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Kellys owner on bringing classical Lush! to Belfast

His first job at 14 was washing glasses in the bar, the 48-year-old father-of-four now runs a huge complex

By Stephanie Bell

As the head of a successful family business Peter Wilson knew he was staking his reputation on what even he thought at the time was a "bonkers" idea. Bringing the Ulster Orchestra to an arena with some of the world's biggest house music DJs didn't exactly appear like a match made in heaven.

Yet what was meant to be a one-off celebration to mark 20 years of Kellys nightclub is now in its third year and this weekend Lush Classical 2018 is set to smash all records as the biggest classical dance event ever held in Northern Ireland.

Around 10,000 people aged from 18 to 60 years will converge on the SSE Arena in Belfast for the sell-out gig this Saturday night.

And no-one is more thrilled or surprised than Peter Wilson who, since taking over the family-run Kellys complex in Portrush, has strived to make sure the business continues its proud history of moving with the times.

Lush Classical was a risk but one he now thanks his lucky stars that he took.

He says: "The last three years have seen us put our entire reputation and a lot of capital at stake to host something that had never been done in Northern Ireland before.

"Lush Classical was born out of an idea presented to me by Col Hamilton, our co-founder and resident DJ of Lush.

"He had seen the amazing success of the Ibiza Proms and had the idea to run an even better version using our own Ulster Orchestra in the SSE Arena.

"At first I thought it was a bonkers idea, but the more he told me of how it would work, the more I came round to it. Now, I am so glad I did as it has been pivotal in our recent success and has allowed us to bring a concept which has worked for over 20 years in a local nightclub to an outside venue which is attracting 10,000 people."

Part of its success is no doubt down to the fact that Peter and his team hired the best in the business, signing up Steve Anderson, Kylie Minogue's musical director and production team; Dave Seaman, international DJ and producer, and Paul Oakenfold who headlined the first event.

In that first year they sold out the 5,000 capacity and last year doubled the numbers with over 10,000 revellers gathered in the SSE Arena.

This year, Steve Anderson is back with Kylie's full sound team and musical scores are written by another giant of the industry, Cliff Masterson, composer, orchestrator and string arranger who works with artists including Kylie, Little Mix, Emeli Sande, Westlife and Lionel Richie.

Not bad for a club that started out in a barn on the family farm hosting dances to earn a bit of extra cash.

Kellys has been an institution in Northern Ireland for close to 50 years.

Peter (48), who runs the complex, is married to Judith (46) who also works in the business managing the company's Holiday Home Park in Portballintrae. They have four children Lauren (16), Erin (14), Jamsie (9) and Thomas (7).

Peter is the second generation of his family to take over the running of Kellys which was set up by his late uncle James Kelly in the Sixties.

What started as a venue for barn dances evolved into a well-known disco spot in the Seventies. By the Nineties, Lush nightclub was pulling in thousands of revellers each week with a love of dance music. At the height of the rave scene, all roads in Northern Ireland led to Kellys at the weekends.

It wasn't without its controversy, though, as the darker side of the rave scene saw widespread use of the drug ecstasy in Northern Ireland.

Peter, who was a young man enjoying travelling in Australia at the time, insists Kellys always had a strict no drugs policy.

He says: "I was in Australia at the time when the rave scene was at its height but all nightclubs and bars by their very nature are affected by drug controversy.

"We have always had a zero-tolerance policy on drugs and work very hard on training our staff and doormen and work closely with the PSNI to ensure our staff can spot the signs and deal with anyone suspected of taking or indeed dealing drugs by contacting the PSNI and eliminating the individuals from the premises permanently."

Of course, as he grew up, Peter witnessed how Kelly's evolved from a family farm to the huge holiday complex it is today.

He lived in Belfast with his parents, Trevor and Sally, and had one brother Nigel and two sisters, Carolyn and Deborah. From an early age trips to Portrush were a big part of his life.

His maternal grandmother was a bit of a local legend and also a budding entrepreneur, as he explains: "We often visited my grandmother and uncles in Portrush at the family farm at the weekends. It was a sheep and dairy farm set on 50 acres.

