13th Dec 2019 in Business

“The Cathedral is one of the reasons Belfast became a city, so we want local people to feel like it is their Cathedral. Everyone is welcome here.”

Holly Wilson, Head of Commercial Business at Belfast Cathedral

What do you call it? Saint Anne’s? Saint Anne’s Cathedral? Belfast Cathedral? Or simply The Cathedral?

The beautiful building that gives the Cathedral Quarter its name has many monikers, but its full and official one is Belfast Cathedral – The Cathedral Church of St. Anne. It recently celebrated its 120th birthday!

As well as its deep historical significance to the city, the Cathedral plays an active role in the community, both in the CQ itself, the wider Belfast area and Northern Ireland as a whole.

Holly Wilson joined the Cathedral’s small team of staff in 2017 as Events and Marketing Manager, and in August 2019 was promoted to Head of Commercial Business. As well as overseeing events and promoting it as a venue, it’s her job to ensure that Belfast Cathedral generates income and as she explains, this is a not-for-profit effort which keeps the Cathedral open.

“Really my role is to help sustain the building because it costs about £1200 a day – which works out at around £1.41 per minute – to have the Cathedral open.” she explains.

“We have a £5 admission charge to come in, £4 concessions, £3 for children, and all that money goes straight back into the Cathedral just to keep it here; it’s not for profit. It covers the heating, the lighting and the staffing and just makes sure the Cathedral remains open.”

It’s a challenge she applies herself to with great creativity, and although she works hard, Holly says “I absolutely love my job!”

As well as hosting high-end events such as the Ulster Tatler Awards, Digital DNA and Belfast Business Awards, the Cathedral has its own programme of events and music performances, and also collaborates with arts organisations and creative businesses.

“I still look after events as well as tourism and retail. External event organisation involves working with the client from the initial enquiry – it’s me that responds and then I accompany them on a site visit.

“We talk about costs and catering and then I’ll be the one to draw up contracts and work with the client right up to the day of the event, and then I’ll be here during the event as well to manage things.”

Holly manages a small team who help to staff these events, mostly made up of students from Belfast’s two main universities, Queen’s University and the neighbouring Ulster University. Many of these workers also volunteer for the Cathedral in their free time, lending a much-needed helping hand and bringing “young blood” into the historic institution.

Holly is passionate about the difference that volunteering makes, not only to the Cathedral, but also to the volunteers themselves.

She knows through her own experience that it’s important to put your hand up or muck in when you can – this ‘yes’ attitude helped to get her where she is today.

After she graduated from Coleraine University with a degree in Media Studies and English, Holly got a job in the newly opened Titanic Belfast – even though it wasn’t the job she’d originally hoped for.

“I’ve been a massive fan of Titanic since I was little. They did auditions for their tour guides and I missed that because of my final exams and my dissertation being due – so I applied to work in their Bistro.”

“I got the job there in 2012 and was literally making coffees and serving food, and I just got to know the sales and events team through getting their lunch every day and saying hello. Because I “had a nice voice”, they asked if I would cover the phones in their office over Christmas time and I remained in their event team for three years – so everything I know, I learned from the team there and worked my way up.”

Holly describes her career success as a combination of “hard work and a bit of good luck”.

“A door opened and I pushed it open a bit further! That’s what I say to any of our volunteers who may work in the events team – you just don’t know what opportunities stem from that. Just work really hard and smile and people do notice.

“Smiling is probably the best thing you can do and just having a positive attitude. I say ‘Yes, no problem!’ a lot because there’s a solution to everything.”

As well as a problem-solving approach, Holly is grateful for the small but dedicated team she works with at the Cathedral. Lorna Towns provides vital support as Commercial Development Officer, and the current Dean Stephen Forde combines modern open-mindedness with a sensitive instinct as to what is right for Belfast Cathedral.

