already features on Titanic Belfast’s Discovery Tour.

Going forward, there will be more activities and events around Titanic, more things for people to do aimed at keeping them in the area for longer.

But that approach brings challenges in itself:

“This is a complex business,” says Judith. “We have visitor attractions, but we also have retail operations, catering outlets, a very large conference and banqueting business and events that take place on the slipways here,” says Judith. “And so it’s about making sure that we all work together to ensure that the whole operation is cohesive. The challenge is to pull all the different businesses together under one model with the same standards and with smooth communications.”

Much is planned for 2018, confirmed the chief executive, but most of it can’t yet be made public. Among this year’s Titanic innovations will be a new event space and a new catering outlet at the visitor centre which Judith says will be “fairly unique”.

Among the biggest events scheduled for Titanic in 2018 will be the World Vespa Days programme, coming to NI for the first time this year from June 14 to 17 and the 2018 Irish Golf Expo at the Titanic Exhibition Centre on March 3 and 4.

As for the longer term, Judith says there will be a focus on pushing Titanic’s peak period outside the traditional summer months into the shoulder seasons on either side:

“We’ll also want to sustain our visitor numbers and maintain our standards,” she says. “”Over the next couple of years, we’ll be looking at refurbishing our galleries and that takes time to develop, but in the meantime, we’ll be focused on getting ready for our high season which runs from June to August.”

 

Discover more about the Titanic Belfast group of venues at titanicbelfast.com

 

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