Belfast Christmas Market celebrated its 10th year anniversary when it opened its gates in November 2014, however it celebrated much more than that. As well as being an awardwinning, superb market, it also signals the beginning of Christmas for the many visitors across the city and beyond who attend. Many of those, including the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Cllr Nichola Mallon came together to celebrate and to thank market operators Market Place for making it happen.
In 2004 Market Place Europe won one of their first contract after starting the company and it was to run a four day Continental Christmas Market in Belfast. This was the first of a kind in Belfast and was initially only on a trial business. Following the success of the event, it was suggested that the market take place for longer and Belfast City Council voted, by just one vote, in favour of a month-long Christmas Market for the following three years (2005 to 2007). The contract went out to tender and was won by Market Place. Market Place’s then directors, Allan Hartwell and Ian Hall, upon winning the tender set in place their commitment to ensuring the Market was a quality, engaging experience. They wanted to give visitors to the market the genuine feeling of an international style Christmas Market and to do this they would need to make a significant investment to create the right environment. This lead to Market Place designing and building a range of Alpine style wooden chalets and support structures. They decided they did not want every chalet to look the same, therefore commissioned the design of a range of chalets, which when put together created the Christmas Village.
Market Place not only put in a heavy investment, but also took a huge gamble in terms of whether it would pay off or not. The chalets were a huge hit with all the traders and visitors, putting Belfast Christmas Market on the map as a key festive place to visit.
In 2007, at the conclusion of the first contract, Belfast City Council once again tendered the contract for the following three years (2008 to 2010) and MPE were once again successful (as they were for the following contract in 2010 for a further three to five years). This year (2014) the Market has once again continued in its commitment to become bigger and better. It has come such a long way from the first four-day market in 2004, it is now one of Europe’s leading Christmas Markets. As you walk up to the Market gates, from a distance, you can see the iconic City Hall standing behind it in all its glory. The closer you get you begin to see the long line of people queuing up, ready for the Market to open. The queue snakes around City Hall and has been known to go around it twice. Each weekend since the opening of the market (15th November) and the close (21st December) a record number of 65,000 people visit it in just 1½shopping days.
The overall expected figure of visitors to Belfast Christmas Market in 2014 is over 800,000, a clear indication of just how popular it has become. Belfast Christmas Market now accommodates around 90 Alpine style chalets plus two huge bars, a children’s carousel made especially for the Christmas Market by the Goss Family, two great Gluhwein Houses, one specialising in white wine Gluhwein and a Santa’s Grotto. The diversity of products on display and the variety of countries of origin represented by traders is difficult to beat with around 30 different countries being genuinely represented. That said Market Place ensure there is plenty of local traders present, some of whom come from St Georges Market, which is located just down the road. They ensure that at least 30% of traders at the Belfast Christmas Market are local giving visitors the opportunity to sample locally sourced food and products, as well as those from around the world.
Market Place put as much as they can back into the local economy each year, Everyone engaged in the operational end of the Market, from set up to maintenance and promotion, are all employed from local companies in Belfast. The impressive 5 day set up of the festive village (erecting all the chalets and making sure the grounds are safe for the public) is carried out by local joiners, plumbers, and electricians, people of all trades who lend their skills to ensure a timely opening, Market Place work tirelessly to improve the market and make changes that customers would like to see. Every two years Market Place commission a customer survey carried out by an independent company. The findings are reviewed by Market Place and Belfast City Council and where possible suggested improvements are implemented.
Two resounding positives that have come from these surveys are the children’s carousel and the Santa’s Grotto. These two initiatives aimed at increasing family attendance were implemented in 2006 and have been hugely successful. A former employee of Belfast City Council designed the Santa’s Grotto which is donated each year for use by the Lord Mayor’s charity of choice. The chosen charity operates the Grotto on a commercial basis generating much needed funds and awareness of their objectives. An average of £10,000 has been raised each year the Grotto has been at the Market.
Another successful initiative the Belfast Christmas Market offers are the guided educational tours around the market. This is run by Market Place’s Norman Cotton, a fantastic character who instils lasting memories (and a global knowledge) of the traders and products available at the Market. School children get to experience tastes and cultures (for many for the first time) from across the globe.
This year Market Place has taken between 500-600 children around the market. They also offer the free tours to the elderly and disabled groups through their Buddy Scheme It is immediately evident from the layout to the attention to detail that this is all about the people and it is often referred to as the ‘People’s Market’. For many of the locals the beginning of the build is when Christmas truly begins in the city.
The journey of the Market over the past 10 years has coincided with the journey of growth and peace for the city itself. Not long ago Market Place’s Managing Director, Allan Hartwell, received an email from a gentleman who lives just outside of Belfast City Centre. It thanked the company for creating such a wonderful experience in Belfast. Having heard so many positive things about the Christmas Market he decided to bring his family into Belfast and to let his son see the stunning Belfast City Hall. He went on to explain that his son was 26 years old and had never seen City Hall or visited Belfast City Centre because they had never left the safety of their own community before. Messages such as this have really inspired the operators to continue in their quest to make the Christmas Market in Belfast all about the people. The case of this one 26 year old was not uncommon, the Christmas Market has played a significant part on bringing the people of Belfast together and they have embraced it as their own.
From the moment you walk through the gates and onto the grounds of Belfast City Hall the Christmas spirit is there for all to see and it fills you with happiness as you enjoy this wonderful festive experience. Belfast Christmas market is most certainly worthy of its title as one of Europe’s Best Christmas Markets.
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