The McKeever Hotel Group is a successful, hands-on, family-run portfolio, finds Rebecca Kincade who spoke to its sales/marketing manager Bridgene McKeever
When I walked into the Adair Arms Hotel in Ballymena to meet with Sales and Marketing Manager of The McKeever Hotel Group, Bridgene McKeever, I found her standing behind the reception desk greeting each customer as they came in. This, I am quick to find out, is part of the hands-on approach which operates throughout the family run hospitality portfolio, with Bridgene’s father, and Managing Director, Eugene McKeever, often found serving pints at Corr’s Corner.
The McKeever Hotel Group, one of the most successful family run hotel groups in Northern Ireland, was started in 1993 by Eugene and Catherine McKeever. With a dream to have their own business, they took a leap of faith and resigned from their employed positions – his as a head chef and hers as a teacher – to purchase their first property. Another two more properties soon followed and now the McKeevers have three hotels, 152 rooms and 170 staff.
Their most recent addition, the Adair Arms Hotel, which was bought in January 2010, is in the middle of an ambitious expansion and refurbishment project, a project which many hoteliers would have shied away from, given the mixed messages the hospitality trade is receiving about its future. When I asked Ms McKeever if this meant that they were feeling positive about what is to come she said: “I would actually say that I am balanced somewhere between optimism and pessimism about the future.
“The industry has had a bad run with the VAT increase and a rise in overhead costs. Rather than stimulating market demand, the industry has forced its own hand into lower rates and lower revenue.
“Our hoteliers panicked and copied what was happening in other cities, room rates dropped and our revenue power fell.”
With such a cautious view, it is somewhat surprising that they have decided to undertake such a large project.
“We want to make the Adair Arms Hotel the heart of Ballymena again and with this three-storey extension project we are hoping to give our customers a better experience.
“We are working with the same architect we have worked with on previous projects and he knows how important it is for us to keep the original features. We were lucky to have resources available to be able to move things forward and my father always goes with his gut instinct on decisions like this.”
Having grown up in the Randalstown area, Ms McKeever believes that her involvement in Ballymena prior to the purchase of the Adair Arms hotel has helped to secure them the support of the local community. While her parents work closely with the community to understand the needs of each customer base, Ms McKeever devotes her time to looking at the external market and how the trends of the industry will affect their business. As President of Skal Northern Ireland, she is very much at the forefront of the trade on an international level and she says that this combined balance of internal and external focus benefits the company.
Recent figures have shown that while UK rates have started to rise again this trend isn’t being replicated in Northern Ireland. The McKeever Hotel Group put their survival during the recession down to a decision not to compromise on their prices.
“As a company we took the decision not to drop our rates and, while this did cost us customers at the time, we have found that many soon returned to us. They like the atmospheres in our hotels, they like that we know all their names and they aren’t just a number to us.”
Shortly before the recession Northern Ireland saw a large increase in room numbers as optimistic predictions about the future encouraged international hotel brands to select Belfast as a profitable destination. Now there is more competition than ever among the hospitality trade and often three-star hotels are forced to compete with five-stars on rates.
“We always sell on our unique selling points. We know what we do well and people are at tracted to us because each hotel has its own personality.
“Our staff are very important to us so we invest heavily in training and encourage them to be involved in the business. Unlike an international brand, we can react quickly to any negative comments.
“We can change problematic areas immediately and don’t have to reach the top of a long system before action takes place.”
While Northern Ireland has moved on from the problems of the past, there is no doubt that bad news stories still have a damaging effect on the tourism trade.
Ms McKeever believes that we still need to work hard to change the perceptions of reluctant tourists.
“We need to make sure that we really highlight the positive PR rather than the negative. Potential visitors need to realise that we are no different to any other country in that everywhere will have their issues to deal with.”
The McKeever Hotel Group is confident in the wealth of tourist attractions on our doorstep.
With the Northern Irish combination of beautiful scenery, a history steeped in culture and some exciting new exhibitions about to open on our doorstep, Ms McKeever feels that we are in a prime position to drive the industry forward.
“We are at a big turning point for tourism and hospitality. We believe that when the economic situation turns, it will turn quickly.
“We want to be in the best position possible to respond to this change and it will be the businesses who are ready which will come out well in the end.
“I think people are quick to blame the recession for things going wrong but you can’t just sit back and wait for it to go away either.”
Using this belief as their motivating factor for progression, the McKeever Hotel Group will continue to push their hotels forward during the recession.
Even with a cautious view about what is to come they are unwilling to sit back and let the competitive industry swallow them up. Instead they are aiming to maintain and exceed the quality which their customers have come to expect.
It would be easy for the hospitality industry to give in to the fear caused by their uncertain future, but it is encouraging to know that there are still businesses who remain ambitious and forward thinking during these trying times.