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Part of something bigger

August 18th, 2017 | by LCN Editor
Part of something bigger
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Since its inception, the McKeever Hotel Group’s strategy has always been to invest in smaller, more rural hotels. In July, however, it broke with form and acquired the Dunadry Hotel at Templepatrick. Russell Campbell has been asking Eugene McKeever if his ambitions have now changed…

The McKeevers aren’t the only family in Northern Ireland to carve their living from a shrewd understanding of hospitality. They are, however, among the most successful and with the purchase recently of the iconic Dunadry Hotel near Templepatrick, they’ve added a valuable layer of complexity and promise to a business model that’s been renowned for its simple effectiveness.

The new addition is undeniably a departure from form for the family. They own four other properties – The Adair Arms in Ballymena; Dunsilly Hotel at Antrim; Corr’s Corner at Glengormly and Dillon’s Hotel in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal – all small, family-orientated and previously faltering hotels which have prospered following investment and redirection from their new owners.

Purchased in early July for an undisclosed sum from the Mooney family – owners of Belfast’s Wellington Park and the Armagh City Hotel – The Dunadry Hotel is a significant addition to the McKeever’s burgeoning portfolio. And while it now appears a little shabbier than it did during its halcyon days in the 90s and early noughties, it has retained its reputation as a popular wedding and tourist venue.

Speaking to LCN this month, Eugene McKeever revealed that the hotel had not actually been on the market prior to his deal with Felix and John Mooney:

“I’d always thought of this hotel as something of an institution and I thought that if it ever came onto the market, then I would like it,” he explains. “By chance, I mentioned that to Felix and he said he’d be happy to talk to us about it. We sat down and ended up hammering out a deal.”

Since taking on the property, which also features a spa and leisure facilities, the new owners have put in place refurbishment plans to the order of around £3m. That work will begin later this year when the venue’s 80 bedrooms are set to be revamped. The main function room is to be updated during the early part of next year followed by renewal work in the lobby area and then the bistro.

“We’re not at all daunted by the scale of what we have to do here, we knew what we were getting into,” says Eugene. “We have our own visionary plans for this hotel and we have architects who are now working on the things that we want to put in place.

“The first two or three years of this are going to be expensive for us, but after this work is done we’ll be in a position to do other things with the place, perhaps put chalets along the riverside or extend the spa and leisure facilities.”

Eugene McKeever first donned his overalls in the hospitality trade in the kitchens at Corr’s Corner when he was just 12-years-old.  He worked for John Corr for 19 years, 11 of those as head chef, before buying the Granagh House in his native Randalstown. Eugene returned to Corrs Corner seven years later – this time, as its owner.

“Corr’s is where all my memories are,” he says. “It’s my baby and it was the money from Corr’s that initially enabled us to develop the group in the way that we’ve done.”

Eugene and his wife, Catherine, are still firmly in charge of the family business although these days, they have the assistance of two of their five children: Bridgene is their marketing director and Eddie is director of operations for the group.

The increasing complexity of the business, which now employs more than 300 people, is a far cry from Eugene and Catherine’s first foray into the trade in the mid-80s with the Granagh House. They ran that venue themselves with help from two part-time members of staff.

The Dunadry is very definitely new territory for the family, confirms Eugene:

“I think we are almost into a different sector with this one,” he remarks. “The other hotels that we have are smaller, community-orientated and they are very corporate in their outlook. This place is based more on the leisure market with the weddings, the spa and the tourist trade. It’s another step up for us, we’re raising the bar again and that heightens the profile of the group.”

Pictured following the agreed sale of the Dunadry Inn are (from left) John and Felix Mooney with Eugene and Catherine McKeever, Bridgene McKeever and Eddie McKeever.

“As far as we’re concerned, the great name of The Dunadry Inn is still up there, there is still great goodwill from the customer base, particularly locally,” says Eugene McKeever. “Yes, there has been a lack of investment in the venue in recent years, I think that’s accepted, but our objective now is to see it back up at the level it was 10 or 15 years ago, when it was really one of the top hotels in Northern Ireland.”

The renovations which will soon get underway at the Templepatrick venue will take around two years to complete. Additional work is then planned to enhance the venue further and these will take another 18 months to finish.

“Our priorities on a day-to-day basis will be to keep the systems and procedures of the hotel running,” adds Eugene, who says the family has no interest in claiming a stake in the fast-growing Belfast hotel trade.

“We’ve never seen that as being part of what we are”, he says. “We like to be part of the local community, that’s our style, that’s what we do well.”

Ensuring that development continues simultaneously at all its existing sites is now a priority for the group, adds Eugene:

“We don’t want any of them falling behind because we are busy here. We are currently refurbishing 30 bedrooms at Corr’s Corner and later this year, we will be renewing the entrance at the Adair Arms Hotel. Refurbishing the heating system in apartments at Dillon’s Hotel is also planned.”

Eugene, who collected an MBE in 2015 for services to hospitality, says that he has no intention of retiring, but he does admit that as the group continues to grow, he and Catherine will continue to hand much of the day-to-day responsibility for its operation and development to Bridgene and Eddie.

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