Belfast Telegraph

Recession wiped out his first business, now Keith's never been busier providing staycation holidays

Keith Walls bounced back from the economic slump by targeting the rental market in his native north coast

By Stephanie Bell

Keith Walls knows what it is like to lose everything you have worked for, but like many good news stories now emerging from the recession the Portstewart businessman found a way to turn his fortunes around.

When the economic downturn kicked in back in 2008 Keith faced ruination when his thriving recruitment company was wiped out virtually overnight.

Fast forward a few years and the savvy entrepreneur is in the unusual position of having the recession to thank for the fact that he is now running what is one of Northern Ireland's most successful new businesses.

Keith's eye for an opportunity saw him take a risk and enter what was a foreign market for him when he cashed in on the new boom trend for staycations.

Focusing on his home area of the north coast where demand for holidays was growing as more people found they could no longer afford the luxury of a holiday abroad, he launched Causeway Coast Rentals.

And as tourism in the area took on a new life, Keith has seen his company grow from offering a single holiday let in 2009 to its current position as a massive first stop shop for tourists with a wide choice of 250 properties on offer right along the Antrim coast.

Having spent most of the past five years running the company almost single handedly with just a laptop and mobile phone, Keith has now opened his own premises in Portstewart where he employs two full-time and two part- time staff members.

This year alone, he has seen a 30-40% leap in trade and is enjoying the rewards of what has been a huge learning curve in business.

"The biggest thing I have learnt is to start small and grow it slowly and walk before you can run," he says.

"You have to be prepared to work hard and be able to see an opportunity and grab it.

"I think it's important to stay specialist – sometimes people can diversify into too many things. We took things very slow and steady at the start and over the past five years it has just grown."

It wasn't always plain sailing for the business graduate who left Northern Ireland in 1995 to study at University in Glasgow.

Keith met his wife Karen, who is also from Portstewart, while studying in Glasgow. The couple stayed in Scotland until 2007, when they returned home to marry and start a family.

They now have two children, Josh (6) and Emily (4), and, as well as looking after their son and daughter, Karen works part-time with Keith in the business.

The couple struggled initially when they returned home.

Keith says: "Although I was delighted to come back to Portstewart, I didn't appreciate just how hard it would be to secure a job.

"After much searching, it was clear there was not a lot out there, so I decided to go it alone and launch my own business in 2008.

"I set up a recruitment company specialising in the placement of senior retail managers and it took off really quickly at first.

"But within a year the recession had hit and it was like a light bulb going off. Our business just went overnight and I found myself sitting at a desk making no money."

Faced with unemployment, Keith's entrepreneurial skills again kicked in as he considered new ways to make a living.

He says: "We had a holiday home in Portballintrae which we decided to let out and with no job I decided to set up the company which was a real risk.

"No one was doing it in a specialised way.

"Portstewart, along with the rest of the Causeway Coast, has always been a popular holiday destination but with the recession more people than ever were starting to holiday there because they couldn't afford to go abroad.

"I felt if I could build up a portfolio of quality holiday homes then I'd have a decent business on my hands. Thankfully, I've been proved right."

The trend for staycations took off as Keith had predicted and over the years his company has also benefitted from a growth in foreign tourism helped by the Irish Open in Portrush and what Keith calls "the Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke factor".

Another unlikely boost for Keith's new business was the crash in the property market.

When the bottom fell out of the market, many investors suddenly faced negative equity, forcing them to consider ways of recouping some of their losses, which is where Keith was able to step in.

He explains: "There are so many second homes along the coast people bought to rent, but it can be difficult to find the time to carry out maintenance, arrange bookings, meet and greet guests and organise cleaners. That's where I come in.

"There are other people who paid over the odds for their properties and realised that they needed to rent them out to get some of the money they had lost back.

"The bottom line is I couldn't have done it without the recession. There were people with top end properties who never had to rent them before and this gave us some prime holiday lets with sea views.

"Opening our own shop in Portstewart in May took us a step further and really added more credibility to the company. It gave us a base and a local presence rather than just me renting a desk and working from a laptop.

"We had got to the point when we realised we had made enough money to take the risk and it has really paid off."

These days it is golfers, weddings, local events, tourism and staycationers who are the mainstay of the now thriving business.

A website which has been continually developed and fine tuned over the lifetime of the company has also made booking accessible and easy, helping boost the business.

With a wide variety of 250 holiday lets, Keith has built up a portfolio which caters for every need.

Families in particular like the fact that they can hire a large five or six bedroom property and share it with another family cutting the cost of their holiday.

In fact, families who prefer the extra space of a holiday home have been the lifeblood of Causeway Coast rentals.

With trading up 40% in the past year, it is only now that Keith feels able to enjoy the luxury of hired help after years of multi-tasking to get his company where it is today.

He says : "Finally I've reached the stage when I don't have to take as many calls in the evening.

"I've done everything from cleaning out bins to generating business and been on call night and day.

"Now we have a great team on board."

And he adds: "We focus on keeping standards right so that people can have a good experience and also keeping the price right. A lot of our business has been word of mouth.

"Looking back, it was a shock losing my wage and I did take a gamble, but it's paid off. The Causeway Coast is one of the most stunning locations in the world."

  • For information about Keith's rental properties and to book visit www.causewaycoastrentals.co.uk

Why people wish they were here

The Giant's Causeway was the biggest draw for tourists in Northern Ireland last year, taking over from Titanic Belfast as the most popular attraction.

Latest tourism figures showed a jump in numbers to the north coast in 2013 of 44% to 754,000.

Also, a recent report commissioned by Barclays showed that Northern Ireland is set to continue to benefit from a 'staycationer' spending boom over the next three years.

The report, published in May, predicted a 24% increase for domestic tourist spending between 2013 and 2017.

Enjoying the beauty of our own country will see us contribute £462m to Northern Ireland's economy by 2017.

Overall, the big winners here will be the hospitality and leisure sectors as staycationers return to eating out more and taking more family excursions.

Barclays head of banking in Northern Ireland, Adrian Doran, said that as economic growth improves, our hospitality and leisure sectors would feel the benefit.

He explained: "Northern Ireland's hospitality and leisure sector will benefit most from the trend towards staycations with domestic tourist spend (for both) growing to £270m by 2017, an increase of 25% from £216m in 2013.

"The economy is improving and confidence is certainly growing, and while this will lead to a gradual rise in the number of consumers looking to holiday abroad again, it is unlikely to precipitate a return to the holidaying habits we were seeing prior to the downturn."

Restaurants and pubs will see an increase of 25% in spend to £165m by 2017 as more people dine out.

Hotels and B&Bs will see domestic tourist spend rise by 21% to £49m, and leisure attractions a 29% increase to £56m by 2017, it is predicted.

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