The Hill brothers are expanding their spa-focused Galgorm collection of hotels across Northern Ireland, with two recent hotel openings and another to follow in 2024. Janet Harmer speaks to managing director Colin Johnston about growing the brand alongside operating one of the country's largest resort hotels.
Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort, near Ballymena, has been ahead of the curve for some time in offering outside hospitality space. Its outdoor spa is quite possibly the most extensive in the UK and, unsurprisingly, the pandemic has made it more sought-after than ever before.
Creating a spa with a focus on outside space might at first appear foolhardy, considering the vagaries of the Northern Irish climate. But the demand from hotel guests to spend time in an outdoor pool or hot tub prior to Covid was so great that the owners of the 125-bedoom hotel decided to invest a further £2m in expanding the spa, which now hugs a rolling eight-acre landscape overlooking the River Maine. Once planning permission was granted, the spa's expansion was originally not going to be undertaken for a couple of years, but the realisation that the requirement for such facilities was going to increase spurred on the development during lockdown.
Now completed, 90% of the spa is outside in the thermal spa village, featuring 16 hot tubs, 10 saunas, two steam rooms, a swimming pool, jacuzzi pool, vitality pool and six heated loungers, while indoors there are two swimming pools and 14 treatment rooms.
When Galgorm was initially developing its spa in the mid-2000s, many others across the UK were aspiring to an east Asian style. Instead, owners and brothers Nicholas and Paul Hill wanted to build an Irish spa that had a connection to the local landscape, which its organic growth has since continued to reflect.
Rooms to grow
Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort is the flagship property within the Galgorm Collection, the operating name for Tullymore House, which today comprises three hotels and two restaurants. It is one of Northern Ireland's most dynamic hospitality companies, with ongoing plans to expand at a steady pace.
The Hill brothers took ownership of the property that was to become Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort in the late 1980s. At the time it was a 20-bedroom hotel in need of considerable improvement. Spurred on by the fact that they had previously made a success of a small country house hotel in County Antrim that had once belonged to their uncle, they went on to develop and grow Galgorm to become one of Northern Ireland's largest resort hotels, featuring five restaurant and bars and a spa, with a renowned reputation as a wedding venue.
And the expansion is not stopping. A new £10m development within the 163-acre Galgorm estate, comprising a variety of self-catering accommodation, has just got under way. They include 23 one-bedroom cottages; six treehouses designed by Blue Forest, the company that built the treehouses at Hampshire's Chewton Glen; and 14 shepherd's huts.
The existing self-catering accommodation of 18 cottages, six shepherd's huts and six log cabins were able to welcome guests once lockdown restrictions eased and before the hotel was able to open. "Our focus over the next couple of years will be on expanding our accommodation where the guest has a door to the outside; it is very much what people now want," says Colin Johnston, managing director of Galgorm Collection.
As well as Galgorm achieving close to 100% occupancy this year, the resort has been able to boost its room rate by creating spa packages, including dinner, bed, breakfast and 60-minute spa treatments, costing from £450 for two people for one night and from £700 for two nights. Additionally, a wide range of day spa packages and treatments, such as the nightfall experience, comprising dinner and spa access from £99, and new experiential activities, such as falconry, horse-riding and shooting, has ensured that business has remained buoyant, with guests increasing their length of stay.
"One of my key learnings from time spent studying at Cornell University was to put everything into the rate and don't charge more when the guest arrives," says Johnston. "This way the guest feels they have had great value for money and it allows us to manage the business better, as we know exactly what facilities are being booked."
One of my key learnings was to put everything into the rate and don't charge more when the guest arrives
Expansion across the wider Galgorm Collection has included taking over the running of the club house, comprising Castle Kitchen + Bar in 2017 at nearby Galgorm Castle Golf Club, where there is the potential to add bedrooms in the future. More significant has been the opening of two new hotels: the Rabbit Hotel & Retreat in Templepatrick and the Old Inn in Crawfordsburn, near Bangor.
