Hote­lier says short­age of worker skills a ma­jor is­sue

Ciaran O’neill, boss of Lon­don­derry’s Bishop’s Gate Ho­tel, talks to Ryan Mcaleer about how he ex­changed his chef’s hat for a tie

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Front Page - BY RYAN MCALEER

A TOP hote­lier has re­vealed he has turned down op­por­tu­ni­ties to open three new ho­tels be­cause of North­ern Ire­land’s skill short­age.

Speak­ing in an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with Busi­ness Tele­graph, Ciaran O’neill, the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the award-win­ning Bishop’s Gate Ho­tel in Lon­don­derry, warned that the lack of skilled work­ers in the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try, par­tic­u­larly out­side Belfast, will con­tinue to ham­per eco­nomic growth.

“If you de­cide you want to open a ho­tel, you have to go find 50 to 100 staff. They’re just not there at the mo­ment,” he said.

“That will stunt the growth, par­tic­u­larly out­side Belfast.

“Re­gional North­ern Ire­land will be im­pacted by that. That makes me more ner­vous than Brexit.”

Speak­ing just two weeks af­ter Bishop’s Gate was named by the AA as North­ern Ire­land Ho­tel of the Year, Mr O’neill said he had turned down three op­por­tu­ni­ties to open sim­i­lar sized ho­tels in North­ern Ire­land and in Done­gal.

“I’ve turned them all down and my de­ci­sion has been based on skills,” he said.

“It’s not to do with in­vest­ment, it’s not to do with banks lend­ing money, it’s to do with not enough peo­ple be­ing there with the skills to make these busi­nesses suc­cess­ful.”

He may have just re­turned from watch­ing his beloved Spurs lose to Barcelona in the Cham­pi­ons League, but oth­er­wise, life is good for Ciaran O’neill.

The chef turned award-win­ning hote­lier be­hind the Bishop’s Gate Ho­tel in Lon­don­derry ap­pre­ci­ates a sports­man at the height of his pow­ers, and the night be­fore he was treated to a mas­ter­class from Lionel Messi in Wem­b­ley.

It’s a trip he and his son Michael try to make at least once a year. But it’s not the only bond the pair share. As the youngest of three sib­lings, Michael (18) has fol­lowed in his fa­ther’s foot­steps, study­ing culi­nary arts at Ul­ster Uni­ver­sity.

“It means we have some­body to keep the fam­ily busi­ness alive,” says Ciaran.

His other two chil­dren Laura (23) and Ciara (21) are on their way to re­spec­tive paths in teach­ing and phar­macy. All three have worked in fam­ily trade at some stage.

“The other two are lost,” he says. “But Michael has been work­ing part-time in the ho­tel now for two years in the kitchen. I think it’s very im­por­tant, that’s the way I started, work­ing in the kitchen at 15 or 16.”

Grow­ing up in Strath­foyle area of Derry, his par­ents were both in­volved in the hos­pi­tal­ity trade in­di­rectly. As a well-known mu­si­cian, fa­ther Gerry and his fid­dle were well versed in the north west mu­sic scene. Mother Susie too spent time in the kitchen: “She had a lot of dif­fer­ent cater­ing jobs grow­ing up and she was a won­der­ful cook.”

But like many dur­ing the era, they took the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to up­root their young fam­ily and leave the city in 1971.

Pack­ing up their lives, they took their four chil­dren Des­mond, Paula, Gerry and three-year-old Ciaran to Canada.

“My fa­ther was an en­ter­tainer and there was lots of op­por­tu­nity for him,” he says.

“But when you ask him, he gen­uinely thought the Trou­bles was not a place to raise chil­dren.

“I think if I was a par­ent faced with that de­ci­sion, and my chil­dren were all aged un­der six, it would be a sim­ple de­ci­sion for me to move else­where.

“My first mem­ory of Canada is of a Mc­don­ald’s. The very first day we ar­rived, we were taken in for a Happy Meal.

“Canada is very much about fam­ily life, bar­be­cues at the week­end and sport. You play ice hockey in the win­ter, base­ball and soc­cer in the sum­mer. In Cana­dian cul­ture you don’t have to be good at sport to par­tic­i­pate. I think we could prob­a­bly take a les­son out of that.”

The move was a good one for Gerry’s mu­si­cal ca­reer. In 1976 he played dur­ing the open­ing cer­e­mony of the Olympics in Mon­treal.

Ciaran would spend 13 years in Canada, but home was al­ways call­ing and in 1984 he moved back to his na­tive city with his mother. Des­mond had al­ready re­turned a few years ear­lier, while Paula moved back some years later.

Ciaran’s fa­ther and brother Gerry still live in Canada, of­fer­ing a good ex­cuse to reg­u­larly cross the At­lantic.

“Peo­ple al­ways think the grass is greener some­where, but there was a point in my life where I re­alised the qual­ity of life we have here is in some ways much bet­ter,” he says.

“Six months of the year you’re im­mersed in snow in Canada.”

The move home at 15 landed Ciaran into a rel­a­tively alien ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

“I spent nine months see­ing out my O-lev­els and then I thought: what could I do?

“I’ll never for­get telling my ca­reers teacher that I wanted to do hos­pi­tal­ity and he said there’s no fu­ture in hos­pi­tal­ity. I do en­joy bump­ing into him.”

Earn­ing his first ex­pe­ri­ence at Bells res­tau­rant in Derry, he went on to the old ho­tel and cater­ing col­lege in Portrush. From there, he em­barked across kitchens in Europe for his ap­pren­tice­ship.

