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Ballycastle hotelier Claire Hunter: A woman who has worked it out

Juggling family and work is hard, but the high-flyer tells Una Brankin her illness taught her that life is for living

Our Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in business 2014 is working with a four-week-old infant on her lap these days, but still managing to develop and expand her empire. Claire Hunter took only two weeks of maternity leave from her popular Marine Hotel in Ballycastle, which she bought in 2013 with a fellow-catering college graduate, and re-opened last June, revitalising the town and creating 70 jobs in one fell swoop.

"Both the hotel and the baby are thriving but, of course, Louisa is sleeping during the day instead of the night ... the usual!," says the mother-of-four from rural Armoy in Co Antrim. "It's very hard work being a mum and running your own business and I couldn't do it without my wonderful husband Brian and my mother-in-law, and childminder."

Originally from Dunmurry, Claire closed the hotel in January for an "arduous" five-week refurbishment of 15 of the 31 bedrooms and bathrooms, and the bar, bringing the premises closer to four-star status but preferring to remain as a high quality three-star.

Since winning our business award, she has seen group accommodation and wedding reception bookings sky-rocket - boosted dramatically by the Giro d'Italia. The Marine Hotel sits on the halfway point on the cycling race's 200-mile route.

"We now have cycling clubs following the route and staying with us to break up the journey," she says.

"The Giro has been great for business, and not only ours. The Giro D'Italia Big Start showcased Northern Ireland, particularly the north coast, in the very best light. Ballycastle as a destination received great coverage and the hotel itself was a focal point for cyclists from all over Northern Ireland, as the race passed right outside our door. Footage and promotion of the event internationally has built popularity in cycling this route and we've seen a surge in business in the form of independent cyclists and the 1,500 cyclists who now come annually for the Giant's Causeway Sportive, which begins and ends from outside the hotel."

As a catering college graduate, Claire takes a keen interest in the hotel's fare, and even managed to maintain her sideline as the Irish agent for Toastabags, a firm that sells toastie-bags.

The Marine is now officially accredited by the Gluten-Free Association for their healthy menu, which attracts scores of nutrition-conscious diners week in and week out.

"We're the only hotel in NI to be fully compliant and recognised by the coeliac societies of UK and Ireland," says Claire proudly. "Our menu is over 75% gluten-free. Antony Worrall Thompson presented us with a highly commended certificate for serving Great Free-From Food at the inaugural Free-From Eating Out Awards at the Food Matters Live event London. It was fantastic to receive that award on top of the Belfast Telegraph's."

Loation, location, location is the mantra for any property, not least hotels, and the Marine happens to be situated in a regenerated and well-loved seaside town, close to the film sets of various dramas.

"The popularity of Game of Thrones self-drive and escorted tours have produced great business for everyone in the area," says Claire. "A new Dracula film was filmed around here, too, and that puts the north coast up there as a shoot location. And Ballycastle and the hotel are right in the centre of the Game of Thrones attractions, such as the Dark Hedges, Murlough Bay and Ballintoy Harbour. Plus, the new pontoons and The West Light Seabird Centre on Rathlin Island will help build our visitor numbers."

Claire also takes an active interest in the running of the family farm. She and her husband are in the process of building a second milking parlour in order to extend their herd. No wonder, then, that she was nominated for our business awards by a PR friend.

"I didn't know I was in the running until a couple of weeks before the gala presentation last year - I'm not very good at blowing my own trumpet!" she admits. "Everyone was very excited in the town. We had the award on the reception desk and it created a good buzz. We had lots of charity events and Christmas parties subsequently, and our wedding business has taken off.

"It's nice to be recognised for hard work."

Claire first met her business partner, Colum McLornan, at catering college 20 years ago. After completing their courses, they headed to separate universities and Claire subsequently spent 10 years working in various hotels and restaurants, before going into the toastie-bags business.

Her interest in the hospitality sector never waned, however, and when the opportunity to buy the then derelict Marine Hotel came up, she and Colum jumped at it. At that time, they were joined in the venture by a third person, John McConnell, a former GM at the Roe Park Hotel near Limavady (now the Roe Park Resort) who acts in a consultative capacity.

