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Check out The Merchant staff with the five-star welcome

With the second part of the BBC NI TV series Inside The Merchant on tonight, Kerry McKittrick talks to general manager Gavin Carroll and executive housekeeper Eve Tumilty about how they coped with the pressures of working in a five-star hotel under the camera's eye.

The grandeur of the five-star Merchant Hotel has made it one of the most recognisable Belfast landmarks located in the heart of the thriving Cathedral Quarter.

But behind the Victorian facade lies a hidden world of hard work, strict rules and a place where the wrong colour of socks won't be accepted.

Cameras were granted exclusive access to the luxury hotel, revealing the lengths the staff and the owners go to to meet the standards expected by its discerning clientele.

Inside The Merchant gives viewers a unique insight into the demands the business has on its 350 staff and the pressurised environment they work in.

Operating at such high standards carries huge potential for risk, and the management team must scrutinise every single little detail to make sure nothing is left to chance.

Strict rules must be adhered to, and viewers get to follow a number of the hotel's front and back of house staff in the three-part series, as they deal with the challenges of the job. But high standards mean the staff can never switch off, and everything from personal hygiene to perfect pastries has to measure up.

The series, which was made for BBC Northern Ireland by Waddell Media, gives viewers an insight in to the hospitality business and how the staff deal with the drama and stress involved in preparing a leading hotel for guests and events.

With celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Sir Richard Attenborough, Noel and Liam Gallagher - although apparently they had a fight and only one stayed - Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and Jimmy Nesbitt among many others enjoying the hospitality of the Merchant, everything must be perfect.

Here, we catch up with two key members of staff who feature regularly in the show - hotel general manager Gavin Carroll and executive housekeeper Eve Tumilty.

‘I was pregnant during the filming so you do see my bump growing’

Eve Tumilty (in her 30s) is the executive housekeeper at the Merchant Hotel. She lives in Belfast with her husband and 10-month-old son. She says:

I’ve been working at the Merchant Hotel for six years now, having started out in housekeeping when I was 18 just after I left school. Since then I've always worked in the hotel sector.

I’ve been involved in quite a few hotels opening here, such as The Hilton in Templepatrick, the Holiday Inn on Ormeau Avenue, Belfast (which is now the Clayton Hotel) and the Fitzwilliam Hotel.

Filming for the television show Inside The Merchant took place around this time last year with the cameras following us around on and off for about three months — I was pregnant at the time so you can see my bump getting bigger and bigger. The crew fell in with our daily routine, following us around the hotel. It was done very discreetly and didn’t interfere much with the running of the hotel. We couldn’t have let it disturb the guests at the hotel at any costs. 

It was a little strange at first having the TV cameras there and I felt a little self-conscious talking to them, but Edel O’Mahoney the executive producer really knew how to put me at ease.

The Merchant is a very special hotel. There’s a lot of history behind the building itself, but its the people who make a real difference. I think the service is full of warmth and the people who work here are very genuine. We have a personable approach with customers and our absolute attention to detail sets us aside too.

The Merchant Hotel offers lots of little touches for its guests that I don’t think you get anywhere else. If you were reading a book in bed and left it with your glasses we would leave a glasses cleaning cloth and a little bookmark out for you. When we valet park your car you get it back with little mints for your journey home and a card thanking you for your service. We also still offer a turn-down service with a little poetry card on the pillow for each guest.

We are an AA five star hotel so we need to maintain that level of perfection all the time. Delivery of that level of luxury is difficult but we have a discerning customer who pays high rates for that kind of standard.

There is an extreme level of cleaning involved so attention to detail is a big part of my job. In a hotel I don’t like to see the workings of anything. I don’t want to see bottles of cleaning product behind the bar or dirty clothes lying around. I also don’t like to see staff who aren’t neat and tidy. I don’t think the customer needs to see any kind of mess — it should be all about the end result, of the magic happening, not how it happens.

I do try and keep my own home as clean as possible too, although it’s not always easy since my son has arrived and has started to crawl.

Since the programme was on last week I have had a bit of ribbing from my neighbours. One of them said she now understood why I always seemed to have the vacuum cleaner in my hand.”

‘I’d have preferred it if some things had not ended  up on TV... ’

Gavin Carroll (41) is the general manager of the Merchant Hotel and lives in Belfast. He says:

I began my career at The Merchant when it opened 10 years ago, when I was the deputy general manager, becoming the general manager four years ago. I have worked with Bill Wolsey, from the Beannchor Group, for more than 16 years, starting off as a restaurant manager.

We achieved five red stars, which was a goal of mine when I became general manager. 

The filming finished months ago, so it feels like a lifetime ago now. Initially, it was quite awkward. I was trying to pretend not to notice that there was a camera in the room when it was all I could think about.

But the crew were very good and just followed us around rather than directing us. However, you quickly realise that nothing will get done unless you just do your job as normal, so you soon forget there’s a camera there.

All the tasks of my job went on — I still had to check rooms, hold meetings and have conversations — so I just carried on.

While there is no such thing as a typical day in my job, every morning I meet with the managers, who report what is happening in the hotel and I will ensure that they know what needs to be done each day and that we have the right staffing.

My job involves attending wine and menu tastings, which may sound like heaven, but when you’re sampling your tenth macaroon or tasting your 150th bottle of wine, it’s not so nice.

It’s really useful that we have a gym here at the hotel which I can go and work out in after work.

The hotel’s personal trainers also have great tips on diet and nutrition.

As well as the day-to-day running, I have to help plan for the hotel’s future so growth will continue. Currently, I am projecting ahead to this time next year in a bid to identify revenue sources and marketing opportunities.

You do open yourself up in a documentary like this, and I’m sure there were things that happened which I probably would have preferred weren’t on TV, but it is just running a business.

It’s a good example of what happens in a busy hotel, and no one was injured in the making of it.

When I stay at other hotels I don’t focus at what they do wrong. Instead, I tend to look at the nice touches they provide and how they would work at The Merchant.

While The Merchant is a five-star hotel, we want it to be accessible to everyone — we don’t want anyone to come through the doors and feel intimidated.

We put a huge amount of effort into staff training, so that even if it is the first time that someone has ever been into a five-star hotel, they will feel welcome.”

  • Inside the Merchant, BBC1 NI, tonight, 10.40pm

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