“I did Switzer­land, I did Lon­don, I worked in big ho­tels such as The Sher­a­ton, I worked in a Miche­lin star res­tau­rant (Cas­tle Combe),” he says.

But af­ter mulling over of­fers from the Savoy and the QE2, at 21 he once again set course for home.

He ini­tially took a job as se­cond chef in the Slieve Rus­sell Ho­tel in Co Ca­van and was soon ap­pointed head chef. At 23 the pro­mo­tion made Ciaran the youngest head chef of a five-star ho­tel in Ire­land.

Amid it all Ciaran de­cided to get mar­ried to Anne-marie, who he had met while study­ing in Portrush. They de­cided to set­tle in Derry, and Ca­van just seemed too far away.

Iron­i­cally, the move back to the city brought him back to his very first res­tau­rant — Bells on the Vic­to­ria Road.

But af­ter 18 months Ed­mund and Paddy Simp­son, the own­ers of a wide hos­pi­tal­ity port­fo­lio, in­clud­ing Bene­dict’s in Belfast, came knock­ing with an of­fer.

They wanted Ciaran to take the

helm as man­ager of the Fir Trees Ho­tel in Stra­bane.

“I said how am I go­ing to man­age a ho­tel? They said if you can man­age a kitchen, you can man­age a ho­tel. That’s how I went from kitchen to shirt and tie.”

He stayed on and off at the Fir Trees for around three years, but soon the time was right to start his own busi­ness.

Ciaran then opened the Oys­ters res­tau­rant in Derry in the late Nineties, fol­lowed by a se­cond eatery of the same name in Stra­bane a year later.

“That was my first at­tempt at be­ing a chef pa­tron. There was loads of busi­ness and rave re­views, but at that stage I didn’t have the busi­ness sense to fo­cus and sus­tain. When you’re a creative chef you’re al­ways look­ing for the next thing,” he adds.

The next move came around the mil­len­nium, when Gar­van O’do­herty re­cruited Ciaran as a gen­eral food con­sul­tant to help set up his new ho­tel Da Vinci’s.

“That turned into a job as gen­eral man­ager for seven years. They were good years. In 2004 we won North­ern Ire­land ho­tel of the year,” he adds.

“Da Vinci’s at that stage, dur­ing the boom, it was the place to be in Derry.”

An­other op­por­tu­nity came in 2007 in the guise of Scot­tish com­pany Chardon Man­age­ment, which was man­ag­ing a port­fo­lio of three dozen prop­er­ties.

“It tran­spired that one of them was the City Ho­tel in Derry, so I be­came gen­eral man­ager for six years,” he says.

In 2013 Chardon ap­pointed him as re­gional vice-pres­i­dent of op­er­a­tions for Scot­land and North­ern Ire­land, look­ing af­ter 16 prop­er­ties and open­ing six ho­tels in Bri­tain over the en­su­ing three years.

“I com­muted to Scot­land ev­ery Mon­day and came back on the Fri­day. I did that for over two-anda-half-years. It was a big job, big salary and big re­spon­si­bil­ity, but a lot less glam­orous than peo­ple would think,” he ex­plains.

But like many times in his past, the lure of his home city brought him back once again. Af­ter meet­ing with the In­ner City Trust, a not-for-profit re­gen­er­a­tion group in Derry, Ciaran set his sights on a new chal­lenge to trans­form what was then the North­ern Coun­ties Ho­tel.

“We had sev­eral meet­ings and one thing led to an­other and the next thing I agreed a 99-year deal with them to be­come the op­er­a­tor of the ho­tel,” he says.

Re­branded as Bishop’s Gate Ho­tel, it has gone from strength to strength with Ciaran as man­ag­ing di­rec­tor since open­ing in March 2016.

Now ranked as one of the best lo­cal ho­tels on Tri­pad­vi­sor, Bishop’s Gate was last month named AA ho­tel of the year for North­ern Ire­land.

“I was in­volved in most of the ho­tels in Derry in some way, but this was com­pletely unique. I re­ally wanted to es­tab­lish a high­end bou­tique ho­tel, with a real em­pha­sis on the food,” he adds.

Over the sum­mer he branched out, open­ing the Soda and Starch pantry and grill with chef Ray­mond Moran.

But while he’s in­vested in his home city, he feels it has yet to fully re­alise its po­ten­tial.

“I thought af­ter the City of Cul­ture year in 2013 we had re­ally nailed it. But when I came back in 2015 I was dis­ap­pointed that we hadn’t built on the legacy more. Things sort of stalled,” he says.

“In the ab­sence of Stor­mont and the grey­ness of Brexit, ev­ery­thing seems to be sim­mer­ing rather than boil­ing.”

In be­tween run­ning Bishop’s Gate, Ciaran re­cently com­pleted a two-year stint as pres­i­dent of the North­ern Ire­land Ho­tel Fed­er­a­tion.

“I had a year with gov­ern­ment and a year with­out gov­ern­ment. The year with gov­ern­ment, we got a lot more done,” he says.

How­ever, things are on the up in Derry.

From 200 in 2000, ho­tel room num­bers will have risen to 1,000 by the end of 2019.

“Is Derry grow­ing as quickly as Belfast? No. But we’re go­ing in the right di­rec­tion,” he adds.

“I think it’s amaz­ing what has been achieved, but I think we have so much po­ten­tial to un­lock.”

I re­ally wanted to es­tab­lish a high-end bou­tique ho­tel with real em­pha­sis on the food In next week’ s big in­ter­view, we­hear­from­bryson Re cy­cling’ s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor eric ran dell

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