"My granny Kelly was a bit of a local legend in terms of her hospitality and home cooking and she started to open the farm house to tour groups selling her famous breads and scones.

"From that the farmhouse evolved into a small hotel.

"My uncles James and Desmond then had an idea to hold barn dances for Ballymoney Rugby Club in one of the cow sheds to make a bit of extra money. These proved so popular that they became a permanent feature and started to make more money than the farm did.

"As the business evolved, my two uncles and father saw the potential and started to rent out the land to touring caravans and eventually statics. When my uncle Desmond passed away, my dad stepped in to help my Uncle James.

"My dad's background was in retail - he manufactured Irish Linen in a factory in Lurgan, had two retail shops and also sold it all round the south of Ireland. He gave all that up when he was thrown into helping at Kellys."

A family affair, the young Peter was just 14 when he started working in the bar cleaning glasses and collecting bottles.

However, back then he had no idea how involved he would become in the business.

He was 25 when his father set him to work in the caravan park, owned by a family friend. He began learning from the ground up and sadly it was the tragic loss of his brother Nigel 12 years ago which saw him take over the running of the hotel and nightclub.

He explains: "I had been travelling in Australia for four years and when I returned I began an apprenticeship in Millisle, literally learning the ropes from the grassroots.

"It was a bit of a culture shock after my gap years.

"I was 25 and worked very much at the holiday end of it.

"It was due to the untimely, sudden death of my brother Nigel that I was thrust into the nightclub and hotel business, but it was really my dad who saw the potential in me and it is him I have to thank for bringing me on board.

"When my brother Nigel passed away I was put into the forefront of the business very quickly.

"I had to hit the ground running to say the least. It was a stressful time as I was grieving for my brother and at the same time presented with something which I had to learn on the job."

Today, he heads up a huge and diverse business which thanks to his efforts continues to evolve.

The overall umbrella group is Kellys Portrush and that includes the Golf Links Hotel, Lush! nightclub, The Deer Stalker bar and restaurant, the Pizza Library restaurant, and the holiday park which has over 600 holiday pitch sites.

Kellys has also been known for its eclectic interior and Peter says it was his Uncle James who brought interesting artefacts and antiques from his global travels to adorn the walls.

He says he has also been determined to make his family proud and ensure Kellys continues to offer something new to its customers: "Over the years we have added bits here and there and that gives Kellys such unique character.

"With my late uncles and brother having achieved so much, I did feel a huge sense of responsibility when I took over.

"Having taken on such a successful family business, I have always felt the pressure at ensuring it continues that way for generations to come, and I do recognise that we have to grow and move with the times.

"We are continually investing - every year there is something new in the complex."

March this year saw a £300,000 investment in a new bar and lounge, The Stubborn Stag and the Pizza Library, an Italian-themed, 56-seater family restaurant, complementing The Deerstalker Bar & Bistro.

The Complex now has a capacity of around 120 family covers.

Lush Classical is something which has taken the business to a new level, taking the business out of the Kellys complex and into Northern Ireland's biggest arena.

As the countdown begins to the third event tomorrow Peter is relieved and proud of its success.

He says: "It has been more successful than even Col Hamilton or I could ever have hoped.

"I am over the moon that we are doing it again and I simply cannot describe how electric the atmosphere is.

"It was a heck of a lot of hard work for Col and the team but to see the crowd's response was absolutely worth it.

"What we have uncovered is that there is undoubtedly a market for dance events for the older crowd, those who don't necessarily want to go to nightclubs every week, but will come out to enjoy music from their younger days."

As Peter keeps his promise to ensure the business evolves, the Golf Links Hotel is currently undergoing a major renovation and the addition of a new floor of bedroom suites with panoramic views over the Dunluce course which will be finished in time for The Open in 2019.

Peter adds: "We are also planning more outdoor events and have a major event in the pipeline to celebrate our 50th anniversary next year - I can't say too much but the whole team is extremely excited.

"I hope and think my uncles, brother and father would be proud of the business today."

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