Sustaining Success at Galgorm Collection
It’s been a busy year for Colin Johnston, the Managing Director of Galgorm Collection, which includes Galgorm in Ballymena, The Rabbit Hotel & Retreat in Templepatrick and The Old Inn in Crawfordsburn. The group is due to launch its latest offering at the beginning of December, with the launch of the new Tree Top Spa at The Old Inn.
The new luxury outdoor Tree Top Spa is part of the property’s €2.8 million revamp and reflects the group’s ongoing commitment to sustainability. The Tree Top Spa will offer guests unrivalled forest views stretching out to the North Down coastline and will showcase a range of new experiences, including a hydrotherapy pool, steam room, sauna, hot tubs and relax space set within its tranquil groups, offering residents an enhanced hospitality experience.
In line with other Galgorm Collection spas including the globally acclaimed and award-winning Thermal Spa Village at Galgorm and the newly opened bohemian glam spa at The Rabbit Hotel & Retreat, the Tree Top Spa at The Old Inn will be equipped with premium facilities to provide a luxurious spa experience.
The Old Inn was originally a coach house on the road from Belfast to Bangor, and the property’s 400-year heritage is carried through the building’s design, featuring a thatched roof at the front, giving the hotel a traditional, country house feel.
As Colin Johnston explains: “We purchased The Old Inn last April in the middle of Covid. So, we started doing some development work on the bar and restaurant and opened it in the middle of September”, he explains. “We then started working on the bedrooms – it’s quite a unique property, and all the bedrooms are different so we’re working our way through those.”
The spa sits at the back of the hotel and features a stunning view down to Belfast Lough. Colin enthuses about the spa’s unique location: “The spa is located outdoors and when conceptualizing this, we knew we wanted to create a spa that felt that it had been there a long time. It features an outdoor hydrotherapy pool, hot tubs with views out over Crawfordsburn Park and a beautiful relaxation area. This picturesque location has really lent itself to the Tree Top Spa. You can sit in a hot tub and relax, looking out at the magnificent view of the park.”
Sustainability considerations have been front and centre in the construction of the new spa. “We’ve used reclaimed materials in the construction of the spa. As the property is 400 years old, we didn’t want you to walk into a contemporary designed spa. We wanted to create the feeling that it was there for a significant amount of time”, says Colin.
He continues: “We started the project during Covid, which created construction challenges for us. Now we have the challenge of trying to make construction costs work in terms of return. There are different challenges to what you might have had a couple of years ago. In the North we’re seeing that while construction costs have peaked and have come down a little, they are still higher than they were a couple of years ago. This meant that projects that were economically viable a couple of years ago now aren’t. We just finished the Shepherd’s Hut project at Galgorm at a cost of €1.8-€2 million. That wouldn’t work at €4 million; it just wouldn’t be economically viable to do it now.”
Sustainability is a key focus of Galgorm Collection and is an essential consideration across all its properties. Colin says: “Investment across the Collection has resulted in the creation of local jobs in the communities we operate in. Not only is this a focus for us, but so too is our commitment to using as much reclaimed materials as possible”.
The group is undertaking an ambitious and exciting sustainable solar and hydro project. Phase 1 of the project, which is focused on Galgorm Resort, involves creating four acres of solar energy. “The original house at Galgorm had a hydro element to it – it’s amazing what the Victorians did 150 years ago! It was built to last”, laughs Colin.
“We wanted to get the mix right. We didn’t want to make too much electric. Hydro will generate more in the winter, and solar will play a greater role in the summer. We want to have enough all the time, rather than having peaks and troughs. There’s been a lot of time spent making this work.”
Colin outlines the full scope of the project: “While we’re focused on Phase 1 at the moment, the next stage of the project would be focused on creating enough renewable energy at Galgorm that we could power the rest of the group. The overall vision is that we would produce all our own electric requirements. Our aim is to be carbon zero by 2030. You find that once you do the first project, it nearly makes the rest of it just happen. You get a passion for it to keep going.”
There are already plans to look at a wastewater project once this project has been completed.
Colin believes that having sustainability at the centre of decision making is essential. “We have carefully considered and consulted at every level, our sustainability pledge and plan of action will realise our goal to create an exciting, fully sustainable destination that works for the environment, our guests, our team, and communities. As more businesses place a focus on sustainability, we hope the government will provide the support necessary.”, he says.
“I feel that governments are a bit behind the curve, but hopefully they’ll go at this with a pace, certainly more quickly than they have to date. Currently there’s no government support, it would make it a wee bit better. Our business model has always tried to be at the forefront of these things and lead the way.”
