Locally-owned with a reputation for high-end service, Galgorm Collection is a hospitality success story for Northern Ireland. Its managing director, Colin Johnston, talks to Russell Campbell about plans for future ventures and the importance of continuous investment and staff retention in the hospitality sector…
These days, Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort enjoys an international reputation for excellence, routinely collecting the silverware and plaudits that mark it out as enduringly special despite record levels of growth and innovation across this burgeoning sector.
Few readers will remember the ailing country house hotel that once occupied this majestic parkland site on the River Maine near Ballymena. Sold in the early 90s to local property developers, Nicky and Paul Hill, Fenaghy House, as it was known, was replaced by Galgorm Manor and work on the brothers’ vision of a world-class country hotel and spa was launched.
At that time, few could have imagined how the size and reputation of the property would grow. The dream of creating a hotel and spa capable of competing with some of the best in the world has long since been achieved, but work to extend and refine that offering continues unabated:
‘We don’t rest on our laurels,’ Colin Johnston confirms. ‘The investment began 18 years ago and in that time, we’ve spent around £50m, the majority of it here at Galgorm. Our guests’ appetite for new experiences and our own desire to build on our reputation means that the investment has got to continue.’
Johnston is managing director of Galgorm Collection – the trusted proxy of Galgorm’s reclusive owners, the Hill brothers. Now aged 38, he first met Nicky and Paul many years ago when he was bar supervisor at their Ten Square property in Belfast.
‘I think it’s also true that people see us putting a lot of money back into the community and they like that, they’re supportive of that,’ he adds.
It’s indicative of a people-orientated ethos which Johnston returns to again and again in conversation – enough to suggest, perhaps, that it amounts to more than simply a marketing spiel.
The investment to which he refers has been – and remains – considerable. Currently at Galgorm, the venue’s popular Gillie’s pub is closed for total refurbishment at a cost of £800,000.
When it opens again in early December, the pub will have been rebranded as McKendry’s Bar – a homage to the iconic bar of the same name that once traded in Broughshane Street, Ballymena. The Hills acquired the pub many years ago and although they swept the old venue away in a flurry of redevelopment, they kept the knick-knacks and memorabilia that had adorned the walls in McKendry’s and these will now be displayed in the new bar at Galgorm.
‘We really want to take back the pub and make it a traditional Irish bar with a great focus on whiskey,’ says Johnston.
On offer will be an eye-watering 350 varieties of whiskey from 23 different countries – although even that offering pales when placed alongside Galgorm’s current menu of 450 different gins.
Also ongoing is a refurbishment of Galgorm’s 23 standard rooms, which will become superior rooms. That scheme, which involves a £400,000 spend, is two-thirds completed and all will be finished by March.
Current enhancements to the Spa include a relaxation area to be known as The Palm House along with an additional five hot tubs.
But development has yet to begin on perhaps the most exciting of Galgorm’s current projects – the Tree House, which represents an investment of around £100,000.
‘We work in a very competitive market with trends emerging and fading all the time, so we have to be quick to react and understand our changing generational audience,’ says Johnston.
For Johnston and the Hill brothers, the resort at Galgorm is the driver that builds reputation and secures the lion’s share of the revenue for Galgorm Collection, an eclectic group of venues mostly centred on Belfast.
As well as Galgorm and the Castle Kitchen and Bar at nearby Gracehill, Johnston oversees Café Parisien, a French-themed brasserie that offers unrivalled views of city hall; Fratelli Belfast, a rustic Italian ristorante, pizzeria and bar on Great Victoria Street and The Templeton, a newly-purchased hotel in Templepatrick which is currently the subject of extensive renovations.
The Collection also has plans for an £8m hotel, bar and restaurant on the Ormeau Road in Belfast, part of which will encompass the now derelict Holy Rosary Church and its adjacent parochial house. Planning permission is now in place for this intriguing development and if everything goes as intended, Johnston hopes that the venue will be open for business early in 2022.
Performance across the group as a whole has been ‘good’ and ‘positive’, he says.
‘We felt the biggest impact this year from The Open and the ISPS Handa Invitational golf event at Galgorm Castle Golf Club. The Invitational got a bad week weather-wise but it did very well for us, there was good growth in visitor numbers, particularly among US visitors, and we doubled room numbers in the local area.’
Johnston appears largely content with performance across the Collection at present, but does concede that there are challenges on the horizon:
‘Brexit is a problem,’ he says. ‘We’ve had false dawns in March and again in October and that causes contractions that are mainly felt by the business community with the loss of big conferences. We don’t need any more of this uncertainty.’
That said, however, he feels that the absence of a local Assembly and Executive is, by far, the biggest impediment to business growth:
‘Ultimately, businesses will manage Brexit, but the lack of the Assembly is much more problematic. It has a real impact on business and investment and on Tourism NI’s ability to take big decisions. I feel that the most important thing we can do is get the Assembly up and running again.’
According to Colin Johnston, there are two big drivers to the group’s continued growth. One is the corporate vision, which is set by Nicky and Paul Hill, the other is the staff:
‘The staff are key,’ he says. ‘You can build the best hotel in the world, but if the staff aren’t right, if they aren’t bought into your vision, it’s not going to work. Most of our business is repeat business and that is driven by the quality of our service.’
Like everyone in hospitality though, Johnston must deal with an enduring dearth in suitably skilled staff. Retention, he says, is the new recruitment:
‘Delighting every time, that’s the brand vision and we want to delight our staff as well as guests,’ says Johnston. ‘A lot of the development we undertake is on our staff and our IT systems, where we have spent over £1m in the last two years. Much of that is to make our staff’s job easier which, in turn, makes the guests’ experience better. We also offer them free gym membership and we’re looking at other options such as free travel to work from the surrounding areas.’
