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Filling big shoes

April 4th, 2018 | by LCN Editor
Filling big shoes

Peter Wilson knows about responsibility. As owner and developer of the iconic Kelly’s complex on the busy north coast, he’s charged with preserving and building on the family’s strong hospitality roots. And recent sustained investment at the venue shows that he’s more than up for the challenge.

For many of us, the perennially popular seaside resort of Portrush is the focal point for many of our most treasured family memories. Long sun-filled summers spent on NI’s fabulous north coast have been a staple among Ulster families through the generations.

In recent years, the town has been enjoying something of a renaissance, as tourist figures have surged and the world’s golfers have begun to realise the high quality of the region’s links courses.

The north coast is fast becoming a world-renowned visitor attraction and at its heart, Portrush is once again a hub for holidaymakers and weekend revellers.

For Peter Wilson (48), and wife, Judith, that news couldn’t be better. They operate Kelly’s entertainment complex and holiday park – one of the area’s most enduring attractions – and as Portrush has gradually clambered its way back to something approaching the halcyon days of its popularity in the 50s, 60s and 70s, they’ve been busy re-investing to ensure that Kelly’s keeps pace with the changes going on around it.

The business was founded in the 60s by Peter’s late uncle, James Kelly and Desmond Kelly, who started running barn dances in a cow shed on the family farm at Dunluce Road. The business evolved throughout the 70s until eventually, thousands of revellers were making weekly trips to the north coast to share their mutual love of dance music.

In 1996, James opened the doors of Lush! It was NI’s biggest nightclub attraction and over the years, it has gained iconic status as one of the best-known dance venues in Europe, regularly attracting big name DJ’s such as Calvin Harris and Fat Boy Slim.

Today, the club itself sits comfortably on the site at Dunluce Road, sharing its footprint with the 18-bedroom Golf Links Hotel, the Deerstalker Bar and Bistro and the adjacent Golf Links holiday village, which currently accommodates around 750 units, many of them luxury static homes. Peter and Judith also operate a second holiday park in nearby Portballintrae with around 250 units.

Peter’s time with the family business has been characterised by a series of targeted investments, designed to ensure that the entire site keeps pace with demand and the expectations of its varied customer base.

Most recently, he has opened the doors on The Pizza Library, a 56-seater family Italian restaurant with an imported Italian pizza oven. Working in conjunction with the Deerstalker Bar and Bistro, the complex now boasts a family dining capacity of 120 covers.

Also opening its doors in March was The Stubborn Stag, a plush new multi-purpose bar and lounge area that replaces Lillies bar, which opened in the space adjacent to Lush! in 2014.

Speaking to LCN this month, Peter confirmed that the Stubborn Stag is indicative of increased investment at the Kelly’s complex generally as trade continues to improve.  The Stubborn Stag will help ease the pressure on the busy Deerstalker Bar and Bistro next door:

“The Deerstalker was just too small,” he explained. “There’s not enough seating in there for the level of custom that we’re getting and so we’ve opened this new bar. It’s really an extension of the Deerstalker, but we can have live music and DJ’s in here as well, it’s very much more of a multi-purpose space.”

The Stubborn Stag represents an investment by Peter and Judith of around £250,000 and continues a game-orientated theme at the venue which finds its roots in Peter’s decision some years ago to offer a home to a couple of ornate stags that he spied during a visit to Wilson’s Yard at Dromore.

It serves a deeper purpose too, however. Over the years, Kelly’s has developed an enviable reputation as the go-to hospitality venue among younger party-goers, but Peter is conscious of the north coast’s entire demographic and aware also of the ongoing need to offer facilities that will appeal to potential customers in the popular holiday park next door.

“We’re finding that The Stubborn Stag is popular with a wide range of people, but we are specifically aiming it at a slightly more mature audience. Our own generation, I suppose, 30 plus,” added Peter. “That was the way it worked here years ago, mum and dad would be in the pub here while the kids were in Lush! and we’d like to see a return to that.”

The venue boosts its appeal to a more mature clientele by delivering a more tailored drinks offering, with an emphasis on whiskey and gin menus and a noticeably more ‘top end’ cocktail list.

Undeniably though, space is limited at the Kelly’s site and Peter knows that making efficient use of every square inch is essential:

“We have to be very conscious of the space that we have here and we have to be innovative in what we do with it,” he says. “But it’s a big site too and we are lucky with our great location and with our access to car parking. Parking is a big issue in Portrush these days, but we have plenty of it here [350 spaces].”

Looking to the future, Peter is confident that The Open – which arrives in Portrush in 2019 – will be a “phenomenal success” and will yield benefits for the town in terms of international publicity that will extend long after the last ball has been struck.

Next year also represents the 50th anniversary of the Kelly’s complex and although Peter is staying very tight-lipped about what he has planned, he does promise that the celebrations are going to be memorable.

As for the future, nothing is set in stone but Peter promises that improvement at the site will be continuous:

“You can’t stand still, you have to keep investing,” he tells LCN. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re on the north coast or in Belfast.”

And he adds:

“We have in for planning permission for another nine panoramic-style bedrooms at the hotel and  think that will probably finish things for a while for us…but we’ve done that much in the last three years and there will always be a level of ongoing investment.

“Last year we created The Synk, a hip-hop and R&B room that’ve very popular on a Wednesday night at Kelly’s and we refurbed the Star Bar in Lush! In the last three years, we’ve spent a huge amount of money improving and extending the offering that we have here,” he said.

Peter knows the magnitude of his task – Kelly’s and the Lush! nightclub in particular are institutions treasured by generations of party-goers and their continued success and development lie in his hands:

“These are big shoes to fill, I know that,” he says. “Coming behind uncle James and my brother, Nigel, as well. They left such a strong legacy here and I am conscious of the need to preserve that and build on it. We have to be very careful with that. Kelly’s is a very iconic site and you just can’t afford to get it wrong, development here can’t be rushed, you need to think everything through first.”




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