“He’s the right man for it and definitely a very good boss, he’s very supportive. We’ve had some weird and wonderful enquiries and we’re quite open to a lot of stuff, but I think he has the confidence and respect in me that I won’t put anything in that will damage its reputation and I know he’s going to give me the space to be creative in his Cathedral and explore it and see what works and what doesn’t.

“He has the understanding that it can’t just be somewhere that opens on a Sunday and that’s it, and it deserves so much more. It deserves to be somewhere people can go. We have people who come in during the day from their office and just take twenty minutes to sit. There is something very peaceful about the building.”

As well as offering a majestic venue for hire, the Cathedral has its own programme of events, which includes some imaginative collaborations with arts organisations and creative businesses. Little Fox Events brought the first-ever Black Santa Night Time Bazaar to Belfast Cathedral last December, and it popped up again as a special opening night event for this year’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

This special market features local stallholders selling jewellery, homewares, second-hand clothes, candles and scents, homemade sauces, cupcakes, artwork, plants, books, collectables and so much more. It’s much more than a market though, with live music, DJs and food stalls!

Pic: Bernie McAllister

Families are at the heart of the Cathedral, and many of the collaborations have produced some of the Cathedral Quarter’s most popular family events, including the partnership with Young At Art. This year’s Young At Art festival was very much centred around the Cathedral, with some of its most popular events including the Baby Rave taking place there.

Holly even dressed up as Dorothy for a special screening of The Wizard of Oz in the Cathedral in partnership with Cinemagic! “The pillars were lit up green, we had a yellow carpet in the aisle as the yellow brick road! For the promotional photoshoot, I dressed up as Dorothy with my little dog Maisie who looks like Toto – I love to get involved.”

The Cathedral is keen to welcome families through its doors at all times of the year and so this year saw the launch of its InSpire Kids Trail to encourage kids and their grownups to explore the Cathedral together.

Funded by the Church of Ireland Priorities Fund and designed in collaboration with Sean Greer Design, the Trail booklet can be picked up at the Welcome Desk and encourages families with children of all ages to explore the Cathedral together, learn about it and engage with their surroundings.

Holly says: “It’s about spending time together as a family. My partner has a four-year-old so I have a wee stepson. When we go out, I love it when we can all do an activity together and he isn’t separate – you’re not just giving something to the kid to get them out of your way for an hour!

“That’s what I wanted to do with our kids’ trail. Older kids really love it; they can probably understand a bit more of it and go round by themselves if they want, to but for younger ones their parents can help point out things, and there’s a little colouring section too.”

The Cathedral also has a colourful kids’ corner with books, toys, and stained glass window colouring-in sheets – and they’ll even pop the little ones’ artwork up at the back of the shop unit!

The gift shop is a hidden gem of pretty Belfast souvenirs, and Holly hopes it can become part of Belfast’s Cathedral’s growing tourism appeal as the city continues to welcome more international tourists and cruise ship guests every year.

“I want to start working with more local people who make things – I would love our gift shop to be the place you think of if you need to buy a present for someone; somewhere you know you can get a few pieces unique to Belfast or Northern Ireland.”

The Cathedral hopes to work more with agencies and organisations such as Visit Belfast and Tourism NI and has recently installed an impressive new audio tour guide system, part-funded by Tourism NI, which is available in eight different languages.

“It’s a really hi-tech piece of equipment and we’ve had really good feedback – the translations are really good.”

As well as tourists, Holly wants to encourage local people to “go out and see what’s on our doorstep”.

She came back from a year of travelling Australia in 2016 with a renewed appreciation of Northern Ireland. “It’s such a beautiful country and such a beautiful city and there’s so much to do here now. We have car parking on site so you can literally drive to the cathedral, park, go into town,

“I would love to give local people the sense that it’s their Cathedral, that they’re involved in it. We do different family events throughout the year, so it’s a place they can come at Christmas time, to the carol services and at Easter we do the big massive Easter egg hunt for the kids around the Cathedral.”

