A major advertising blitz calling on the people of Belfast to come back into their city and restore an image battered by the Union flag row will be rolled out this week.
The awareness-raising drive is part of the Backin’ Belfast campaign, which represents the collective response of the pubs, clubs, restaurants and hotels to the unrest that has seen the night time economy free fall.
Developed by the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau (BVCB), the initiative comes on the back of various social media rallying calls for people to socialise in the city.
Over the coming days, huge banners will be draped over landmark buildings, mobile advertising vans and bikes will traverse the city, badges and stickers will be handed out and even the mannequins in some leading outlets will don branded t-shirts.
The campaign will also rely heavily on social media and since the #backinbelfast hashtag was first actively promoted at the weekend it has already been Tweeted 1.2 million times and counting.
In return for the custom, traders involved in the scheme have pledged a number of deals, prizes and special offers. Around 1,000 hotel room one-night stays have already been collectively offered as give-aways.
Representatives from the hospitality industry have been in negotiations with city councillors and Stormont Executive ministers and are confident of receiving a funding commitment to support the campaign by the end of the week.
Parts of Belfast have witnessed disorder and rioting since the city council voted in December to limit the number of days the Union flag flies over City Hall, as some loyalist protests have turned ugly.
While only a number of demonstrations have ended in violence, many more pickets have involved road blocks, which have caused major traffic disruption.
Traders claim the cumulative effect has dealt a hammer blow to footfall in the city.
Chair of BVCB and pub chain manager Stephen Magorrian said the campaign was aimed primarily at the city’s residents.
“The city has been suffering since Christmas because of the ongoing unrest and what we need to do is try to regenerate the city,” he said.
“It’s not about tourism at this stage.”
He added: “It’s not really aimed at the country folk (either), it’s aimed primarily at Belfast folk in the initial stages.
“Because this is about civic pride and it’s about Belfast people supporting their own city.”
Mr Magorrian explained why the focus was on the night time economy.
“That’s where we are hardest hit, if we can get that moving then it will help the daytime economy as well.”
He said he was also encouraging his staff to prevail upon any would-be customers having second thoughts about going out for the night.
“What I have told the guys to say, from our pubs, if someone phones up to cancel a table: ‘Are you giving up?’, ‘Do you know I am going to have to send staff home if you don’t come in?’. That’s what I am trying to do - we’re appealing to people’s hearts, we’re appealing to their pride in the city and asking people to come in and support the city.”