Five star B and B making waves on the North Coast
Quality Assurance, Industry Development
Published May 25, 2016
The language of ‘knowing your customer and growing your business’ is underpinned by a range of buzz words, from collaboration and clustering to partnership and promotion. One new B and B owner however boils her approach down to basics despite a long-standing commitment to the ideas behind the advice. “For me it’s about looking at the entire business as a guest and putting myself in their shoes, seeing their visit as a whole experience and how it can entice them back to enjoy the Causeway Coast."
Blackrock B and B in Portrush
Nicola Neill's Blackrock House has become the first five-star B and B in Portrush and is one of only six currently operating in the north. The brand new business venture, which opened full time at the start of April, is already off to a flying start with its weekend trade. And having already been shortlisted for the brand new ‘Most Promising New Tourism Businesses’ category in this year’s Northern Ireland Tourism Awards, success is set to stay for Blackrock.
“It’s been amazing to have had bookings every weekend since I opened part time back in January 31 and I have been overwhelmed by the numbers of guests despite it being the winter months. In the first week of April the house was booked out by separate wedding parties and I’m really looking forward to the season ahead. I was lucky to be awarded MADE.com ‘House of the Month’ in January which was a great platform to let people know I was opening soon.”
Nicola will be taking a career break from her post with Causeway Coast and Glens District Council to concentrate on her new business however, it is her decades of experience in the hospitality industry which has shaped her new path. Having started waitressing at 14 “as most kids from the North Coast do” she graduated from Newcastle Business School with a BA Hons in Travel and Tourism Management and worked in a variety of positions across the industry and the globe: from Jersey to New Zealand, Disneyland Paris to Vienna as well as a nine-year stint with Eurostar in London.
“I really wanted to work for myself and get back to my tourism roots so I thought about my skills and what I could do with them combined. With an international career in customer service, travel, languages, tourism, food and catering, I bought the house and I just knew it would be perfect as a Bed and Breakfast.”
Redesigning the Edwardian house, which dates from 1902, Nicola allowed herself to be guided by the realities of the building. Opening up the house to light - and to the wonderful North Coast views – it also dictated the markets the new business owner would be targeting.
“Blackrock is the ideal getaway for couples and special occasions as well as taking advantage of the wonderful sporting events along The Causeway Coast. I created three guest areas, a snug and balcony plus a larger drawing room rather than extra bedrooms which people are really enjoying because they can relax and take in the sea views. It’s a great place to meet up with friends for pre-dinner drinks or for golfing or biking groups because of the additional space. Many guests book the whole house for the feel of an exclusive beach house by the sea.
“So far I’ve been hosting couples and parties visiting local restaurants, food tourism is really on a high this year with Tourism NI’s Year of Food and Drink. Guests are staying for the night and loving the walks on the beaches in the mornings. Also people are coming for special occasions, whether they be weddings or family parties, as the flow of the house makes it feel they have the place to themselves for private gatherings.”
Tie-ins with local restaurants, attractions and experiences are “the way forward” for any tourism business believes the Bushmills native who describes herself as “a local ambassador” and “an extension of the tourist board”. Bringing the concepts of clustering and collaboration and ‘extra-milers’ firmly into play she has set up excursions with a local boating company and is building relationships across the area.
“I’m passionate about this area and will do what I can to promote it so if it’s also easier for my guests to book everything in one go then of course I’d be delighted to help arrange it. I will book deep sea fishing on the Causeway Lass or tell them about a nice wee café off the beaten track which, even if they’re just coming from Belfast, they may not know about. I have set up meetings with other B and B owners as we’re all trying to promote the area. We want everyone to have a good time and there’s definitely enough business to go around as Portrush has a shortage of accommodation especially in the peak season.”
Tying in with established events such as the ever popular North West 200 has also helped with promotion, as Nicola explains.
“As a local business owner, I am committed to supporting large scale local events such as the North West 200 which takes place in May. This is the only five-star B and B on the North West 200 route and I was delighted that Event Director, Mervyn Whyte and motorcycle champion Alastair Seeley, called in for a cuppa to celebrate my launch. It takes time to build up partnerships and relationships with other quality providers but we are all supporting each other and complementing each other’s products. The support has been amazing and I was delighted to help support their fundraiser for the Air Ambulance.”
Quality is a keyword for Nicola’s fledgling business and having worked for iconic global brands such as Disney, has been a thread throughout her career. The Year of Food and Drink ethos is another to which she is committed and recent months have been spent sourcing the best of local produce. High quality local foods including North Coast Smokehouse organic smoked salmon, Clandeboye yoghurt, Abernethy butter and a taste testing led to sausages from Portstewart’s award-winning butcher, JE Tom’s and Sons, gracing the breakfast plates of visitors at this 21st century B and B.
“It’s always been about quality, high standards and customer service, people expect more and it’s been a pleasure to help showcase some wonderful artisan suppliers both in food, décor and artwork. It’s been an exciting project to rebuild the house and bring it back to life in the décor and design but it’s equally about the food, the customer care and the personal service.”
Those exacting standards and all-round business approach will see a focus on international markets as the season proceeds. An initial emphasis on the domestic market made sense for weekend winters but a wider perspective through social and digital promotions is already boosting international numbers.
“With existing bookings from Canada, America and the Netherlands the international market is already looking up. Also with my background and experience working in France I will be looking to develop that side as well as the UK market. Guest satisfaction is key and I’m delighted to have met so many great people already and feel really inspired that they genuinely recommend Blackrock by word of mouth.”
Posted by Tourism NI
Produced by Tourism NI