As well as keeping staff engaged, Johnston says that the group is focusing on its own measures designed to address the hospitality skills gap. Its Spa Academy training school is about to enter its second year and set to commence shortly is the new Bar Academy. This is an initiative that Galgorm has undertaken with two other nearby hotels – the Tullyglass and the Adair Arms – as well as the Gallaher Fund, a community support fund established by tobacco firm, JTI, following the closure of its Lisnafillon plant in Ballymena in 2017. Unlike many training schemes, the Bar Academy is aimed at those aged over 45, offering training and qualifications to 24 local people with a guaranteed job at the end in one of the participating hotels.
‘We feel that this will drive a lot more local people along the food and beverage route and that’s what we need to see,’ says Johnston.
‘I genuinely do think that these difficulties with skills didn’t just come out of the blue, they were something that the industry and the government knew was coming and yet, there seemed to be no contingency plans.
‘Our attitude has been that you can sit and whine, or you can do something constructive. So we decided to put our own measures in place with a vision not only to help ourselves but in the long run, the entire industry.
‘We have a close relationship with the local Northern Regional College who have listened to our concerns and continue to engage with us to address them.’
As for the future, Johnston says that much of the focus will remain on Galgorm as the engine that drives the group, but development at other sites will continue in tandem.
The Galgorm Collection sold its interest in the Scottish Mutual Building in central Belfast and abandoned plans to build a hotel there in 2017. Despite the phenomenal growth of the sector, they don’t regret that decision, says Johnston:
‘We felt there was an oversupply of rooms going into the city and we had other projects that we felt needed our time. You can only do so much.’
He doesn’t rule out a hotel in the centre of Belfast at some time in the future, but says that ‘everything would need to align properly’ before any commitment could be made.
‘Galgorm will continue to be our big focus and in the longer term, we would look to double the size of our spa, bringing it into line with some of the big European spas in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Spain. If you’re visiting Belfast for a couple of days, you’ll come down to the Thermal Spa Village at Galgorm for half-a-day.
‘We are also planning a further accommodation block at Galgorm, 64 junior suites. That’s a £20m development aimed at the international market and it’s something we’re very keen to see completed.
‘Even further down the line, we’d like, perhaps, to have a couple more hotels and we’d like to see the Templeton redevelopment complete. By that time, the entire hotel will have moved over to its new branding as ‘Hunter’s’
‘And we’ll also be looking at possible, future opportunities, that work never stops. What is important is that whatever we do, we remain at the forefront of the hospitality market.’
Castle Kitchen offers a luxury option
Castle Kitchen and Bar at the Galgorm Castle Golf Club – about two-and-a-half miles from Galgorm Spa and Golf Resort – is the result of a £700,000 investment by Galgorm Collection in 2018.
In effect, Galgorm bought and thoroughly refurbished the clubhouse/restaurant, previously known as The Pavilion. Working closely with the golf club membership, they’ve established a contemporary restaurant and bar that continues to serve the players, members, the public and those guests from the nearby resort who are keen to enjoy a meal at a quality off-site venue.
Since the opening in September last year, a retractable roof has been added to the balcony at the Castle Kitchen, adding 50 all-year-round seats at the 150-cover restaurant.
Inside, the restaurant bears little resemblance to its predecessor. The Pavilion’s dated visuals were swept away to create a modern new space that’s entirely in keeping with the luxury feel of the nearby resort.
A wrap-around horseshoe bar sits at the centre of the new, more open interior. Walls were removed and the old kitchens and toilets were relocated to provide an airy, informal space centred on comfortable, leather sofas, a feature wood-burning stove and a line of eye-catching artificial trees that runs down the centre of the room.
Ambitious plans for a new-look Templeton
Work starts in early December to refurbish the Templeton hotel at Templepatrick, acquired by Galgorm Collection in February this year for £7m.
The bar and restaurant at the venue will be transformed into Hunter’s. Described by Colin Johnston as ‘mid-20th century contemporary’, the new facilities will be open in April.
A beautiful new wedding event and function room called The Loft is also to be created. A showroom is currently open at the property which shows couples what they can expect if they book their forthcoming nuptials at the Templeton and 45 weddings are already booked for the venue in 2020.
A total of 24 bedrooms at the hotel are also scheduled for refurbishment and that work should be finished by May.
‘We are very proud of what we have to offer at the Resort but we know that our facilities alone do not make the entire customer experience,’ says Colin Johnston. ‘We’ve spent the last 10 years concentrating on Galgorm and only now did we feel that we were ready to take on another big project. We felt that the Templeton was the right move. We liked the exterior of the building, we knew that it had established a good reputation for itself and that it just needed some investment.’
The Templeton hotel was built by Stephen and David McComb in 1990.
No let up at city centre brasserie
Trendy city centre haunt, French-themed Cafe Parisien, gets his name from the restaurant on the ill-fated Belfast-built liner, RMS Titanic.
It offers a lunch and dinner menu and afternoon teas and it recently opened its Grey Goose Terrace in association with Grey Goose vodka, offering stunning views over Belfast city hall.
‘We can do 175 customers at capacity and on a recent Saturday night, we turned around 280, so trade is very strong at the moment,’ says Colin Johnston.
He admits that the venue did undergo ‘a rough period’ in the aftermath of the blaze at Primark Bank Buildings in August last year. The fire devastated trade for many city centre retailers as shoppers were barred from a swath of ground around the burned-out building.
‘Since then, footfall in the city centre is up and we’ve recovered and are doing well,’ adds Johnston. ‘We’ve just completed the Grey Goose terrace, which is doing very well, and now we are looking at a small part of the premises downstairs for a new concept of some sort, although we’ve not come up with anything solid just yet.’