Business World

Saturday 3 December 2016

VIP Attractions founder to expand lounge empire

John Reynolds

Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30

Founder of VIP Attractions David Hall
Founder of VIP Attractions David Hall

Former CEO of Digicel Jamaica and Waterford native David Hall is planning to expand his Jamaican airport VIP lounge business in North America and the Caribbean and has backed two property developments that will be worth €40m.

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The founder of VIP Attractions - who studied in Dublin and Cork and began his career as a chartered accountant with the Kerry Group - has had celebrities, including Hollywood stars Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones and rapper 50 Cent passing through his lounges alongside holidaymakers and high fliers at the island's Montego Bay and Kingston airports in recent weeks, as well as billionaire founder of the Virgin group Richard Branson, who lives on another island, Necker, a few hours' flight away.

Hard-won deals with hotels, airlines and travel companies who either pay him a fee for their passengers or bring in paying customers have built the business up since he established it in 2011, to the point where it now employs 320 people, caters to over 250,000 customers and forecasts sales of over €9m this year.

Its start was more than a little turbulent, however. "After deciding to bet on tourism and seeing an opportunity after visiting an airport lounge in London, I put every cent of my own money into establishing the business, and even sold my house," says Hall. "Then a month before we were due to launch, American Airlines, who then brought about a fifth of all airline passengers into Jamaica, went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. We found that because they didn't sign a deal with us, it meant there was less of a reason for their rival US airlines to do so.

"With European, the Caribbean and British airlines, we found that once one signed with us, their rivals did as well: they didn't want to be seen to be offering their most valued passengers a poorer service.

"I briefly considered burying my head in the sand and perhaps returning to Ireland to rethink things. But I felt we had too good a product not to make a go of it by just relying on deals with airlines."

He redoubled his efforts to win other deals that would bring in customers, offering hotels and tour companies on the island a healthy commission, winning business from more airlines and marketing it to potential walk-up customers. "I think some of the hotel owners just felt sorry for me when they heard I'd sold my house," he laughs, "but we built the business up gradually".

He also signed a deal to become a Priority Pass lounge, the world's biggest scheme of its kind, with 850 airport lounges provided to millions of customers around the world by banks and credit card companies.

Another clever marketing ploy was dedicating one section of each lounge to an interactive showcase of Jamaica's culture and history, in areas such as art, sport and music to leave departing passengers with a memorable and positive reminder about the island. Alongside it, next month he is launching a multimedia platform to promote and support tourism there.

"The government really liked the showcase and became an ambassador for us in encouraging hotels to promote it," he adds.

Any Irish holidaymakers planning to visit when holiday charter airline Thomson begins direct flights there in June will have a chance to see it for themselves.

Though he still spends 10 weeks here every summer, Hall, who is married with two sons and a daughter, has lived on the Caribbean island for 14 years and has become thoroughly immersed in life there after becoming a citizen in 2010.

Having helped grow mobile phone network Digicel's Jamaican business to over two million customers during his six years at its helm, he worked with its foundation to build a school for children with special needs, in which both remain involved.

While he's previously served on the boards of the island's various trade organisations, he currently chairs Richard Branson's Caribbean Foundation, which holds an annual business plan competition, promotes entrepreneurship and provides training and mentoring while awarding prize money of between €9,000 and €60,000 for the seven best start-up ideas.

Hall's property interest meanwhile, is with four Jamaican business partners with whom he's invested in developing a block of 62 apartments and 80 homes.

It's one of a number of recent signs, he says, of a welcome pick-up in its economy, which is predicted to grow by about 2pc this year, according to the World Bank.

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