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Keith Carmichael on why hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try is truly a family af­fair

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Front Page -

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’

KELVIN BOYES

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