Beannchor group boss: ‘We are in a good place and working to get Bullitt right and even take it to Dublin’
Conall Wolsey, director of the Beannchor group, talks to Emma Deighan about its plans to open a second boutique hotel and the future for its Little Wing chain
For his 33 years, Conall Wolsey has an exceptional CV in hospitality. It's no surprise when you consider he is part of the Beannchor empire run by his father, Bill - one of the people behind the transformation of Belfast's Cathedral Quarter.
Conall entered the family business when he was just 14, working on the floor at the chain's Cafe Ceol establishment in Bangor. At the age of 17, he was bar supervisor, moving up to the general manager role a short while later.
A "crash course in cheffing" followed, after which he left the group to open two of his own venues in the Titanic Quarter.
He then returned to Beannchor just as it was about to take over one of Belfast's more neglected districts, the Cathedral Quarter.
"People thought we were mad when we were planning for The Merchant," he said of the five-star hotel that celebrated its 10-year anniversary last year.
"At the time, the PSNI told us the area had a footfall of around 200 at the weekend, but now it's 10-15,000.
"The Merchant was a catalyst to that. It brought it all together, and it's performing brilliantly. All food and beverage sales are through the roof and over-achieving, and we're really happy."
The company's other enterprises in the same vicinity - The Dirty Onion, The National and its leased premises - were also responsible for adding some stardust to the area.
So when news broke that the same team would be behind the new Bullitt Hotel on nearby Church Lane, which opened last year, expectations were high.
"It's been going really well and we are still fine-tuning everything," explained Conall.
"There are a lot of different areas to this business - breakfast, lunch and dinner service - and we're working to get it all right.
The Northern Ireland public would seem to agree that Bullitt is the right fit for the city.
Overnight guests are mostly from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland at the weekend, with corporate guests from the Republic and the UK.
"There are a lot of complexities, but we are ahead of budget and 85% ahead of where we expected to be," said Conall.
With the aim of attracting the 25 to 45-year-old demographic, Bullitt has now expanded into holding events.
A Belfast Design Week event and genre-specific music nights in its ski-themed bar Baltic - as well as soon-to-be-launched monthly talks focusing on politics, finance and property - aim to engage the target customer base.
Expansion in the hotel industry here is long overdue. There are around 26 new hotels being planned for the city.
"I think there were demands for the industry to become what it is today," said Conall.
"I believe there is room for growth. The conference market is growing, which will fill rooms. Could we get to a stage where there are too many rooms? I don't know, but we don't see that being a problem."
He added that Bullitt's ground-floor features of a restaurant and wide-open coffee bar and seating area were unique. "We serve a niche," he explained. "We're a four-star hotel and, while we don't shout about it, we are different.
"We don't see the newcomers as competition because we are appealing to a type of person who realises the relevance of our ground floor, and for them that's different. They will come here, eat and stay here rather than leaving their bag in and going out."
The next move is to take the brand to Dublin Capel Street in 2019. "Bullitt Dublin will be located at the north side of the river and will have the exact same style and theme," Conall said.
It will be a collection of buildings - a redevelopment that will give way to 100 rooms and have that feel with the ground floor connection that we have here."
Meanwhile, the Belfast Bullitt is planning a second phase of 42 to 45 rooms (including three to four apartment-style spaces) and a rooftop terrace capable of hosting 300 people.
"We went through planning for a floor of rooms and then saw how the space there was and how it got the light and realised that it would work really well as a terrace," explained Conall.
The extra rooms will take up space in neighbouring buildings: the floors above Bootleggers (which Beannchor also leases out), a solicitor's premises and bookmaker Paddy Power.
Conall takes inspiration from travelling, with Bullitt loosely modelled on the aesthetics of the Yotel Chain in New York. "We keep our eyes open and our ears to the ground," he said.
The company has 800 staff - and training is a priority for team Beannchor to ensure high staff retention and as a means to safeguard the future of the industry.
"We need to be proactive," Conall said. "I would guess that approximately 95% of parents discourage their children from going into hospitality, but that needs to change.
"I think a lot of people have fallen into it or they've used it as a stop-gap, and with that comes a degree of blaseness.
"Our general manager of the Dirty Onion was once a glass collector, and our general manager of The National was once a supervisor.
"We look after staff and we don't hide figures from our management teams.
"We make sure that they are aware of everything that's going on, and that helps.
"We also go out of our way to attend career advisory events. We send some of our staff to train in the Savoy in London and, when Geraldine McKenna was the chief executive of The Savoy Group, they sent staff here to train."
That 800 employee figure is soon to grow as Beannchor sets its sights further afield - to Liverpool and Manchester, where it plans to make its mark with perhaps another Bullitt and the Little Wing chain of pizzerias, Conall explained.
"I'm very confident that it will work and we will be looking at expanding," he added.
"We have yet to find any suitable places in Liverpool or Manchester, but we're always looking.
"We're comfortable of where we need to be to make money, and we're in a good place.
"Right now, we're just working at getting the Bullitt formula right."