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Keith Carmichael on why hospitality industry is truly a family affair
There was never any suggestion that Keith Carmichael wouldn’t work in hospitality. The son of leading restaurateur and hotelier Norman Carmichael, who passed away in 2014 following a short illness, 55-year-old Keith was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Alongside his brothers, Ian and Derek, he has spent his entire working life purchasing, redeveloping and running an impressive portfolio of pubs, restaurants and hotels at locations around Northern Ireland.
Currently, he describes his primary role in the north Downbased Carmichael Group as managing the Rosspark Hotel at Kells, Co Antrim.
Meanwhile, 50-year-old Ian runs the Bryansburn Inn in Bangor and the Esplanade in nearby Ballyholme, while Derek stepped away from the business 15 years ago.
The origins of the family-run Carmichael Group stretch back more than five decades.
Some of Keith’s earliest memories are helping his parents, Norman and Joan, in the Glenavon House Hotel.
“We’re from Cookstown originally and my parents owned the Glenavon and I would have done all sorts there, from lifting glasses and washing dishes, to checking stock,” he said.
However, when Keith was 15, at the height of the Troubles, the couple made the decision to sell up and move away from Co Tyrone town.
Hoping to escape the worst of the violence and the challenges posed to business as a result, they moved the family to Holywood, Co Down, where they began to build up their hospitality empire.
The first premises bought by Keith and Ian was The Stables in Groomsport in 1991.
“It was in a great location, it wasn’t too far from Belfast, so you had people, it had great car parking, and we basically knocked it down and rebuilt it inside,” said Keith.
“We bought it at auction, dad was there to guide us, but he knew we were champing at the bit.
“It was a bar and restaurant and we redeveloped it and updated it, we spent a lot of money bringing it up to scratch. It did very well, casual dining was becoming more popular.
“It certainly wasn’t easy work, but it was enjoyable and it was very successful.”
The Stables was the first of many acquisitions for Keith and Ian, followed by venues like the Tidy Doffer restaurant, outside Hillsborough, Rosspark Hotel and, latterly, Morrisons in Belfast city centre.
At one stage, the Carmichael chain was so extensive, that they employed more than 600 people.
Certainly, no one can accuse Keith of having a lack of ambition and drive. “The idea was always to continue to grow the brand, so when the opportunity came up to buy the Rosspark, I was keen to do it,” he explained.
“It was very run down when we got it and we wanted to make it more contemporary and it took us about eight or nine months to do that.
“We spent more than £2m developing it.” Since then, Keith has worked hard to continue improving standards and the services offered by the hotel.
They have recently completed a £500,000 extensive refurbishment of the premises, including the construction of a pavilion for holding civil partnership ceremonies and civil weddings.
The 40-bedroom venue was closed at the beginning of the year to allow the work to be carried out and the pavilion opened at the start of summer.
Keith said: “A lot more people are opting for non-church weddings and we wanted to be able to cater for that as well.
“The pavilion is the perfect setting and it allows people to get married and have their reception on the same site.
“It is very popular already, we’re very lucky in that we’ve never really had to do a lot of formal advertising or marketing, we just seem to have attracted customers.
“I think word of mouth is the most important thing in business, you can spend a fortune on advertising, but if you have a friend who tells you they stayed at the Rosspark and it was brilliant, then that is better than any advertising.
“There’s no doubt that if you have a customer going away, no matter whether it is an evening meal, a wedding, a conference or afternoon tea they’ve had and they tell a friend about it, it is still the best form of advertising.
“We get people coming to stay from all over the world and that’s as a result of recommendations.”
Keith, who primarily works front of house, said a number of factors, including excellent customer service, have played a role in the success of the hotel.
The massive global following of Game of Thrones has resulted in more tourists coming to the area and he said the location of the hotel has also been important.
“We didn’t think it when we bought the hotel, we actually thought we were maybe a bit in the middle of nowhere, but that actually isn’t the case,” he said.
“We’re close to the Dark Hedges, we’re half an hour away from the Giant’s Causeway and the North Coast and we’re also less than half an hour away from Belfast, so we’re in the ideal location.
“One big advantage we have over most of the hotels in Belfast is our car parking which means we can cater for the tour buses.”
So, after a lifetime in the hospitality industry, what is the one piece of advice Keith would offer to someone starting out?
“You can’t go in half-hearted, it’s like sports people saying the more they practise, the better they are and the same goes for business, the more you put in, the more you get out,” he concluded.
With the North West 200 bringing tens of thousands of people to Northern Ireland every year, motorcycle racing is clearly a hugely popular sport.
However, until now, there hasn’t been a venue anywhere in Ireland where bike enthusiasts can enjoy the sport all year round.
Gareth George and Kyle Rainey spotted the gap in the market and have opened E-trax NI, Ireland’s first indoor KTM electric motocross park, just outside Moira, Co Down.
The facility only opened a month ago and Gareth (38) said it is already on track to meet their business targets.
“Our complex gives people the opportunity to try out the sport or come every week or month and enjoy themselves,” he said.
“The equipment is very expensive to buy so they’re able to enjoy the sport without having to make that commitment or worry about the maintenance of the bike, and it can all be done in a safe environment.”
Both Gareth and Kyle come from biking backgrounds and they realised there was a massive business potential in setting up a complex where people can come and enjoy the sport.
“We’d toyed with the idea of creating a motocross track but knew it would never work with petrol bikes,” said Gareth.
“The fumes and noise would both be a factor in that.
“Firstly, within two minutes of starting up the bikes, you would be choking on the fumes if they ran on petrol and the noise would be crazy as well.
“The electric version of the bike is just as good, they can do 45 to 50 miles an hour and they are easy to ride.
“KTM is a major company in the sport — it is the biggest in Europe — and we chose to go with them because they’re the best manufacturer of the bike, so we signed a contract making us the only place to have the bikes in Ireland.
“The fact that we can have an indoor course is a big plus because it means it can be used all year round, we don’t have
‘You can’t go in half-hearted and word of mouth is very important’