Friday 23 March 2018

Belfast tycoon targets Dublin in hotel chain bid

Millionaire Bill Wolsey takes aim at 'lazy' South and plans to liven up four-star scene with a Bullitt

Belfast hotelier Bill Wolsey and his marketing director wife Petra are looking towards Dublin
Belfast hotelier Bill Wolsey and his marketing director wife Petra are looking towards Dublin

Simon Rowe

Ireland's biggest hospitality group Belfast-based Beannchor group is expanding its restaurant and hotel portfolio nationwide - and its millionaire owner Bill Wolsey has Dublin firmly in his sights.

Fresh from launching a new £7m four-star Steve McQueen-themed hotel called Bullitt in Belfast last night, the businessman has revealed he is seeking out sites in the Republic for the next phase of expansion of his hotel franchise concept and his group's Little Wing Pizzeria chain, which currently operates six restaurants in the North.

"Dublin is a city we're looking at. We could do well there," he said of his company's expansion drive. "We have looked at sites and we came close to bidding on a potential hotel site in Dublin city centre, on the Liffey, but we decided to wait. In six months' time we'll have a real serious look at it."

Wolsey's business empire, which includes more than 40 pubs, a five-star hotel in Belfast, and his successful chain of pizza restaurants, employs more than 650 people.

Turnover last year for the group was £18.5m, up 9pc on the previous year, with operating profits of £3.2m. The group's property portfolio is valued at about £40m.

The Belfast man now wants to take on hotel giants Marriott and Ramada in the four-star market. He believes young business travellers are more discerning and want something new.

"The world of three-star and four-star hotels is the world of 'corporate man'. Hotel chains like the Marriott and Ramada have a tried and trusted formula and they just churn out these bed factories.

"But four-star is so dull. You've still got bloody turkey and ham dinners, and coffee that's absolutely tragic, and decor that looks all the same. We decided that if we were to get this right, if it was going to have legs, Bullitt Dublin would be something that we would look at rolling out, or Bullitt Manchester, or wherever. But the idea is never to have just one Bullitt."

Located in Belfast's trendy Cathedral Quarter, Bullitt boasts 43 bedrooms, three bars including a ski-themed bar named Baltic, a courtyard garden, a 58-seater restaurant and an Espresso bar.

Bullitt promises Spotify playlists, specialist craft beers, eclectic room options such as Dinky, Comfy and Roomy, refreshing rain showers, and a smattering of "urban chic". However, although he named the hotel after a film made famous by his cinema hero, Wolsey admits he's not a fan of the movie classic.

"I just love Steve McQueen's style. He's so charismatic, from the sunglasses, to the motorbikes, to the cars. But, honestly, I watched the movie Bullitt and it bored me to tears. It was a load of s****."

On the subject of Dublin hoteliers, he's no less critical. "I sometimes think Dublin hoteliers are lazy. They're not that innovative. And it's worrying for us because Dublin is the driver for the country. But the offering for American tourists is the same old. There's no authenticity."

Authenticity is key to Wolsey's business approach. He insisted that the automatic voice spoken in his hotel lifts has a Belfast accent. As a result, the invisible voice now intones, in a beautiful Belfast lilt - and with Ulster tongue-in-cheek - "You're now on the ground floor, so you are" and "This is the second floor, so it is."

Turning to the subject of Brexit, however, and Wolsey's levity vanishes. "Dreadful," is his pithy reply to the Brexit vote. "It's a shambles. When the vote came it was like a death in my family."

However, he is confident that it won't halt his expansion plans in the South.

Another difficulty Wolsey had to overcome was the bank crash and subsequent involvement with Nama.

He is more sanguine about his experience of Ireland's bad bank than Brexit, however.

"I was involved with Nama on a shopping centre basis and I wrote off all my money that I put into that and moved on."

"While I understand there are criticisms of Nama, in a relatively short period of time we are up and moving again as a country and I've no intention of looking back. That was a period of huge stress. But it was a problem that was caused by myself, nobody else other than myself. The bank lent money, maybe in a foolish way, but I'm a big boy, I accepted that."

Sunday Indo Business

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