Destination Brief: Why Northern Ireland is the Next Must-Visit Incentive Destination

An exterior shot of Northern Ireland's Titanic Belfast museum, which is located on the original site where the Titanic was designed.

Skift Take

Rich in natural beauty, a proud and vibrant cultural heritage, warm hospitality with unique and luxurious accommodations and venues; Northern Ireland should be on your radar as the next must-visit incentive travel destination.

This content was produced in partnership with a Skift Meetings sponsor.

The Incentive Research Foundation reports that incentive travel is growing as a significant factor for recruiting, retaining, and motivating top talent. Given that, it’s worth knowing what incentive qualifiers actually want — and the data may surprise you a bit.

In 2022, IRF found that nearly two-thirds of their survey respondents reported increased interest in traveling to remote areas with luxury accommodations. In 2023, the IRF uncovered another strong trend: “Incentive travel is expected to be fresh and exciting, with 71% of our respondents indicating an increased demand for new destinations not used before,” said Stephanie Harris, IRF President.

Few destinations meet this bill better than Northern Ireland. Offering exhilarating immersive experiences, top-notch amenities, dynamic yet walkable cities, and gorgeous natural environments, it is guaranteed to delight and inspire. Moreover, Northern Ireland has the advantage of combining all these elements within a short distance of one another, making it the ideal setting for a “town and country” incentive trip creating a balanced and diverse experience of both urban and rural environments.

An aerial view of Peace Bridge in Derry-Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
Peace Bridge with Guildhall in the background in Derry-Londonderry.

Both incentive planners and event organizers can benefit from Northern Ireland’s industry-leading sustainability measures, state-of-the-art venues, and luxurious offerings at an affordable price — not forgetting their renowned ‘Giant Spirit’ of warmth and hospitality. Finally, there is a continued investment in developing the destination, with approximately $1.5 billion funneling into exciting new attractions and experience projects to ensure it is competing with some of the top incentive destinations around the world.

Access & Amenities: Easy Travel & Transportation

Getting To and Around Northern Ireland Has Never Been Easier

Ideally, an incentive trip should be relaxing from start to finish. Northern Ireland is exceptionally accessible to reach from both North America and mainland Europe. A direct flight to Dublin out of NYC is less than seven hours, and the 90-minute direct train ride or coach journey from Dublin airport to Belfast city gives attendees a chance to take in the beauty of the landscape as soon as they arrive.

For those who prefer to fly straight to their destination, Northern Ireland has 3 airports (Derry-Londonderry, Belfast City, and Belfast International) which land national and international connection flights. Travelers from the U.S. can now fly to Ireland from New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Denver, and Minneapolis. Carriers include Aer Lingus, Delta, United, American Airlines, and JetBlue.

A well-developed and diversified transit infrastructure incorporating airports, ports, railways, and motorways makes getting around Northern Ireland as straightforward as arriving there.

“Due to the compact size of the North it is suited for a town and country split itinerary,” said Alison Metcalfe, Executive Vice President, Head of North America & Australia/New Zealand for Tourism Ireland. “For example, you can experience Belfast and then drive to the Fermanagh or Mourne Mountains countryside to experience the lush greenery, golf courses, and castles.”

An overhead shot of a golf course in Northern Ireland with sweeping views of Mourne Mountains, characterized by rolling curves and green grass.
Golfing amidst Mourne Mountains.

Unique Experiences: Connecting Incentive Travelers With Local History & Culture

A world-class incentive travel destination should offer excellent accommodations, food, beverage, and entertainment — ideally with a sense of character unique to the region.

Northern Ireland’s got it covered.

Unique Hotels Make for Memorable Stays

For luxury-seekers staying in Belfast, the multiple-award winning five-star Merchant Hotel, housed in the historic headquarters of the Ulster Bank, promises to exceed expectations. The Fitzwilliam Hotel, another five-star property in Belfast, boasts a penthouse, panoramic views over the city, a private roof terrace, and baby grand piano.

Throughout Northern Ireland, the Hastings Group of Hotels reliably presents a range of high-end accommodations at the regal Culloden Estate and Spa, the world-famous Europa Hotel, and their newest 300-bedroom property in the city center, Grand Central Hotel.