The restaurant and bar at the 33-bedroom Rabbit Hotel & Retreat briefly opened last year before lockdown and eventually fully opened on 18 June 2021, since when it has achieved a 72% occupancy. The former 24-bedroom Templeton hotel was acquired by Galgorm Collection for £7m from Stephen and David McCombe in 2019 and has since undergone a £10m refurbishment to create the Rabbit. Central to the business is its wedding venue – the Loft – which provides a more informal setting in a barn-style room than the grander and more formal wedding spaces at Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort. This has proved hugely popular, with five to six weddings being hosted per week.
The Relaxation Burrow spa will open at the Rabbit in October. Building on the success of the Galgorm spa, the Rabbit spa will also be predominately outside, overlooking a lake. However, it will only be available for the exclusive use of members and residents and will not open as a day spa. "We've over-specced the spa for a 33-bedroom hotel, as we knew we were eventually going to add extra rooms," says Johnston. "We have two phases of additional bedrooms in the pipeline – work will get under way on a courtyard development of 18 rooms later this year, while 40 more rooms will be added by the lakeside in two or three years' time."
The 32-bedroom Old Inn became the third hotel to join the Galgorm Collection on 3 September, after being acquired earlier this year in a multimillion-pound deal from Danny Rice. The reception, restaurant and bar of the 1614 former coaching inn have been refurbished, while each of the bedrooms – all unique in style – will be decorated one at a time. A small spa will open in January 2022 and will later be followed by an additional nine to 20 bedrooms, while the wedding room will be reconfigured to maximise the view over Crawfordsburn Country Park.
Know your audience
Each of the three hotels appeal to a slightly different demographic. While the target market at Galgorm is "everybody", 72% of business comes from the 44-year-old and under market – mostly couples and golfers, but also some families. The Rabbit has a younger target market and appeals to guests looking for the Soho House/Hoxton hotel experience, while the Old Inn is expected to attract a more mature clientele. Currently, 71% of guests come from within Northern Ireland, 22% are from south of the border and around 7% are from England, Scotland and Wales.
While Galgorm Collection's presence in Belfast is currently focused on restaurants – it has two, Fratelli Belfast and Parisiene – it did own and operate the Ten Square hotel in the city for around 10 years, until the company fortuitously received an offer for the property in 2007, two months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. However, Galgorm Collection will soon have a hotel presence in Belfast again, with work on the creation of the group's fourth, yet-to-be-named hotel expected to start later this year. Planning permission has been granted to transform the derelict Holy Rosary Church and an adjacent Parochial House building on Ormeau Road, Belfast, into a 20-bedroom boutique hotel with bar and restaurant.
The ongoing investment in Galgorm Collection has been impressive –£60m has been spent on Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort alone over the past 30 years and a further £15m is in the pipeline for the next five years. Projects for the company, which achieved a turnover of £26.8m in 2019 (up from £24.1m in 2018) according to records at Companies House, are paid for from a mix of cash flow and bank debt.
Johnston explains that the Hill brothers focus on the development and expansion of the business, while he oversees the operations. Future acquisitions are always on the cards, but there is no interest in creating lots of hotels just for the sake of it. "Each one has to fit with what we already have; it has got to be fun and exciting, and ultimately we've got to be sure we have the staff capacity," concludes Johnston.
It has got to be fun and exciting, and ultimately we've got to be sure we have the staff capacity
Growing the Galgorm gang
Covid has amplified what has long been a challenge for the Galgorm Collection: dealing with a shortage of staff. "What is currently putting us under most pressure is that we are testing every member of staff every day," says Johnston.
"It has proved to be the right thing to do, as it means that we have been able to limit the number of people self-isolating any one time. For instance, at Galgorm we have just had one chef who has tested positive in their daily lateral flow test. We then immediately asked his three closest contacts to self-isolate as he went off to get his PCR test rather wait three or four days for Track & Trace to contact them, during which time more members of staff could potentially become infected."
Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort recently had around 30 team members self-isolating out of a total head count of 629. "We can sustain these numbers in a business with such a large pool of staff, but it is a problem for our Belfast restaurants," says Johnstone. "If four chefs were knocked out at any one time in the restaurants, the businesses wouldn't be able function." It is for this reason that Fratelli Belfast remains closed and Parisiene is open for events only.
Prior to the pandemic, the company had already taken considerable steps to tackle the recruitment crisis head-on, with the launch of three training academies for spa therapists, bartenders and chefs. The first academy – for spa therapists – is fully funded by Galgorm Collection at a cost of £100,000 a year. Its training programme is accredited by the Confederation of International Beauty Therapy and Cosmetology (CIBTAC) and results in 12 fully qualified spa therapists annually.
For the bartending academy, Galgorm has joined forces with two other hotels in Ballymena, Adair Arms and Tullyglass House, to launch the Northern Ireland Hospitality School, with £260,000 funding over three years from the Gallaher Trust charity. Following the completion of a six-week Level 2 Award in Professional Bartending (Cocktails), 24 bartenders a year are employed across the three hotels.
The Gallaher Trust and the three hotels are also teaming up to financially support the chef academy, which will be launched in January 2022. Six chefs will undergo a one-year training programme that Johnstone says will be "fun and interactive" and reflect what hotel and restaurant kitchens require of their staff today. "It will involve visits to farms and other suppliers, as well as the opportunity to take part in gourmet dinners with celebrity chefs operated by the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation."
Beyond the training opportunities, Johnstone says that the hospitality industry has to wake up to the fact it has to pay better wages. "It is not enough to just compete with other hospitality businesses; we also have to compete with other sectors, whether it be IT, finance or supermarkets. Pay is a big part of the package, but not the only part. We also ensure that the majority of our chefs work only four days a week. Working six days a week from 10am to finish is over.
"We include gym access for all our staff and launched an employee assistance programme last year, which was very well received as the need for support for mental health issues is huge. We're also in the middle of putting together a private healthcare scheme for all our employees to launch next year. We can't change some of the things about the industry such as the hours, the late nights, the weekends, but there are loads of things we can fix."
Galgorm Collection successfully recruited 150 staff in a campaign earlier this year out of a target of 180 people. The company currently employs 837 staff.
The Galgorm Collection
Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort
Ballymena, County Antrim
028 2588 1001
Restaurants and bars River Room (three AA rosettes), Conservatory (afternoon tea), Fratelli (Italian), Gillies Grills (brasserie), Castle Kitchen + Bar; wedding suites; fitness suite; and Thermal Spa Village
Room rate From £190
The Rabbit Hotel & Retreat
882 Antrim Road, Templepatrick, Ballyclare, County Antrim
Facilities Rabbit Restaurant, Hunter's bar, spa and event space
Room rate From £180
15-25 Main Street, Crawfordsburn, Bangor, Co Down
028 9185 3255
Facilities Restaurant, bar and wedding venue
Room rate From £130
Parisien (currently open for events only)
Donegall Square North, Belfast
028 9590 4338
Covers 140, with terrace seating 45
Fratelli Belfast (due to reopen in autumn)
60 Great Victoria Street, Belfast
028 9031 0862
New Belfast hotel (due to open 2024)
348-350 Ormeau Road, Belfast
Facilities Bar and restaurant
Colin Johnston on his rise from glass collector to MD
"My career in hospitality started on a weekend, collecting glasses in a social club on the Stormont Estate Belfast. I was immediately hooked. I started working for Nicky and Paul (Hill) when I was 20 as a supervisor in the bar at Ten Square. I'm 40 now and was appointed managing director of Galgorm Collection in 2017, having worked my way slowly but surely up the ladder.
"It's been a great journey that started just as the Peace Process was being negotiated [the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998]. During that time, I've seen what was previously very little tourism in Northern Ireland grow into a £1b industry in 2019."
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