Galgorm Collection looks to bright side of the road

Galgorm Collection looks to bright side of the road

As managing director of the ever-expanding Galgorm Collection, Colin Jonston knows well the challenging nature of the hospitality industry – be it five star hotels or high street cafes. The past 12 months though were truly seismic for the sector but as reopening looms he is looking to the future with optimism despite everything that has gone before.

“2020 was, without doubt, a challenging year despite the early months when the stage was set for a record year.

“March came around and expectations quickly changed, being thrown into the oblivion of closure. Whilst this alone presented its imminent challenges, it encouraged us to innovate – to seek different ways to work, to engage with supply chains differently to build and nurture relationships.

“It was a time of change, a new way to work, this so-called ‘new normal’ but the rollercoaster approach of opening and closing was certainly challenging for both the business and our team.

“It’s our people that are at the heart of our business and the opening and closing was extremely challenging and I must commend them for their resilience and adaptability in the face of adversity.

An artist’s impression of the Ormeau Road hotel and restaurant

“The experience of 2020 has taught us the lesson to ensure we are always strategic in our thinking for the future in terms of capital and operational planning for any uncertainties that may come our way.”

Addressing the challenges of Covid wasn’t just about saving a business, it was also about saving the jobs of those people who make the business what is, something Colin is extremely proud of.

“It certainly has been one of the most challenging times of my career to date and I am delighted to say there were no job losses throughout Galgorm Collection.

“Your team is your most important asset, we truly believe it is our people who make the difference. In a time like this, it is important to ensure you keep your team engaged helping to increase morale.

“Providing clear communication and training opportunities have been important to help keep our team stay connected and are a testament to their ability to adapt.

“Not only that, in preparation for reopening we have been recruiting for an additional 180 jobs throughout The Collection.”

While Government supports helped to save the jobs of valued staff members, Colin knows that for returning businesses to survive more needs to be done.

“Whilst the furlough scheme helped look after employees, support for businesses and the accessibility of this support is a major stumbling block and has been slow to reach the industry,” he added.

“The withdrawal of the furlough scheme needs to be timed appropriately – in line with the return of usual business levels.

The very chic loft restaurant

“The Government needs to put in place further support schemes for the remainder of this year and into next year to support business and help the industry to recover given its closure for the best part of 2020 and into 2021.

“The rates relief announcement has been very much welcomed by the industry and the number of hospitality support schemes that have been driven by the executive – however, we need to look at additional schemes, funding, and support to help get the industry back on its feet.

“The VAT reduction scheme has been instrumental to the industry, however it needs to be extended beyond 2022 to give the industry time to get back on its feet following such a lengthy period of closure.”

For many companies restoration and consolidation will be watchwords for the rest of 2021 but Galgorm Collection rarely rests on its laurels and despite exiting a lockdown, this year is no different, as Colin explains.

“The Collection purchased Templeton hotel in Templepatrick in 2019 and after a redevelopment programme saw the first phase complete in July 2020 with the confirmation of the hotel’s new name, The Rabbit Hotel & Retreat and the opening of  The Rabbit Restaurant and Hunter’s Bar

“Phase two was completed in March 2021 and includes the dramatic transformation of our wedding and banqueting space,

“The Loft, The final phase of our redevelopment works, will see the completion of the 33-bed accommodation offering and £2 million outdoor spa offering which includes Swedish saunas, aromatherapy steam room, halotherapy salt chamber, and Roman-inspired baths and hot tubs. Exclusive to The Rabbit is a lakeside beach complete with heated sand, a lake bar, sunken lounge, and plush cabanas for a laid back, luxurious experience.”

The Palm House at Galgorm’s luxury spa

And pulling a Rabbit out of the hat wasn’t the only trick The Collection pulled off this year, having recently signed off on the multi-million-pound purchase of the historic Old Inn at Crawfordsburn.

“The Old Inn is one of the region’s most historic and appealing hotels, located in a unique and charming location which makes it a perfect fit for Galgorm,” says Colin.