Reportedly purchased for £400,000, the Marine required a further investment of £700,000 to restore it to its former glory. The substantial seafront property had closed its doors three years earlier at the height of the property crash.

Since then, it has re-established itself as a top tourist destination within the stunning Nine Glens area and the go-to centre for local events. It incorporates a bustling Costa coffee shop - Proud to Serve - and Marconi's Bar and Bistro, named in honour of the telecommunications pioneer who lived in Ballycastle. The next step for Claire is to renovate the hotel's adjacent country club and its extensive facilities, including a 25-metre swimming pool, a sauna, jacuzzi, a gym and three treatment rooms, a project that will cost approximately £250,000.

"There's an offer of limited funding from Moyle District Council but this project is still on hold," says Claire. "We really need to make sure that the hotel itself is sustainable before we open the country club again. But we will be doing that at the first available opportunity."

In the meantime, it's business as usual next door.

"Running a seasonal coastal hotel in a small community will always have its challenges, from the point of view of sales, staffing and overheads, but we are delighted with the refurbishment of 15 of our bedrooms and we're genuinely excited about welcoming local, national and international guests with our great local food and service.

"The year 2014 was our first full year in business. It was full of challenges, all of which have been met head-on. Michael Yates, our general manager, joined us from Connaught hotel in Galway last March. With his wealth of experience in managing sales strategy and booking engines as well as extensive operational and customer service skills we have achieved a successful year against budget." She adds: "When I first saw the Marine hotel, I instantly saw its potential and Colm agreed. It took us two years of negotiating to buy it and then months of hard slog and worry to finally get it open. But we did it and it's so rewarding to have got to this stage and to have won the Belfast Telegraph award. It's a credit to the whole team here."

  • For further information go to www.marinehotelballycastle.com

In her own words

Claire (39) didn't let a bout of clinical depression stand in her way. After a spell of severe depression and a few weeks in Windsor House psychiatric unit in Belfast aged 16, she decided the A-level education offered by Victoria College wasn't for her. The second daughter of solicitor Marguerite Petticrew and optometrist Frank Petticrew, Claire worked part-time in a coffee shop and decided to pursue catering. She spent two years studying hotel and catering management in the Catering College, Portrush, where she met Colum McLornan, her business partner

Q: How do you balance family life with business activities?

I've a positive outlook. A lot of my successes are a result of my illness when I was younger.

A: Having suffered from depression at an early age and getting better, I've realised that life is for living and opportunities definitely must not be passed by. Juggling family life with business is tricky but women can have both career and a sound, fun, family life with good organisation, a good team and a supportive family.

When I say "team" I don't just refer to Toastabags staff or hotel staff and management but to family, childminder, school friends' parents, my mother-in-law, husband and extended family and friends. They offer support in the form of childcare, act as a sounding board and keep things running smoothly.

Q: How do you avoid stress?

A: It is important to allocate time to the different areas of life. I recently completed a six-month management and motivation course for which my main objective was perfecting the balance of hotel work, Toastabags work and family life so as not to get frazzled. My motto is "Fit your own mask first before assisting others"!

I have many people who need me and if I fall ill, I'm much less use to them, so I am organised. I don't do computer or hotel work after 3pm on school days as this time is for children.

We've an excellent team in the hotel so I don't need to be on-site all the time - everyone knows they'll always get me by email or phone.

My husband Brian and I eat together twice a week to catch up as the other days are filled with the children's needs.

I can recognise the signs of doing too much and then take a step back and relax for a few days.

Q: Is your personality different to business partner Colum's?

A: We complement each other in that he is very skilled at facts and figures, budgets and financial results. Although I've a good overall skillset for the industry, my strengths lie in operations and sales.

By nurturing our staff through training, motivation and career enhancement we've created an environment for great customer service.

Q: How do you switch off?

My father keeps a sailing boat in Ringhaddy, Strangford Lough. There is nothing better than an afternoon racing other yachts with family and friends, followed by a barbecue on a deserted island on the Lough. That's often in my dreams though - the reality is feeding, tidying, laundry and putting children back to bed half a dozen times before a cup of tea while calculating how many hours sleep you might get!

Q: Do you take holidays?

A: Brian and I have taken a ski holiday almost every year for the last 15, and the children have joined us for the last two years. The secret to a successful ski holiday with children is to go with the flow ... planning too much only frustrates when your plans don't work out! The enjoyment of watching them learn is huge.

