| 6.5°C Belfast

Claire Hunter, of the Marine Hotel: 'Be ready to do every job in the hotel'

Claire Hunter, co-owner of the Marine Hotel in Ballycastle, talks to Emma Deighan about missing out on her busiest season yet

Close

Claire Hunter

Claire Hunter

With husband Brian and three of her four children (from left) Tom, Emily and Louis

With husband Brian and three of her four children (from left) Tom, Emily and Louis

With business partner Colum McLornan

With business partner Colum McLornan

A newly revamped room in the Marine Hotel

A newly revamped room in the Marine Hotel

Claire Hunter

Claire Hunter, part-owner of the Marine Hotel in Ballycastle, was set to enjoy what would have been her and business partner Colum McLornan's most profitable season until the coronavirus plunged the pair into chaos.

But the mother of four remains upbeat despite having to close down after investing hundreds of thousands of pounds in the hotel to bring it up to 'the high end' of three-star standard.

The hotel isn't her only business interest - along with Colum, she's also co-owner of gluten free food range Rule of Crumb and Ireland sales manager of Toastabags.

It was a blow to have to shut the hotel. Claire says: "Business was brilliant and over the last 18 months we added 10 bedrooms, refurbished the entire hotel and our bookings were better than ever before so it was gutting to have to close.

"I burst out crying at the idea of letting down 35 people and their families but thankfully that hasn't happened and Colum and I won't let them down."

Close

With husband Brian and three of her four children (from left) Tom, Emily and Louis

With husband Brian and three of her four children (from left) Tom, Emily and Louis

With husband Brian and three of her four children (from left) Tom, Emily and Louis

The Government's job retention scheme has allowed Claire and Colum to furlough all staff and she's upbeat, even after pumping £20,000 into marketing a new conference facility which won't be used, this year at least.

"I'm a feckless optimist and as long as no-one is dead or sick, we will get through this. But it has been pretty terrible," she says.

Claire, who was raised in Dunmurry, was one of four children and attended Victoria College. A chance part-time job at Lady Dixon Park's coffee shop sparked a passion for hospitality which led Claire to Portrush where she studied at catering college.

"I met Colum there and we became best friends ever since," she says.

Close

With business partner Colum McLornan

With business partner Colum McLornan

With business partner Colum McLornan

The business partners then went their separate ways. Claire studied in Dundee while Colum went to the University of Ulster.

"We were in different places but it was a parallel journey," Claire adds. "Colum went into the tourism side of hospitality and I did catering."

As well as running the Marine Hotel, Claire and Colum are also directors and founders of Rule of Crumb, a business born out of a lack of gluten free options for the catering sector. It was set up in 2014.

She explains: "About a year into owning the hotel I realised nobody was providing good gluten free food for the hospitality trade. Every time we had a gluten free guest, we had to open a whole loaf, use two slices and the rest went into the bin so we created 18 individual products to address that waste.

"You only cook what you need."

Today 30% of that business goes into retail with customers including Iceland, Sainsbury's and Ocado, the rest serves the hospitality trade.

Close

A newly revamped room in the Marine Hotel

A newly revamped room in the Marine Hotel

A newly revamped room in the Marine Hotel

After university, Claire worked her way through roles at La Belle Epoque, the Morning Star, Malone House and Belfast Castle until she became a sales rep for water filter company Brita in 1998.

"I worked for Brita for four years and it taught me everything I know about sales. I was selling into the northern counties; into shops, supermarkets, hardware stores, convenient stores. It was a brilliant job."

That contact list paved the way for Claire to become the Northern Ireland owner of Toastabags, the first reusable toastie bag. And while she runs the Marine Hotel with Colum as well as the successful Rule of Crumb, she still cites Toastabag as her main area of income.

"I was over at a show in England and met the inventor of Toastabags. He was stacking shelves in England to be able to afford to patent the product so I bought a box because I knew the contacts here to help sell them," she says.

"I still sell them today, although with four kids I wouldn't be on the road as much but I still attend the exhibitions, around eight or nine shows a year and that runs in the background."

Claire is also busy helping with the accounts of the home farm run by her husband Brian in Armoy where she now lives.

She jokes that the dairy farmer "couldn't bring his cows to Belfast so I moved to Armoy".

Today the pair are kept busy with their daughters Amy (14), Emily, (9), five-year-old Louise and son Tom who is 10.

The family is enjoying time at home together and Claire admits she isn't getting too stressed about home schooling.

"I think this is a time to learn how to make bows and arrows, watch cows being calved and play in the dust," she adds.

Claire had expected to reap the rewards of the investment she and Colum put into the Marine Hotel right now, but she makes peace with the fact that won't be the case. They purchased the property in 2013 while it was in receivership, after it had been built by Ballycastle developer Mervyn McAlister.

Its new owners were attracted by its seafront location.

She believes "the real project" of renovating the property over the years has produced a gem for Ballycastle as rooms have been reworked with a fresh modern look.

A Costa Coffee cafe has also taken up residence while a new events facility had been attracting delegates and hosts from beyond the town. The restaurant offering had also been given a boost.

Claire hopes that having completed the refurbishment, they will be able to cater to an influx of guests and bridal parties seeking new venues after being forced to cancel events due to lockdown.

The timing of the Covid-19 outbreak and lockdown have not been good. "If this had happened in November we would be fine," says Claire. "But for it to happen in March when all the reserves have gone is difficult but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

"The hotel is in a good place in that it's sitting there like a new pin with 41 newly decorated bedrooms overlooking the sea.

"We will come back bigger and better than before."

'Be ready to do every job in the hotel'

Q. What's the best piece of business (or life) advice you've ever been given?

A. You can only do your best, don't beat yourself up if everything doesn't go right and be ready to do every job in the hotel. I wouldn't expect someone else to clear a drain or blocked toilet if I wouldn't do it myself.

Q. What was your best business decision?

A. Whilst the hotel has been a gamble, which has had a super outcome in that we have provided 35 jobs and has resurrected an iconic building in Ballycastle, I have to say that Toastabags has been the best overall business decision.

Q. If you weren't doing this job, what would be your other career?

A. Without any doubt I would be involved in sales or I would be a waitress in a busy restaurant.

Q. What was your last holiday and where are you going next?

A. We returned from an Austrian ski trip at the beginning of March. We had a trip booked to Seoul in South Korea in May but the conference has been cancelled.

Q. What are your hobbies/interests?

A. The main hobby would be running around after the children. I do try to get away for a bit of competitive sailing at West Highland Yachting Week every year with my brother, dad and the regular crew of Magdaleyne.

Q. How do you sum up working in the catering sector?

A. Every day is a school day. Every guest is different.

Belfast Telegraph