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Business Showcase with Ulster Bank: Growing a family hospitality business after challenging times

Kirsty Fallis returned to Carrickfergus to run her family’s listed hotel the Dobbins Inn around 10 years ago. Since then, it’s undergone a significant £250,000 restoration, alongside Ulster Bank, faced the challenge of Covid-19, but is now seeing the light on the other side

Kirsty Fallis returned to Carrickfergus to run her family’s listed hotel, Dobbins Inn, around 10 years ago. Since then, it’s undergone a significant £250,000 restoration, alongside Ulster Bank, faced the challenges of Covid-19, but is now seeing the light on the other side

The hospitality sector suffered more than almost any other sector during the two worst years of the pandemic.

And after investing £250,000 in the restoration and refurbishment of the historic and listed Dobbins Inn in Carrickfergus at the tail end of 2019, operations manager Kirsty Fallis expected 2020 to be a boom year.

But while the 15-bedroom family-owned and run business was closed for many months during the pandemic, it’s now welcoming visitors from as far afield as Spain and the US as our tourism sector reopens to the world, once again.

Kirsty boasts a breadth of experience working in the hospitality sector in a host of locations, including Dublin, before she returned home to join the family business and help develop Dobbins Inn.

“It’s a family-run business in Carrickfergus with 15 rooms, a restaurant, bar and lounge,” she says.

“As a hospitality business we had quite a number of months in which we had been closed due to lockdown. We reopened in May 2021 and while there were still a lot of restrictions we did see some footfall. It’s only in the past recent weeks where we’ve seen an improvement in footfall and people staying over.”

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The business has more than 20 staff, a combination of part-time and full-time staff.

“We completed a £250,000 restoration on the building towards the end of 2019. We were geared up that 2020 was going to be our year.

“We went to Ulster Bank and spoke to them about what we were going to do and what the project involved. They were very much on board in regards to helping us with the loan.

“We knew it was going to be a large project, which was partly funded by the town’s Townscape Heritage Initiative, but a lot was funded by us. Ulster Bank was very much on board.

“Then everything hit and we went into lockdown. We looked at ways in which we could make some money back when we reopened. With lockdown it became quite clear that everyone was talking about outdoor dining and drinking and we didn’t have that. We had a small area out the back and decided to put some money into it and create an outside bar area.”

But she says the numbers are now starting to build, and the business is eyeing a much-improved year ahead.

“The numbers are starting to build… we have a group of Spanish guests staying with us at the moment and we have Americans booked with us, so it’s significantly started to increase,” she says.

Kirsty returned to the business around 10 years ago, following a successful period managing hotels in Dublin.

“I took myself off and worked in Dublin for 10 years and ran a couple of hotels there,” she said. “Then, as your parents get a little bit older, you realise you have to get back to the fold, and steer the business in a new direction and help move it forward.

“I’ve spent my time getting the hotel up to a standard. You almost never stop, as most people in hospitality would say. You are constantly trying to keep up with the next trend.”

Green growth is now a key focus

By Liam Bradley, business development manager, Ulster Bank

A big part of my role as a business development manager with Ulster Bank is working with SMEs and family-run businesses to help them fulfill their growth ambitions. This can range from working with businesses to update vital software or facilities, or even backing them to take on larger projects such as opening new premises or refurbishing an existing development.

SMEs are the heartbeat of the local economy so equipping them with the tools and the support they need is of great importance to our teams across Ulster Bank. Working with Kirsty and her team to complete the historic restoration of Dobbins Inn in Carrickfergus is a great example of one such project. Not only was it an extensive refurbishment, throw in the complexities of restoring historical features and the pressure can certainly begin to mount.

It is in times like this that the grit and determination of local entrepreneurs really comes to the fore and I never fail to be impressed with the work ethic and courage of business owners right across Northern Ireland. Seeing how business have reacted to the coronavirus pandemic has been especially inspirational and we can all learn lessons from their ingenuity and ability to pivot.

For Kirsty and her team completing the physical restoration was one thing, but how do you restore confidence in a sector, such as hospitality, that was so badly hit by long periods of closure and a staffing crisis?

While we cannot step in with a magic wand and offer a quick fix to these customers there are practical, positive things we can do to make a difference. In order to move forward, business need to look for new opportunities and at Ulster Bank, we believe a lot of this will be led by green growth.

Last October, our parent bank, the NatWest Group, released its Springboard to Sustainable Recovery Report which found that the UK’s six million SMEs can achieve 50% of the UK’s Net Zero decarbonisation goals, representing an estimated £160bn revenue opportunity. However, the report also found that less than 10% of SMEs currently see climate action as a source of future growth, and that SMEs lack access to support through funding, knowledge, and training.

This is something we are tackling head on to try and remedy. We recently launched an exciting new green loan initiative, and through Lombard, green asset finance for qualifying SMEs, to help them introduce more sustainable business practices. The new propositions come after NatWest’s announcement to provide £100bn of climate and sustainable funding and financing to customers by the end of 2025 and together, we want to see these incentives help SMEs finance the business assets they need such as solar panels, electric vehicles, or heat pumps on commercial buildings that fall within the eligibility criteria.

Climate change is one of the biggest global challenges we face today and SMEs have a critical role to play in helping Northern Ireland reach net zero. A green economy brings news and exciting opportunities for us all which is why we are proud to stand by small businesses and support these entrepreneurs on their sustainability journeys.