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New era beckons at the Ross Park

September 22nd, 2017 | by LCN Editor
New era beckons at the Ross Park
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A new era is about to dawn at the Ross Park hotel near Ballymena as it prepares for a £500,000 refurbishment programme that includes a bespoke wedding pavilion. Co-owner, Keith Carmichael, has been talking to LCN.

Work will shortly begin to refurbish and extend the three-star Ross Park hotel at Kells, near Ballymena.

As part of the £500,000 scheme – which will see the reception, bar and restaurant at the 40-bedroom venue thoroughly renovated – a new purpose-built wedding pavilion is also to be created with space to accommodate up to 130 guests at civil partnership ceremonies and civil weddings.

The hotel – which hosts around 100 weddings every year – will be closed for a short period in January in order for the revamp to be completed.

Formerly known as The Country House hotel, the Ross Park was purchased by Ian and Keith Carmichael in 1999 in a deal delivered by the late John Martin of Osborne King in Belfast.

The Carmichaels will be familiar to many readers as the owners of a portfolio of successful venues in Belfast and north Down. The brothers, along with their mother, Joan Carmichael MBE, look after the Bryansburn Inn and the Esplanade in Bangor and Morrison’s on Bedford Street in Belfast. They also own The Stables in Groomsport and The Groomsport Inn, both of which are on long-term lease to another operator.

Speaking to Licensed & Catering News this month, however, Keith Carmichael revealed that the planned work at the Ross Park was among the most ambitious projects that the family had undertaken to date:

“This is something that we’ve been thinking about doing for the last two or three years,” he revealed. “We really do think that there is a demand for something like this, we have already done several of these ceremonies at the hotel and so now we are looking to provide better, more bespoke facilities.”

Keith is responsible in the main for the Ross Park – with considerable help from mum, Joan – and for Morrison’s in Belfast. His brother, Ian, takes day-to-day responsibility for The Bryansburn and The Esplanade.

Many who live in the mid-Antrim area will easily remember a time when The Country House hotel – which opened in the 1980s – was regarded as one of the leading venues in the region. But Keith admits that when he and Ian bought the business at the end of the 90s, little of that reputation remained intact:

“The glory days of the Country House had long gone by that stage,” he recalls. “It was in really bad shape and what we had was a distressed sale by the bank. It certainly wasn’t the old Country House that many people would have been familiar with.”

Undaunted, however, the Carmichaels immediately invested £2m in an extensive refurbishment of the premises

“We spent that money right throughout the hotel, bringing everything up to date,” says Keith. “It was a huge scheme, probably the biggest thing we’d undertaken at that time.

“And we gave the place a new name. We’re in the townland of Ross here, so that seemed appropriate, and we’re surrounded by parkland, so we came up with this new name. We also felt that the old name didn’t really describe the modern, 21st century hotel that we were creating.”

In the years since the revamp, Keith says that business at the hotel has grown steadily:

“I think generally, the business is where we want it to be,” he says. “We try to work things out over the year, we are above the bank’s projections. If you get a poor month, that can set you back but at the end of the year, it seems to make its way back again. We’re very happy with the way we’ve been performing.”

And he says that business at the Ross Park over the last 12 months has been particularly good, with large numbers of visitors and tourists, particularly from the Republic of Ireland.

“We are half-way between the north coast and Belfast here and obviously, we are pricing ourselves very competitively to get them in,” says Keith. “But they do help us to fill rooms on the quieter nights…Our accommodation figures are better now than they have ever been.”

Going forward, Keith said that the focus at the Ross Park remains on maintaining current service levels and performance:

And he revealed that another refurbishment scheme will begin at The Bryansburn Inn once work on the Ross Park is complete.

The family intends to invest around £200,000, primarily aimed at enhancing the exterior facilities and appearance of the venue. Work is set to begin there in 2019.

“We enjoy this business and we are keen to keep moving,” he said. “People do want to come out, they want to be looked after and we have to be positive, we have to keep smiling. People’s expectations are higher than they used to be, they want to be sitting in comfort and they like new ideas and new things and they like to know that we are always looking forward and striving to improve.”

As for the future, Keith said that further large-scale expansion for the group was unlikely:

“I don’t think that Ian and I have any big desire to grow more,” he said. “If I am honest, I think we are very comfortable looking after what we have now and maximising the performance of our business. We’re totally dedicated to that.

“When you’re younger, you take on different things, but Ian and I are comfortable now, we don’t want pressure from the banks or anything like that. I enjoy doing what I do here, I enjoy meeting people and the obligation of their expectations. We’ll just keep doing that and trying to deliver a level of customer service that is as high as we can manage.”

 

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