“People don’t seem to know the building’s open, it’s something people pass every day and don’t stop to think ‘What is that?’ The Cathedral is one of the reasons Belfast was made a city – it had to have a Cathedral – so we are such a part of Belfast which has perhaps been a wee bit forgotten in recent years.

“Now we’re putting a wee bit of life back into it and I’m really excited about that.”

Although Holly’s job is commercially focused, she stresses that people are at the heart of the Cathedral. It is open to all people, of all faiths and none, and although it is part of the Church of Ireland, there is a Roman Catholic canon at the Cathedral too.

By encouraging people to come in and explore the Cathedral, its events are an important part of nourishing the Cathedral’s community and congregation. Its services are also open to the public and free to attend.

“Evensong is our service that happens from 5.30pm to 6pm on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday during term time, and we do evening prayer as well,” says Holly, “The Evensong is lovely; the choir sings to you for 30 minutes and you can sit right in the choir stalls beside the choir so you’re very much involved in it. You don’t have to sing along, you can just sit there and listen. I think it’s another one of those things people don’t know they can come to, or they don’t know it happens.”

The Cathedral is far from being an inward-looking institution. Year-round, it is actively involved in charitable support and fundraising, including its food bank, collaborations with local charities and support of the Baby Basics appeal to support new parents in poverty.

Perhaps the best-known example of its charitable efforts is the Annual Black Santa Sit Out Appeal.

Pic courtesy of Belfast Cathedral

Every year since 1976, the Dean of the Cathedral has spent the week before Christmas camped out in front of the Cathedral, collecting money for charity. The money collected is distributed among hundreds of Northern Ireland charities (applications for donations close around October every year).

The appeal has embraced the digital age too, and the total raised online this year currently stands at over £12,000. The Dean begins this year’s sit out on Monday 16th December and will be there every day until Christmas Eve.

Holly says the Cathedral is also more than a figurehead of the Cathedral Quarter; it is an active part of what is a thriving and close-knit community.

“It has a real neighbourhood feeling which I was pleasantly surprised by because I just didn’t think that still existed in our corporate-focused world.

“You walk through the Cathedral Quarter and you always see someone, Willie Jack [who owns the Duke of York, Harp Bar and Dark Horse] is always out brushing the streets, and he’s like ‘How are you? Come on in!’ It’s lovely.”

“Alan at Curated Kitchen is a massive supporter of ours. During our Black Santa drive, he’s out every ten minutes giving them teas and coffees, making sure they’re warm, making sure they’re looked after and he does all that free of charge. Our volunteers went to the Seamus Heaney Centre on their away day and Alan hosted them in the morning before they went with teas and coffees and buns, whatever they wanted.

“It’s so nice that you just know everyone. Everyone waves to everyone if they’re passing, they’ll pop in and say hello. I had no idea that type of thing still existed.”

Although she loves her job – as well as where she works – Holly recognises the need for some downtime. She loves to get out into nature with her partner Peter and stepson Alfie, as well as spending time with her Granny, whom she shares a love of crossword puzzles. With a full-on job that often takes her outside the standard nine-to-five routine, she appreciates the importance of slowing down and chilling out. “I sound so boring!” she jokes, “I should say I ride motorbikes or something!”

Although she spends most of her life in the CQ, Holly does enjoy socialising here too! “You’ll often find me in the Duke of York if I get out on time on a Friday afternoon! You can sit and have a chat and the atmosphere is always electric. I love Bunsen Burger too; I have my whole family switched on to that place now – the best burgers in the world!”

The Black Santa Night Time Bazaar is on Saturday 14 December from 5pm – 10pm. The Black Santa Sit Out begins Monday 16th December and you can also donate to the appeal online.

Stay up to date with the wide variety of events and activities at Belfast Cathedral by keeping an eye on their events page, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


All pics unless otherwise stated: Carrie Davenport Photographic.

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