Room for success
Despite a chaotic political backdrop during his two years as President of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, Ciaran O’Neill, owner of the Bishop’s Gate Hotel in Derry, is positive the hospitality industry here has a bright future, he tells Emma Deighan
Ciaran O’Neill, operator of Bishop’s Gate Hotel in Derry-Londonderry
Brexit and a lack of devolved government have been the biggest challenges facing the Northern Ireland hotel industry says Ciaran O’Neill, the man behind Derry’s award-winning boutique hotel Bishop’s Gate.
He has witnessed an influx of investment from large hoteliers in Northern Ireland, challenged the government on Air Passenger Duty and Tourism VAT during his two-year reign and worked to combat a severe skill shortage in the sector that is only heightened by the uncertainty surrounding EU workers’ eligibility to work here post Brexit. But, still, he remains positive.
“It was a challenge and a privilege and it was an exciting two years,” says Ciaran, when asked to reflect on those 24 months at the helm of the Federation.
“During my presidency, we’ve had Brexit, which has been a massive challenge and the collapse of Stormont, just when we were making headway with lobbying.”
The campaigns he and his peers fought, and are still fighting, include a reduction in tourism VAT, which according to the NIHF, if it went ahead, would see the number of jobs within hotels grow by 40% by 2020 on the basis of a 5% reduction. Currently the rate is 20%, some 11% behind our friends in the Republic.
Ciaran says a reduction in VAT and APD were the NIHF’s ‘big ticket items’ but they’ve fallen by the wayside.
“When we had ministers in place, we got up close and personal with government but, in the absence of that, it’s really crippling,” says Ciaran.
“Skills and getting people employable is another challenge and Brexit has brought a lot of uncertainty for non-nationals. In my presidency, we talked about skills and the danger of the shortfall and because there will be a lot more hotels and restaurants, we’re (the industry) just deer caught in the headlights.”
Ciaran says he and his colleagues are trying to reassure non-nationals that there is a future here but the only thing he is certain of is ‘uncertainty’. And the effects of Brexit on the hospitality workforce are already evident in the sector.
“They’re getting nervous,” he says. “They’re looking two years down the line and they’re choosing not to buy houses here and not to take residency. That nervousness is seeing those workers return back to European cities, where they’re guaranteed security. I do believe the movement of European workers will sort itself out but there is still so much uncertainty around it.”
Amid that apprehension there is one thing that is solid and providing security for the former NIHF president and that’s his own hotel in Derry.
Bishop’s Gate will celebrate its second anniversary soon and the success of the hotel has surpassed Ciaran’s expectations.
It’s not surprising that he’s running a hotel that has bucked tourism trends in the area, given he’s been in the trade for 33 years, starting out as a chef.
He also left Derry in 2013 to become vice president of Interstate Hotels in Scotland giving him insight into “getting tourism right”.
“They really do get it,” he says about Scotland. “They have the infrastructure, delivery and product and we are way behind that, but we have so much chance to grow.”
But back to that Edwardian building within the Walls of Derry that has attracted award after award, including the Georgina Campbell Hideaway of the Year 2017.
If you haven’t been to Bishop’s Gate, you need to go. It takes the joy and heritage of its surroundings and marries it with stunning decor, impeccable food and a service that can only be comparable to any capital city hotspot.
“It’s been a wonderful journey. It has evolved and we’re now in a situation of steady business and I think that’s because it’s a destination hotel,” says Ciaran, who has seen hotel rates in the area increase by 14%, quite possibly on the back of the premium offering he has brought to the city.
“I think we are seeing real tourists now because of the Irish Open in Portstewart and also our hotel has brought something new to the market that wasn’t there before. I think before, people were bypassing Derry.”
Bishop’s Gate’s visitor profile is slightly different to its neighbours’. It’s attracting the individual traveller. Those from Europe and the Republic. Ciaran says back in September and October 2017, only 12% of business was from NI which is “really unheard of”.
So, what’s his secret recipe, the concoction that has summoned such widespread recognition?
“We are a bit humble about the awards,” he says. “I simply had a goal that we delivered a home-away-from-home experience and it’s gone from there.
“Our staff are very natural. A lot of them are new into the industry and have learned the Bishop’s Gate’s way. I think small is nice because I have managed big hotels where you can strive to offer a personal service but it’s not that easy but here you can, and you can speak to every guest.”
Personal service and providing a unique product, Ciaran says, is the way forward for those who may be concerned about the influx of rooms here over the coming year or two.
“Put the guests and the customer experience first,” he says. “People will choose their destination on their experience. We all need to up our game and guests are expecting it.
“We need more capacity and space and yes it makes it more competitive to operate in and you have to be at the top of your game. Look at your revenue strategies. I think Belfast will have a challenging 18 months when they open but in two years we will be back to where we are now in occupancy and rates.”
And he talks from experience: “When I managed hotels in Derry in 2001, there were around 240 bedrooms and, every time a new hotel opened, we thought that was the end of it and now there are over 900 and occupancy is higher than what it was then.”
Looking to those new names coming through in the industry, Ciaran is hoping that a devolved government will make the investment worthwhile.
“Scotland would have the percentage growth of bedrooms that we have in Belfast. Every time a hotel was being built there, there was an office block going up and our concern in the Federation is to make sure corporate activity is matching that growth here. If the government gets tourism sorted and gets all sectors to work together, I have no concerns.”
When asked about the future and whether he plans to spread the love of his Bishop’s Gate hotel, he simply says: “Watch this space”.
From a former NIHF president’s perspective looking ahead, he adds: “The last two years were a very difficult time but the investment from hoteliers and growth in tourism is very positive.
“If we could get the government and the private and public sectors working together, Northern Ireland has a really bright future for tourism.”