Hotelier Eugene McKeever: Identify your market and stay in it
The Big Interview
Plenty of us hold ambitions at the tender age of 12 — but not many of us go on to realise them, including owning the very first property where we worked. But Eugene McKeever, managing director of the McKeever Hotel Group, has achieved exactly that, beyond his most fanciful hopes.
The Co Antrim man has been in the hotel business for over 20 years, and now he and his family operate four three-star properties — Dunsilly Hotel in Antrim, Corrs Corner in Newtownabbey — the location which started his love affair with hospitality — as well as Adair Arms in Ballymena and Dillons Hotel in Letterkenny, Co Donegal.
Along the way, he also owned a pub with his late brother Gerry.
The company now employs 200 people and made pre-tax profits of £900,000 in its last accounts, on turnover of £6.52m.
He says that by constantly reinvesting in the business, it’s stayed profitable in the recession. It’s even been in a position to make acquisitions, such as the Adair Arms in 2010 and Dillons Hotel — then known as the Letterkenny Court Hotel — in 2014.
It all goes back to growing up as one of nine children in Glengormley in the mid-Sixties.
He and his brother Gerry were working in a rose field in Newtownabbey across the road from a roadhouse run by John Corr — now, Corrs Corner Hotel. John used to send the boys sandwiches, but when Eugene was 12, John invited him and Gerry to work in his restaurant.
Eugene realised he loved the catering and restaurant business. “I was just part-time and then I left school at 15 and started in catering college. I was head chef in Corrs Corner by the time I was 21. Then I started getting professional qualifications but my ambition was to have my own business. In 1986 I achieved that with a small restaurant, Granagh House in Randalstown, which I built up.”
He and his brother then started the Wild Duck pub in Portglenone. But in 1993 he sold his share to Gerry and bought Corrs — beginning a dizzying cycle of acquisition and refurbishment, which continues to this day.
“In 1996 I sold Granagh House and in 1997 entered into first phase of the extension of Corrs, putting on 30 rooms, then in 1999 bought the Dunsilly Bar, applied for planning permission to turn it into a hotel, eventually got it. In the meantime I bought Balmoral Hotel in Dunmurry, then in 2005 finally built Dunsilly Hotel. I sold Balmoral Hotel that same year.”
He says they don’t rule out further acquisitions — but says he’s not interested in buying back the Balmoral Hotel, after it went into administration under the ownership of the business partners who bought it from him in 2005.
But he’s adamant they won’t be selling any of their hotels. “We are trying to build on a solid foundation and make sure our foundations are strong and can cope with the growth we’d like to see. We would look at opportunities for growth but we would need to have a good feel for something and a feeling that it would fit into our niche.”
It’s a competitive business but he feels the family knows their market well. Bar and restaurant trade is their mainstay, along with the corporate market and leisure and tourism.
“My philosophy has always been that I’m a great believer in quality and service, and that’s been the same right through the recession. We don’t go in for special offers all the time. Cheapness doesn’t buy loyalty. People may go for a deal but then they’ll move on very quickly to the next deal.
“In the hotel business, you should identify the market you’re in and stay in that. Don’t just jump up and follow what people are doing down the road for the sake of it.”
And he likes to maintain an element of comfort and tradition in the hotels’ decor — overseen by wife Catherine, a former teacher with a love of art and interior design. “People seem to like the fact that we have carpets on the floor — we’ve always kept to that traditional look. And when we did up Dillons Hotel, that did attract comment.”
The family ethos is important. He says Catherine had worked ‘front of house’ in Abbeylands restaurant in Whiteabbey when they first met, so they brought complementary skills together.
“It’s a family business with our family name. When we bought Dillons, people said that in 15 years they’d never seen an owner in the place. Hotels were more or less owned by investors who put managers in, so they were amazed we would set foot in it every week if not every day. We would be in our hotels most days.”
When the couple opened their first restaurant, daughter Bridgene was just nine months old and son, Eddie was two. Bridgene is now the firm’s sales and marketing director, while Eddie is group operations director. The other three children work outside the business — Marion as an environmental health officer, Joanne as a teacher and Frances as an accountant.
That balance in the occupations pursued by the children in the family is welcome, he says. “When I was expanding, my wife said to me, make sure you’re doing this out of your own ambition and not to push our children into it. I honoured that wish but as it turned out, Bridgene studied hotel management. Eddie did a degree in hotel management as well in Edinburgh, and he worked in the Burlington and in the Maldron hotels in Dublin.
“He then took a year out to have a think about whether he wanted to be in the family business, so he decided he would.”
His brother Gerry — a partner in so many of his early businesses — died of cancer last year. “He died of cancer at 58, which was a bit of a shock and set me back on my heels. We were very close and went to school and worked together.”
Others who have been strong influences include John Corr, and Hastings Hotels chairman, Sir Billy Hastings, now 85. “People like John Corr and Billy Hastings have taught me a lot of good business principles. Billy Hastings always kept going through the Troubles and kept on investing in his hotels and making it better.”
He was given an MBE last year. “It was very welcome but I wasn’t expecting anything like that. It was for services to hospitality though I was only doing my job.”
Tourism is an area he’s optimistic about. “The numbers of tourists who have been brought in by Titanic Belfast have been amazing. That’s been very positive for us, and it’s all good for the industry as a whole. Japanese and Chinese tourists have all increased, and we’re able to do a bit of cross-selling from Corrs to Dillons, and the Wild Atlantic Way (a campaign to encourage people to drive along the West Coast) has had a major impact on Donegal. There’s the possibility now extending the Wild Atlantic Way around Ballycastle and Portrush, and that would be just brilliant.”
But there are some fears, particularly for Ballymena, where business has suffered a hat-trick of setbacks with the closure of JTI Gallaher’s cigarette factory in 2017, the loss of Michelin in 2018 and a recent announcement that the town’s courthouse is closing. “That will all hurt us big time. JTI and Michelin booked a lot of accommodation through our hotels, and that will both be drying up. So that will hurt us directly, but we’ll be hurt indirectly as well because there’ll be less spending power.
“Then the court beside us is closing, and we’re used to getting a turn from the court days, from solicitors and people using the court.”
But doing what he loves is a consolation. “My ambition was always to have my own business from I was knee-high. I loved the bar business, and turned out to love the restaurant business, then the hotel business. But I never envisaged that I would take it to the heights that I have.”