Janice Gault, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Hotel Federation, talks to Emma Deighan about industry curveballs and a passion for sport
Janice Gault has seen the hotel industry here flourish over the past two decades in her role at the Northern Ireland Hotel Federation (NIHF). She says she doesn't expect recent "curveballs" like the coronavirus and Brexit to stop that growth.
"Perhaps that's a legacy of a long period of challenges during the Troubles," she says about the sector's resilience.
"We've had Sars, foot and mouth and 9/11 and today those curveballs are the coronavirus, the loss of Flybe and Brexit, but that's life and you're going to get thrown curveballs, but you work your way around those things.
"When you have a hotel, you can't move it so you have to adapt business and costs and hoteliers are good at that."
Janice is chief executive at the NIHF, the supporting body for accommodation providers here including hotels, B&Bs and more.
She's regarded as a force to be reckoned with, making her the ideal person to have fighting your corner in times of need and today is a time of need for every industry in Northern Ireland.
The oldest of four, Janice grew up in Londonderry. When she 11 she moved to Letterkenny.
"My father was a banker and my mother was a primary school teacher. We moved to Donegal because my father was from there. It was strange at the time because while we knew it well it was a place we went to on holidays," she says.
Growing up as the only girl in a family of four children gave Janice an appreciation for sports and today she's an avid Liverpool supporter despite her three brothers' passion for Manchester United.
"When the youngest brother was born I think I would've liked a sister but that was never going to happen," she says. "Growing up with boys is a different dynamic, you learn a lot about sport and to this day I can watch any sport whether it's golf or cricket or football."
A keen swimmer, Janice's early years shaped her interest in attending top sporting events including The Open at Royal Portrush last summer and the cricket at Lord's in London.
"I've a great appreciation for people who play sport and right now it's a very exciting time in football, especially for Liverpool fans who will be keen to see them win the Premier League for the first time and a first league title in 30 years. It's been a real journey for the team," adds Janice.
Her own career has also been quite the journey.
After leaving school she took up an arts degree in Dublin where she lived until she was 30.
"I loved my time there and I loved living in Dublin," she recalls.
In Dublin she worked at St Michael's House, a centre for people with intellectual disabilities. Janice's role focused on the business area of the centre. She left there to work in the printing sector following a number of courses.
Returning to Belfast in 1995, Janice continued to work for printing firms until she left to undertake the high-flying role of marketing director for the Odyssey Arena and Pavilion during its launch period in 2001.
"That was a great role; a very interesting post that was very varied," she says. "There was a lot going on and we looked after the campaign of the launch. The Odyssey was a millennium project and it cost £92m and it was hugely exciting.
"It was also the gateway to what we now know as the Titanic Quarter and it was that lone beacon to the future of that area. Best of all it was ours and it would help stimulate growth," adds Janice.
Reminiscing about the public's perception of the project back in the early days, she adds: "There was a great sentiment there and it had great recognition because of all of its different elements.
"We had the ice hockey team and that was very unusual for here and people were keen. It was an iconic building at that time and there were a lot of good news stories around it so there was a real sense of ownership."
Janice is happy to see the latest reinvestment in the pavilion and adds: "The Odyssey has been on a bit of a journey and I think it's always good to see a business reinvent itself. When you have a project that is bricks and mortar you can't stand still, you have to keep moving forward and even Titanic has announced a big investment too, which proves that point."
The hotel sector is another area that has undergone significant investment.
Janice took up her post at the NIHF in 2002 as the Good Friday Agreement's pay-off was beginning to be felt.
She recalls: "There was a lot of positive support for tourism at that stage and people felt it was a way to transform Northern Ireland. Then there were the bigger hotels like Jurys Inn, Hilton Belfast and Templepatrick and people believed that it would bring big benefits and it has.
"Since then we have doubled our room numbers to 10,000 and that's continued on an upward trajectory.
"Right now our dominant markets are three and four star and we still have those hotels that were here 20 years ago. The industry has had big growth spurts, between 2006 and 2008 and then 2015-2018 and that's been great, but the next step now is to fill those rooms and that boils down to visitors and staycations."
Attracting more external visitors is one of many things on Janice's to-do list.
"Staycations are great and they're the backbone during the winter season but it's visitors that will add to the economy," she says.
"Right now Great Britain is our biggest customer and then the Republic, and we're looking for more because the thing is when you have a visitor it benefits all sectors.
"When people stay in hotels everyone benefits; from taxis to restaurants and retail and that's very important. The hotel sector is also a great barometer for the economy. If we have a chilled period it will reflect in the overall economy."
Today Janice says the main challenges for the industry is people shortages, with a backdrop of global events.
"I think last year we had a lot of focus and challenges and that has always been about people, skilled people, getting the right people and attracting people to the industry," she explains.