My Auntie Barbara has a small house in Brittas Bay in Co Wicklow. It has two bedrooms, an outside toilet, no TV or radio, just the sound of the waves ... a week at Brittas with the family always blows away the cobwebs - that and a long weekend sailing on Strangford are the holidays.

Q: Favourite clothes shop?

A: I never go beyond Next. I've no real interest in clothes and wear suits I bought 10 years ago. If you asked me to go to a furniture auction I'd be more excited.

Q: Do you muck in on the farm?

A: I'm definitely a city blow-in. Brian and I have an agreement - I don't milk cows and he doesn't pull pints or deal with difficult guests! I don't do much farming but I love our way of life. Brian sees more of his children than any dad I know in a 9-5 job as they help him with chores. I see him for breakfast and he can pop into Armoy to collect the kids from school if I'm in at work.

Brian's mum, Mary, is my lifeline as she helps with lifts to dancing, school and hurling.

Q: When and where did you meet your husband?

A: In the Bot in Belfast on Halloween night in 1997 or 1998 - we can never remember.

Q: What's the best advice you were even given?

A: When I suffered from depression and recovered I knew that any time the illness ever did return I would recover again. Therefore you can't halt life and not take opportunities "in case" they don't work out. I live by a theory that no situation is unsolvable. If nobody's dead or ill, the problem can be dealt with calmly.

For example - and this is a true story - on our very first Sunday of re-opening the hotel on Father's Day, June 2013, our 270 guests were arriving for a sumptuous carvery between noon and 3pm.

These were guests who had frequented the hotel before it closed and were ready to be very sceptical in our abilities to be successful. At 11.35am the electricity in the ballroom went out - no hotplates, bain-maries, lights or computers for orders. The kitchen gas knocked off as the extractor fan stopped working so the kitchen couldn't keep cooking.

Was I going to have to greet guests and tell them we had failed? It was pretty stressful but no one was dead or injured. I called the electrician and the gas man. The gas man came immediately and fixed things so cooking continued. The electrician came from Ballymena, the longest half hour of my life! He fixed the problem (which incidentally wasn't just a trip switch in case you thought I was being a twit) and we led the people into the dining room at 12.30. If you keep calm you can handle anything!

Q: Your ultimate ambitions?

A: To have healthy happy children who grow up to follow their hearts and minds.

I hope Toastabags success will continue until the next big kitchen gadget comes along. For the Marine hotel, Colum and I want to continue to build it into being "the best star hotel on the north coast", perhaps adding another 20-30 rooms to the property in the future. Watch this space.

 

Noon on Thursday February 26 is deadline to nominate for this year's Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year award

Tell us about an inspirational woman who has made a difference to your life or the lives of others. You can enter online at www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/WOTY, email womanoftheyear@belfasttelegraph.co.uk or post to Woman of the Year, Belfast Telegraph, 122-144 Royal Avenue, Belfast, BT1 1DN. Deadline for entries is noon on Thursday February 26. Winners will be announced at an awards ceremony on Thursday March 19 at the Ramada Plaza Hotel, Belfast.

Sponsor with a global reach

  • The Belfast Telegraph is delighted that its Business Woman of the Year 2015 award is being sponsored by Almac Group.
  • Craigavon based Almac Group is an established, global contract development and manufacturing organisation that provides an extensive range of integrated services to over 600 companies within the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors.
  • The privately owned organisation has organically grown over 40 years and now employs in excess of 3,500 highly skilled personnel.
  • Sue Bill, Global VP of Human Resources at the Almac Group, says: "We are extremely pleased to support this year's Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards and particularly proud to sponsor the Business Woman of the Year category as we recognise, and see first-hand in our own organisation, the critical role women play in achieving global business success.
  • "It is of key importance to Almac to invest in the development of management and leadership skills for our female employees throughout the organisation.
  • "It is encouraging to see so many dedicated and truly talented females in senior positions throughout Northern Ireland who are making a real difference in all aspects of business by providing strong and effective leadership.
  • "We look forward to celebrating with all of those who are shortlisted for the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards and I thank them for their commitment to holding positions of power and influence in the business world."

 

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