The group’s employees have a very active part to play in the sustainability programme. “The team have been massively behind it. We have a Green Tourism team internally – a couple from the management team, a couple of staff, a couple of teams from each of the areas. There’s work to be done on the reduction piece. It’s good having the big projects, but there’s work to be done.”
Colin also believes that involving younger employees can be beneficial, providing valuable insights in what they feel will have a positive sustainable outcome for the properties. As the average age of the group’s 950 staff is 31, they have a huge part to play in current and future sustainability initiatives.
An important consideration when considering sustainability initiatives is looking at alternatives that won’t impact on the guest experience. As Colin says, “Every hotel can make savings without impacting the guest experience. For instance, rather than having the televisions on when the guest enters their room, we now leave them in standby, and we’re getting great guest feedback on this. We have to question everything and how we do it.
“Another example is bottled water. We currently put four complimentary bottles of water in each bedroom. We’re now looking at putting a water tap into every bedroom. When you look at all that’s involved in getting those water bottles, from the production, transport, and recycling – there’s a carbon footprint involved. These sorts of ideas are being driven by the team on the ground. We need to take a step back and question things. One change drives another change and it becomes a domino effect. And it’s important to recognise that the customer is savvier than a few years ago. The consumer knows and recognises whether you’re doing sustainability. It’s not just a box ticking exercise.”
Colin is also passionate about building strong relationships with local communities. He outlines: “We’re embedded in the community. The local community in Cullybackey (where Galgorm is located) just won an award at Britain in Bloom, focusing on elements including landscaping and creating a nice place to live and work, and the hotel was involved in the initiative. We are committed to having a positive impact on the local community.”
“It’s important for properties to drive sustainability. We’re not just a hotel – we have staff from the surrounding hinterlands, the communities are important. It’s important that you’re down in the local schools; they’re future team members here or future customers of ours. With the younger generation placing a greater emphasis on sustainability and green business practices, in both travel considerations and career decisions, it’s never been more important to be actively involved in the local community and communicating our sustainability pledge.”
Like everyone in the hotel industry, Covid had a significant impact on the hotel industry. As Colin says, “Covid changed everything. It drove a lot of change in the industry, but I think we’ve come out of it as a stronger industry. Here in the North, there’s been a lot of collaboration. The government up here realised we were quite an important industry. Tourism can generate jobs in areas that few other industries can, outside of the big population centres. Tourism is an export industry – whatever money gets spent by visitors to the island, it’s the same as any manufacturer and we don’t get enough credit for that.”
Although a challenging experience for the hospitality industry, he believes that there were also positives to the Covid experience. “It made a lot of people that live on the island explore the island more. A lot of people explored the island and were surprised with their experience. I know I did things I hadn’t done before.
“I think it’s good value for money, for example Portrush. It’s not overpriced, and not over valued I believe. This summer is a bad place to look at, for instance looking at the hotel prices in Dublin. I believe it’ll settle down, but we’re not going to go back to the prices of 2019, because costs have increased.”
Colin also firmly believes that there are benefits to both sides of the border working in co-operation with one another. “It’s important that everyone works together. We’re very active with Tourism Ireland, for example with trips to the likes of the Middle East. I believe we have to get the visitors here and then divide up the spoils. It’s important that we work together to get them onto the island and keep them here. If you have enough reasons for people to stay for 1-2 weeks and give them lots to do, then they’ll stay. There’s no people border on the Island. And as much as the political side is making it difficult, people are working well together and let’s hope that continues.”
In terms of future ambitions for the Galgorm Collection, each property has its own development plan. The company recently launched 17 Shepherds Huts at Galgorm, with plans to open cottages there in the New Year, and there will be additional work at the spa at Galgorm to complement this.
Treatment rooms have just been opened at the Spa in The Rabbit, and there are plans to add another 17 rooms there next year. And of course, the focus at The Old Inn is on launching the Tree Top Spa in December.
As to whether the Collection have plans for future acquisitions, Colin confirms: “If the right opportunity comes up and it’s right for us, yes would be the answer.”
He believes that business is looking good for the coming year. “All the negativity around Ukraine happened in March, and we felt that in May. November and December are looking stronger for us, and next year we should hopefully see the benefits of the performance of the pound. We had a great summer this year, and we’re confident that we’ll have as good a summer in 2023. And Covid taught us one thing. Things can change very quickly, and you need to be ready to react if things change.”
There’s no doubt that Colin and his team at Galgorm Collection are industry leaders in the area of sustainability, an approach that is sure to continue the group’s success – now and into the future.