"It's been that way for the last number of years. It's a challenge for everybody not just our sector.
"Brexit hasn't helped in terms of people. But the real issue is its impact on customer sentiment. People in the EU got nervous about booking, wondered about the reception leaving the EU."
The rest she merely references as "curveballs" that she has every faith the sector will overcome.
"The thing about 2020 is it was always going to be a mix of challenge and consolidation and I don't think anyone saw it as a period of great growth," she says.
"It's about managing those new challenges and there are more of those than we thought but we have to keep going.
"This is a stalwart industry and we have a lot of people who have traded for a long time. We've invested over £600m over the past five years and people are keen to realise that potential. Our message is that we are fully open for business."
It's a mantra that the NIHF will be adhering too in the coming months as it gears up for some of its key events for the hospitality trade.
Among those are the Northern Ireland Best Housekeeper Awards which will be held tomorrow at the Hilton Templepatrick.
Janice says: "It's a great event that allows us to celebrate the best housekeepers here and recognise the best practice because one of the most important parts of any guest's stay is the standard of housekeeping and this department is often overlooked, despite its crucial role within a hotel."
At the end of March one of the most anticipated dates in the diary for the trade will take place at the Culloden Estate and Spa.
"The Taste of Tourism Summit is about the glowing role food plays in tourism and how we can consolidate the two and look at trends. Here in Northern Ireland we've really built up our food reputation and that's been on the back of 2016's Year of Food and Drink," says Janice.
This year's one-day event is the NIHF's fourth summit and will feature guests including Michelin Star chef Michael Wignall, 'The Gastronaut' Stefan Gates and journalist Joanna Blythman.
The aim of the event is to inspire members to improve profits and enhance their reputations
Janice explains: "We're delighted with the line-up this year. Michael Wignall will speak about his career, opening his own restaurant and the challenges the sector faces, while, fresh from his global travels.
"The Gastronaut Stefan Gates will talk of his love of extraordinary food and his interest in science.
"And Joanna Blythman, lauded as one of the most authoritative, influential commentators on the British food chain, will offer a 360-degree angle on the big food questions of the day."
The three big industry names are among many other foodies who will address our hotel chiefs at the event - which Janice says is still going ahead despite many event cancellations following the outbreak of the coronavirus.
"At this moment in time our intention is to go ahead," she adds.
"If things change, we will be respectful of that."
Looking to the future, Janice, despite her colourful career path, intends to remain at the fore of the sector.
"I really enjoy what I would do, life is a dynamic thing and this is the sector has a lot to offer anybody it's given me a varied career and I would hope to be here for the foreseeable future," she says.
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. My mother had a great saying which was: “The secret of success is to be ready the night before.” One of my first bosses lived by the mantra: “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” Both have served me well over the years.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in the hotel/accommodation sector.
A. Always have an open mind. This is a great sector with lots of opportunity and there is something for everyone. Treat each obstacle as an opportunity and there’s no limit to where you can go.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. Getting a part-time job at university. I learnt lots about life, how to be independent and how teamwork makes a real difference.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would you be doing?
A. I’m sure there’s a really interesting answer to this question — astronaut, polar explorer or world leader, but truthfully I’m not entirely sure. I’ve worked in a number of sectors, mainly in commercial and marketing, and have always enjoyed a role with variety.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. My last holiday was to Asia — Macau and Cambodia. In June I’ll head to northern Spain to San Sebastian, Bilbao and Santander.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. I love reading, cookery and travel.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. I appreciate the talent of any sportsperson. I love watching tennis, rugby and am coerced into watching football. Liverpool is the passion of our household so this year has proved very exciting.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. I used to swim a lot as an individual and as part of a team.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. The best book I’ve read recently is Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. I’m a big reader with pretty diverse tastes.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. Happy and interesting. We lived in Derry-Londonderry and then moved to Donegal. I have lots of memories of beaches and long summers.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A. I think most economists would struggle to give a definitive analysis of the future at this time. I think hoteliers and the industry is pretty stalwart by nature and regardless of current economics, hotels will simply batten down the hatches and adapt to market conditions.
Q. How would you assess your time at NIHF?
A. The hotel landscape has altered considerably over the last decade. I’ve worked at the federation for a long time. I’ve seen the dramatic changes as brands arrived, room numbers doubled and customers became more worldly and probably more demanding. I’ve met lots of incredible people. Each day is different with a new challenge.
Q. How do you sum up working in the hotel sector?
A. I work on the periphery of the hotel sector and see how much hotels bring to a local economy. My role is diverse and interesting with many strands, from staging events, marketing hotels to lobbying for a better business climate and working towards recognition for the Tourism sector. In reality I feel very lucky to be able to do something that I really enjoy.