Agenda item


            The Committee was reminded that, in 2021, officers had adopted a different approach to the Christmas 2021 programme which replaced the traditional switch - on ceremony. In the context of Covid, the challenge for officers was to design a programme that continued to be cognisant of safety considerations and have the ability to respond to a changing environment, whilst meeting the needs of city stakeholders including those businesses impacted by the pandemic.


            The Director of Economic Development advised that feedback from city centre traders on the traditional light switch was not entirely positive, with many highlighting traffic, parking congestion and the event itself acting as a barrier to normal trading at a crucial time of year.


            He informed the Committee that, as well as responding to the pandemic, the Christmas programme also aimed to meet the development objectives set out in the ten-year Cultural Strategy. As a consequence, in 2021, the Christmas programme consisted of a combination of creative initiatives such as street performance, projections, music, window dressing and lighting installations all inspired by the theme Once Upon a Time in Belfast, utilising local artists, creatives and designers to create an authentic and engaging experience for all throughout the festive season.


            In 2022, the 2021 model of Christmas animation and event delivery was further consolidated through a programme of seasonal animation in the city centre, which supported economic recovery in the city post pandemic and uplifted the city and visitors in the context of the current economic climate.


Benefits of the new approach included:


·        Improving the cultural vibrancy of the city;

·        Fostering civic pride;

·        Positioning the Belfast brand;

·        Supporting the local culture, arts and events sectors;

·        Delivering direct economic benefits; and

·        Supporting businesses.


            The Director of Economic Development provided an overview of the Christmas Programme 2022. He pointed out that the Belfast’s Christmas celebrations officially began on Saturday, 19th November with the ‘Christmas in Belfast’’ opening day event, which took place from 6pm to 9pm. In 2022, the opening weekend activity was reduced from two nights to one and focused on Saturday night only. This decision was taken based on the findings of the independent evaluation and feedback from 2021, which evidenced that the opening evening (Saturday) was much better attended than the Sunday. By reprofiling the event and animation budget into the Saturday activity only, the programme was uplifted to enhance the visitor experience and increase impact. The event schedule consisted of a range of elements including:


·        Christmas lighting scheme;

·        Lighting projections;

·        Music programme;

·        Procession;

·        Window animation;

·        Street animation;

·        2 Royal Avenue;

·        Christmas Market;

·        Lord Mayor Role; and

·        Marketing and Communications Activity.


            He highlighted that the Christmas Lighting Scheme in 2022 was year 3 of the existing Christmas Lighting Scheme which also began on the 19th November and ran until the 4th January. The scheme was identical to the 2021 programme, with the addition of icicles on Ann Street and the positioning and lighting on 12 additional trees on Donegall place. He advised that feedback on the scheme was positive, however, there continued to be requests for an extension of the scheme to include arterial routes. He advised that this also included lighting projections and additional illuminations across the city.


            The Director of Economic Development provided an overview of the Christmas Music Programme and animation programme which had taken place across the city across a number of zones. He pointed out that a raised platform was in situ on the evening of the 19th (in front of 2 Royal Avenue) with a three-hour set from 6pm to 9pm showcasing local musicians. In addition, a music programme was curated across the Christmas period, including several music elements for the opening night including performances at Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church and music on Berry Street and Lower Garfield Street.


            He described the 4 - week ‘weekend programme’ of Christmas Animation that was also delivered, together with details on the  interactive ‘White and Bright’ Procession, which had been created by an external provider (Luxe) and included a cavalcade of props and performers which passed through Royal Avenue / Donegall Place on the evening of the event, together with a community engagement programme of choreographed costumed performances, creating a festive spectacle with up to 150 participants and 7,000 visitors across the evening.


            He pointed out that Window Animation and Street Animation also formed part of the programme and there was a range of events in 2 Royal Avenue over the festive period. This included a Winter’s Den, Up-cycling Christmas decoration programme, Sustainable Christmas Crackers, ‘Swap - shop’, Santa’s Post Box, Teddy Bear Hospital and Toy repair café and a Sustainable Wrapping service (cash for Kids drop-off point), twilight pottery and art markets, Christmas carolling events, storytelling, music, festive jazz for seniors, family silent discos, sustainable arts and craft and workshops and a Crufty Christmas Fashion Show in aid of Guide Dogs NI.


            He provided an overview of the statistics that had been recorded against 2 Royal Avenue Christmas Programming, which included Footfall of 48,639 between 19th November 2022 to 31st December 2022 (an average of 1,131 per day) with 30 Events/Workshops/Markets.


            The Director of Economic Development summarised the Christmas Market activity which ran this year from Saturday 19th November to Thursday 22nd December. He highlighted that the total attendees were 1,015,565.


            He outlined the role of Lord Mayor in leading the Christmas procession, as well as the official opening of the 2 Royal Avenue Christmas programme on 19th November, together with a video message to citizens and visitors to the city.


            In relation to marketing and communications activity, the Director of Economic Development advised that the Council operated a digital campaign with pulse screens and online advertising to promote the events and promotion also took place across digital platforms and via key partners.


            He provided an overview of the Post Event Evaluation. He informed the Committee that the Council had commissioned an independent socio-economic survey for the Christmas in Belfast themed - event. Results included the following feedback:


·        55% of visitors were from the Belfast City Council area and a further 45% from elsewhere;

·        77% of visitors had previously attended the event with 23% attending for the first time;

·        69% of visitors agreed that it was a good event for the city to host with 19% views that it was one of the best events to take place in Belfast. 0% rated the event as a poor event;

·        81% of visitors preferred the current event format to the traditional switch on event; and

·        53% of visitors said that the event improved their view of the city.


