'We all come from a sports background... it's amazing how well Rory Best is performing'
Katy Best, commercial and marketing director of Belfast City Airport, talks to John Mulgrew about new owners, boosting sales, trying to find replacement airlines and the role sport plays in her family, which includes Ireland's current rugby captain
Despite a top-flight job in charge of much of the running of one of Northern Ireland’s biggest airports, Katy Best jokes she’s not the most famous of the Best family.
She’s been commercial and marketing director for Belfast City Airport for the last 10 years and in that time has helped grow its passenger numbers.
But while the airport is witnessing a growth in both turnover and profit, the volume of people passing through have taken a hit in the last few months.
That’s something the 38-year-old is hoping to improve upon at the Routes Europe conference, after losing two airlines and routes in the space of a year.
“We are hopeful of some quick wins on the back of the conference — it’s about establishing new relationships and showing those relationships,” she says.
Her job is a wide-ranging one. “I would say that I look after the business of the airport. That may involve putting together airline deals, promoting new routes, opening new shops or restaurants, along with our car park business, which is significant contributor to revenue. It’s that diversity that has kept me here this long.”
The airport dealt with just under 2.7 million passengers in 2016. Flybe now makes up 60% of the airline’s business, alongside flagship carriers British Airways and Aer Lingus, which, between them, fly nine times each day to London Heathrow. That alone accounts for around 700,000 passengers each year.
Belfast City also has some sun and city links, with KLM flying to Amsterdam and Icelandair to Reykjavik.
Originally from Holywood, former Strathearn pupil Katy now lives in Poyntzpass, on the border between Armagh and Down, with her former Ireland rugby star husband Simon Best and their three young children — Jack (7), Sam (6) and Lucy (3).
“We are married 10 years this year, and we were together when Simon was playing,” she says. “You look back at the amazing opportunity in terms of travel, and the amazing experience that rugby brought to both of us. We still have very close friendships and networks across the world.
“With professional sport you never know how long it will last, and you just have to get every opportunity that comes with that. It’s been much more of a normal life for the period that we have been married.”
Husband Simon works on their farm and also has other business interests around the diversification of the farm and renewables.
Simon, a former Ireland captain, was forced to give up the game when a heart problem was detected at the 2007 World Cup.
Katy says brother-in-law Rory Best, who recently captained Ireland during the Six Nations, has “excelled himself” in the past year.
“To not only be performing at this point in his career, but performing better than he ever has, is phenomenal... we all get huge enjoyment out of what he is doing. He also couldn’t do it without his incredible wife Jodie,” she adds.
Katy began her career in sales and marketing in London, after studying commerce at the University of Edinburgh.
She then interned at a digital marketing agency in New York, before flying across the globe to start her time in the travel industry — working at experience and short breaks business RedBalloon in Sydney.
But she then returned home and set up her own business — Activity Breaks.
“It was 2002 to 2007. We turned over a million pounds within the second year of opening and when I left there was a team of about 20 people,” she says.
“It was great to be involved at something from a start-up, but it is a very different experience to the environment I’m in now.”
And while the airport has surged in passenger numbers over the past 10 years, 2016 saw numbers falling, with a 6% drop in December alone.
The airport also lost several key routes, including Brussels Airlines, Vueling’s link to Barcelona, and its Gatwick flight.
But while not just going for “quick wins”, Katy says she’s hopeful of securing new strong relationships and possible links, during the Routes Europe conference, which takes place in Belfast for the first time this month.
“We will be bringing over 1,000 air professionals to Northern Ireland and I would expect two-thirds or more have never been before,” she says.
“There is an important piece to selling the destination, the tourism benefits, but also a chance to bring them right up to speed on the economic success stories that we have created in Northern Ireland.” And she says the recent fall in passenger numbers is part of a “broader picture”.
“If you pull back and look at the broader picture, they do talk about it being constant shocks (in the industry).
“If you track back, what happened here with airlines coming and going is replicated in the majority of the UK.
“We have had growth in terms of passenger numbers, for a five and 10-year period, but it’s never straightforward for you to keep adding to that.
“The most significant issue was losing the Gatwick route, through a legislative decision.”
Aer Lingus was forced to stop its link to the London hub following its takeover by British Airways owner IAG. City also lost Brussels Airlines link to the Belgian capital following what Katy describes as “a perfect storm”.
It launched following the terror attack at Brussels Airport and came in the same year that the airline was taken over by German giant Lufthansa.
“The five-year plan we have put together does demonstrate growth, year-on-year. We are probably realistic in terms of what that growth is, but for an investor to be working with blue chip airlines, and to be working on slow and steady growth, can more often than not be more attractive,” she says.
And while the latest accounts for the airport have yet to be released, she says business is up.
“Last year we achieved both record turnover and profitability, and we have a blue chip portfolio of airlines which gives us some security going forward,” she says.
“Our car park business is bigger than it has ever been… we have the highest advertising spend per passenger of any UK airport outside of London, and significantly increased the passenger spend in the airport, through food and beverage and retail.”
Belfast City Airport is also in the process of being taken over by new owners 3i funds after a sale by EISER Finance. “The sale will be completed in May, and at the moment we believe there will be investment made under the new ownership, and we are looking forward to a new era,” she says.
On Brexit, Katy says the airport “tends to take a positive and pragmatic view” that something will be introduced to replace the ‘open skies’ deal which the UK has as an EU member. Ryanair has warned flights between the UK and the EU may be suspended even if an aviation deal is reached.
When not at work, Katy spends a lot of time with her family and their shared passion for sport.
“I have grown up in a family organised around sport, so that has been something which has been part of the Best family, and mine. We are no different and living on a farm has all of the demands that go with that as well,” she adds.