An interior shot of a lavish dining area at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Neoclassical columns combine with ornate gilded carvings covering the ceiling, while seating consists of plush lounge chairs.
The Merchant Hotel in Belfast.

In Derry-Londonderry, the Bishops Gate Hotel combines restored Edwardian grandeur with contemporary service excellence, and the newly opened Ebrington Hotel features exquisite farm-to-table cuisine by celebrated Irish chefs Noel McNeel and Leigh Thurston.

A little farther afield and where the Mourne Mountains meet the sea, the Slieve Donard Hotel might be the perfect choice for a more exclusive gathering with the stunning landscapes of County Down and the Royal County Down course nearby.

Thoughtful Resorts Put the “Rewarding” in Incentive Travel

Northern Ireland has several appealing locations for retreat-oriented events. The Finn Lough Resort immerses guests in natural beauty, incorporating foraged and farm-to-table cuisine, a forest spa, and the architectural alchemy of its Bubble Domes — where guests can sleep with a full view of the open sky. Just 30 minutes from Belfast, Galgorm Resort and its award-winning outdoor spa village provide exquisite privacy on 450 acres of parkland, with the River Maine running through a lush forest canopy. In the Fermanagh Lakelands, Lough Erne Resort provides five-star luxury, a Thai-style spa, and full integration with the championship Faldo course.

An exterior view of a bubble dome at the Finn Lough Resort in Northern Ireland. A clear spherical structure reveals a cozy living-room scene surrounded by a dark forest at night. The bedroom can be seen through a door leading into a wooden structure at the opposite end of the bubble dome.
A Bubble Dome at the Finn Lough Resort.

Authentically Local, World-Class Food & Drink Experiences

Northern Ireland boasts a renowned food and beverage scene, including flagship establishments from celebrity chefs like Niall McKenna, Michael Dean, and Alex Green. Many locally owned and managed restaurants are now listed in the Michelin Guide. Additionally, multiple farm-to-fork initiatives in Northern Ireland are well-known for supporting unique small-scale local agriculture, connecting restaurants with award-winning home-grown food.

For a more immersive experience of Irish food, Niall McKenna’s Waterman House Cookery School hosts classes — providing an outside-the-box opportunity for attendees to connect with other countries’ specialties. Northern Ireland has seen a renaissance in brewing and distilling in recent years too, with a long list of top-class producers of beer, cider, whiskey, and gin. A distillery tasting tour offers the opportunity for attendees to enjoy an enriching and memorable experience connecting to the region’s culture, landscapes, and stories. A favorite is the NI Spirits Trail Distillery Passport, which is a self-guided exploration of 14 different distilleries, combining a “passport” keepsake with an experience to remember.

Sustainability: Aligning With Host & Traveler Values

Collaboration Between Business & Public Institutions

Tourism Ireland, Tourism Northern Ireland, Meet in Ireland, CVBs, and hospitality-sector businesses are working together to attain high standards of sustainability across Northern Ireland. Tourism NI has launched a carbon reduction plan and developed a How To Grow Green program for regional businesses. These initiatives are part of a longer term goal to solidify an all-island sustainability certification framework.

Attendees who hold sustainability as a core value will be happy to hear about what this work has already achieved. In 2023 Belfast ranked 11th globally in the GDS Index, in part because 76 percent of hotel rooms in the city hold a sustainable accreditation. That same year the International Convention Centre received the Green Meetings Gold Award in recognition of its exceptional practices, such as sending zero waste to landfill and adopting innovative technologies to minimize its environmental impact.

An Experience of a More Sustainable Way of Life

Northern Ireland’s walkable cities mean they can be explored without having to navigate complicated transportation arrangements, which is a benefit for planners and attendees alike. Northern Ireland also has an excellent rail transport network and a variety of landscapes and cultural attractions within a short distance of any urban center, all of which help adventurous travelers keep their carbon footprint down.

A dramatic cliff drop on the shores of Northern Ireland.

Business travelers want to see events deliver real benefits to host cities, with corporate social responsibility becoming a major part of planning. Programs like Visit Belfast’s Changing The Menu For Good are a fantastic example of this, helping event planners and attendees raise funds for local food banks while also delivering more responsible and sustainable events.

World-Class Leisure: Vibrant Culture in a Stunning Natural Environment

Northern Ireland is well positioned to delight incentive travelers by combining urban cultural experiences with opportunities to connect with rural traditions and local communities. “The music, culinary scene, and history of Northern Ireland speak to its unique charm,” said Alison Metcalfe.