            The Director of Economic Development provided a summary of the stakeholder feedback which had been undertaken in relation to the current programme versus the traditional Christmas Lights Switch on Event:


·        Translink was clear that the recent version of the Christmas event (2021 and 2022) was its preference. They stated that the older format caused major disruption, particularly to the Glider services, and had health and safety concerns around pedestrian footfall, particularly after the event.


·        The Council contracted Production Management Company and external Health and Safety Advisor had very similar opinions when comparing the two formats - they cited a number of difficulties with delivering the old-style event; the open space itself was not conducive to the delivery of a public event. It was a busy City centre with live traffic and heavy pedestrian footfall. This provided not only a challenging environment in which to operate but significantly increased the safety risk for staff and pedestrians, and significant resources to manage. This risk was exacerbated by public non-compliance, particularly during the de-rig. Their preference was for the new style event, also highlighting that for the old style to be delivered safely, (which they acknowledged it could) it would require significant stakeholder buy-in, and it would require a longer build/de-rig (out of hours) which would have significant resource implications. Both also noted how the Market opening added further complexities.


·        An Eventsec manager with several years’ experience of the event stated a preference for the new format, with the parade route amended.


·        City Events Unit officers commented that the former ‘traditional’ lights switch on format held prior to the pandemic was undoubtably the most challenging event to deliver annually. The city centre space on Donegall Square North was not suitable to host the build and de-rigging of a public event with live or partially live traffic. There were significant risks when live traffic mixed with staff building the event, and particularly with the heavy public pedestrian footfall in the area. Given the inconvenience of the structure build required, the public had been seen to take unnecessary risks in crossing the four lanes of traffic. This took place even with a considerable stewarding presence. This was also a challenge with the de-rig.


·        There were also pressures to re-open the roads within an hour of the event ending, a period where many contractors were removing structures and equipment, yet the Donegall Square North was bustling with pedestrians. These issues had been consistent for more than a decade of delivering this format.


·        Officer feedback had also indicated that the 2021/2022 event provided a much safer space within which to operate, and with less disruption of traffic and transport services within Donegall Place and Castle Junction, and less event equipment on site, the de-rig was more easily managed. The latter format had entertainment which was more varied in nature and catered for a wider audience than the previous format. There was more scope for using other spaces and buildings within the wider City Centre.


·        Feedback from Belfast Chamber (circa 20 businesses) had indicated that retail did not necessarily view the switch on event as boosting trade, while the hospitality sector within the city had a converse opinion. Some businesses had expressed surprise that there was not a return to a normal ‘switch on’ in 2022. Feedback had also demonstrated a desire for an increased investment in Christmas lighting, strong Christmas marketing brand and drawing on best-practice examples from elsewhere. A meeting with the Belfast Chamber had been scheduled for February to further discuss this feedback in detail.


·        Linen Quarter Bid Board feedback had indicated that organisations welcomed a diffuse approach to Christmas lighting with animation across the city centre. Linen Quarter BID welcomed a high profile family event to switch on the Christmas lights, as this would help kickstart the season and provide positive marketing for the city centre. However, the event would not necessarily deliver an immediate benefit, as many participants come for the switch-on and then depart again. Maintaining diverse areas of interest and activities across the city centre was therefore deemed important, as this encouraged greater dwell time throughout the day.’


·        Officers had also conducted research into what format was deployed across other Local Authorities from a benchmarking perspective. Official Christmas Lights Switch On events varied from live performances in a dedicated public space (Newry, Lisburn, Bangor, Antrim, Ballyclare, Cookstown, Magherafelt, Glasgow and Liverpool) supplemented by family friendly activities. Other formats included processional parades taking place in Derry City and Strabane and across Causeway Coast and Glens Local Authorities.


·        Further afield, Councils that decided to not have official Christmas Lights Switch-on events included Manchester, which was due to major construction works across the city; Brighton, Leeds and Inverness who cited budget pressures, and York who cited Covid concerns.


·        Alternative approaches include Edinburgh Winter Festival and Cardiff, whose Christmas activity comprises markets, funfairs, ice rinks, and light installations and did not host a standalone lights switch-on event, but rather promoted when the lights would first be switched on, signalling the opening of Christmas markets and related activity.


            The Director of Economic Development highlighted that a proposed solution could be found in taking some attributes of the old format, and hosting within the 2021/2022 event space. A ‘switch on’ element would take place on a small stage at Castle Junction/Donegall Place, allowing the audience within Donegall Place to view the lighting of the Tree and Festive Lighting within the immediate City Centre, without the requirement to close Donegall Square North. The entertainment throughout the City Centre could then be programmed. However, it was important to consider that the costs for a traditional light switch on was £96,300 in 2019. Within departmental estimates we currently have secured £122,864 for Christmas activities.


            During discussion, in relation to planning the 2023 Christmas Programme, several Members suggested that the Christmas Tree Switch-on event be resumed and consideration be given to community engagement and local organisation involvement, choir competitions, a procession and the extension of the lighting schemes.


            During further discussion, Members highlighted that details of the environmental impact and comparison of event feedback of recent Christmas event programmes would also be useful to assess the future Christmas Programme.






Moved by Councillor Beattie,

Seconded by Councillor T. Kelly,


      Resolved – that the Christmas Tree Switch-on event, outside the City Hall, be resumed and included in the Christmas 2023 programme and that a report be submitted to a future Committee on the development of the Christmas 2023 programme to consider the suggestions raised.


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