Belfast Telegraph

'I want to get some alpacas ... one customer said she would book as soon as we get them'

Small business can

By Lisa Smyth

Being an entrepreneur quite often requires taking a leap of faith - and nowhere is that more obvious than in the case of Julie and Mark Campbell.

The couple fell in love with Ballygally Holiday Apartments as soon as they saw them and Julie took the decision to step away from her chosen profession to buy and manage the Co Antrim complex.

The 36-year-old was on maternity leave from her job as a physiotherapist with the NHS when she first began to discuss the possibility of buying holiday accommodation with her husband of 10 years.

She explained: "We were looking at different set-ups, but it was always going to be self-catering.

"We have three kids ourselves and we really like the flexibility of self-catering compared to a hotel - you have your own space and can cook whatever you like and at whatever time that suits.

"It's what we're used to, so that was why we were interested in buying.

"We were looking about but hadn't really seen anything, and then I was talking to a photographer in Larne who said that Ballygally Apartments were coming up for sale.

"I mentioned it to Mark, so we went up, had a look and just fell in love with the view - it was really the selling point for us."

While Mark and Julie wanted to buy the property as soon as they saw it, the decision to put in an offer was not made on a whim.

"There was a lot of soul-searching first," said Julie. "We did an awful lot of thinking and research to make sure there was business potential there."

Ultimately, they decided that buying the complex - made up of one and two-bedroom and one three-bedroom apartments - was the right move for them.

"The apartments are all together and several families can come and stay together," Julie said.

"There is a nice, homely feel to it and we just felt like it was something we could make a success of."

On August 1 this year - four months after first viewing the complex - they took over ownership of Ballygally Holiday Apartments.

Despite having no experience of the hospitality industry, Julie was relatively undaunted by the challenge.

"With my background working as a physiotherapist in the NHS and working in the community, I am used to dealing with people," she explained.

"I have experience booking appointments and managing peoples' expectations, as well as looking after people.

"So far it has all gone very well and we are very happy. I am here quite a lot of the time and I think that is important because I can give people recommendations about where to go for a meal or for a walk, and I am there if they have any problems.

"It's not like normal self-catering accommodation, where the owner hands over the key and you don't see them again until the end of the holiday.

"It has been great for our kids because they can come with me, and the residents seem to like having the children around. It gives it a real family feel, and as well as that the children are meeting people from all over the world."

Mark (37), who oversees maintenance of the apartments, said they were keen to ensure a smooth transition when buying the property.

To this end, Julie worked closely with the outgoing manager of the apartments for several weeks to ensure she was familiar and competent with the day-to-day running of the accommodation.

At the same time, however, they are keen to put their own stamp on the complex and to continue to develop the business.

"The previous owners didn't really do much with the internet so, for example, you can't make an internet booking currently and that is something we are looking at introducing," continued Julie.

"We are aware that a lot of people like to book accommodation on the internet these days. They want to sit down at night once they have finished work and the kids are in bed and they have some time to themselves.

"We are also working on the social media side of things, as well.

"A lot of our business is repeat custom. We would get a lot of people coming here when they are coming to visit family but want the benefit of their own space.

"I would say about 30 or 40% of our business is from people who have been here before.

"That is great, but we also want to work on attracting new customers.

"We also work closely with other businesses in the area, like Ballygally Castle so, say they have a wedding on but don't have enough rooms, or they (visitors) would prefer self-catering accommodation, they will refer those people on to us.

"We know there is a lot of potential for the tourist industry in this area and it is all about taking advantage of the opportunities.

"There is also planning permission for us to develop the apartments and that is something we're considering. We need to look at the figures and make sure there is the demand, but we would like another three-bedroom apartment that is fully wheelchair-accessible because at present there is only one three-bedroom apartment.

"I am also looking at getting alpacas and all the customers I have mentioned this to have been really keen about it.

"In fact, one woman actually told me to contact her as soon as the alpacas arrive and she will make a booking.

"I always said that if I owned somewhere with a bit of land that I would get some alpacas. I think they will be a nice wee different touch."

Belfast Telegraph

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