“With an initial strategic investment of £1 million we are planning to build on the hotel’s award-winning credentials and extend the site to incorporate a boutique spa with infinity pool, hot tub, sauna, steam room, private cabanas and relax space.

“We’re thrilled to add The Old Inn and its fantastic team to our collection and take this iconic property forward into a new era for tourism and hospitality. We look forward to safely reopening and welcoming guests back to enjoy a fantastic stay.”

Of course The Collection’s flagship venue remains Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort, the jewel in the crown of which is the Thermal Spa Village, which is open to residents and day spa guests alike.

Colin, rightly, remains very proud of all that has been done at the property – including the partnership with Galgorm Golf Club.

“Over the past decade, Galgorm has undergone a £60 million transformation. The latest investment was in July 2020, a £2millon investment in our Thermal Spa Village,” he explains.


Fratellli restaurant in Belfast city centre

“Tournament golf has been played at Galgorm for over a decade with the first Northern Ireland Open hosted at the Ballymena venue in 2010 and since then the tournament has evolved and grown every year.

“After last year’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, the 2021 ISPS HANDA World Invitational has exciting new dimensions as an LPGA Tour-sanctioned event.”

With reopening on the horizon Colin too is looking forward to showing off the latest developments to new customers, starting with The Rabbit.

“The Rabbit is set to open on June 18 following a £10 million investment in the property,” he said.

“In 2018, Galgorm Collection purchased the former Holy Rosary Church on Ormeau Road, with plans of transforming the derelict property into a boutique hotel with a restaurant.

“Our plans will further enhance Belfast’s growing high-quality hospitality offering in line with our aspirations while adding to the vibrancy of community life on Ormeau Road.

“The site will be carefully restored and preserved to accommodate 18 bedrooms, a stunning new bar, and a signature restaurant. We aim to start work on this by the end of 2021.

“We also look forward to seeing our plans coming to fruition for The Old Inn, Crawfordsburn. These strategic investments reinforce the company’s ongoing commitment to the tourism industry and Northern Ireland as a whole.

Cafe Parisien is a great place to take a break from shopping

“We are never one to rest on our laurels and have used this time to review our five-year strategy and look to the future.

“We are guided by entrepreneurial spirit and passion for the industry, and therefore will always consider and explore new opportunities

“Galgorm Collection’s ambition is to continually innovate and push boundaries to create world-class hospitality experiances.”

While Covid-related challenges to the tourism industry are far from being resolved, Colin believes there are opportunities to be had.

“Trends are showing the demand for staycations and we have some amazing experiences to offer,” he says.

“I would encourage people to stay local and support the local tourism and hospitality offering that we are renowned for – Embracing our own Giant Spirit.

“Short-term our strategy will be to focus on the local market, but we must never lose sight of further afield – we must continue to engage to be at the forefront for when international travel does begin.

The Loft banqueting suite at The Rabbit

“We are very fortunate to have a very loyal local customer base and thank every one of them for their continued support.”

And Colin is already seeing  that pent-up desire for holidays and short stays play out.

“Since the announcement of indicative dates by the NI Executive, we have seen a positive lift in our booking patterns which would indicate that people are hopeful for the future,” he explains.

“Many will be seeking wellness packages and spiritual refreshment after an unprecedented period of unsettlement in their life such as Covid-19.

“Others will be making up for lost time – they will travel as much as they can, catching up on the time and experiences with family and friends they lost while in social isolation.

“We would encourage everyone to support their local hospitality businesses as we work together to get through the pandemic.”

And Colin is keen to reassue those who may be nervous about visiting after having spent so long at home.

“We were also among the first hotels in the UK to obtain The AA’s Covid Confident assessment scheme which is external verification that the measures we have adopted are best practices and reassures guests and visitors that the resort is safe to visit.

“We must remind guests of our safe haven and the measures that we have put in place to quell any apprehension.

“On a personal level, I look forward to getting back out to socialise and catching up with family and friends and seeing some normality return.”