Cities With Rich History

A wealth of interactive and guided experiences can build on how attendees enjoy Northern Ireland’s human-sized cities.

In Derry-Londonderry, attendees can explore the only walled city in Ireland. With its city walls dating back to the 17th century, Derry-Londonderry’s historical architecture includes the Guildhall, St. Columb’s Cathedral, St. Augustine’s Church, and St. Eugene’s Cathedral. After a tour of these heritage sites, attendees can wrap up the afternoon with a stroll through the Craft Village’s reconstructed 19th-century artisanal market and across the treasured city landmark, the peace bridge.

In Belfast, on the precise site where the Titanic was designed, built, and launched, Titanic Belfast offers a guided tour of the interactive museum — along with thematic culinary experiences, a world-class private events space, and accommodation nearby at the Titanic Hotel. Similarly, Crumlin Road Gaol, a historical prison which officially closed in 1996, is now available for unique private experiences and events. For those looking to explore further, Black Cab Tours will take visitors for a drive that illuminates the political history of Belfast and showcases the street art that locals have created in response.

An interior room inside Northern Ireland's Titanic Belfast, featuring a large overheard recreation of the ship and projection imagery across the walls suggestive of blue water and ice.
An exhibit inside Titanic Belfast.

Get Out of Town: City/Country Programs

A “Giant Spirit” but small geography mean that Northern Ireland is ideal for split city/country programs, which offer a balanced and diverse experience combining both rural and urban environments.

Belfast allows delegates to experience multiple city attractions, including Titanic Belfast, the Ulster Museum, and the wealth of historical sites that make it unique. Follow up with a country retreat to the Slieve Donard Hotel and Mourne Mountains. Once there, attendees can engage with local communities and rural traditions such as Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen, where the restaurant’s namesake welcomes groups into her 17th-century cottage to bake soda bread by the fire. Then finish off the day by paddle boarding to a private island for a yoga session.

For those who prefer to stay in the here-and-now, Ballygally Castle and Bushmills Distillery have joined forces to offer the Whiskey on the Rocks experience on the Giant’s Causeway — the world-famous UNESCO World Heritage Site with its unique geometric rock formations. Similarly, Wilde Dining invites attendees to an extraordinary culinary experience that will redefine their definition of al fresco in Co. Fermanagh. As another option, the Game of Thrones Studio Tour gives serious fans exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the making of the show and enviable bragging rights.

Get Outside and Play

With over 90 golf courses across Northern Ireland, a group tee-time is easy to arrange. That said, planners might want to book further out in advance to secure a round on Royal County Down, rated the world’s best golf course. Equally sought-after are the Royal Portrush, which held the 148th open in 2019 and will again in 2025, or the Royal Belfast, the oldest golf course in Ireland.

Hikers will thrill to the scenic views found on the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge, the Fermanagh Lakelands, and the Mourne Mountains, home of the UNESCO Global Geopark at Mourne Gullion Strangford.

For those looking for something truly one-of-a-kind, or for any and all animal lovers, the Glenshane Country Farm offers a sheep-herding experience for groups just 45 minutes’ drive away from Belfast. Alternatively, attendees might enjoy a horseback ride by the sea with Crindle Stables.

Embrace a Giant Spirit

Tourism Northern Ireland’s brand, “Embrace a Giant Spirit,” reflects what travelers are invited to experience: an awakening of mind and spirit in a place rich in living cultural history woven together by unique elemental beauty. All of these “giant” elements are further amplified through words, music, and a meaningful connection with its people.

Meeting and event planners searching for the next remarkable incentive travel experience need look no further than Northern Ireland. “We’ll assist with all aspects of planning, from handling RFPs right through to finding the right venue or DMC to help deliver your event,” said Alison Metcalfe. “To top it all off, we are based in New York City.” Reach out to the Meet in Ireland or Northern Ireland team to find out more about their services and Financial Support.

Did You Know?
Belfast was named a Unesco City of Music — making it the third city in the U.K. to receive this esteemed acclaim.

This content was created in partnership with Meet in Ireland, a brand of Tourism Ireland and Tourism Northern Ireland, working collaboratively with Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.