Bonded by love, newlyweds glowing with happiness and hope posed for their pictures under the two giant lime trees in the beautiful gardens of the Dunadry Hotel as I passed by.
Twenty-five years ago this month, a different bond – that of peace – was formed when Tony Blair, David Trimble and John Hume sat beneath those same bows after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The moment is captured in an iconic image most would recognise, but few probably know where it was taken.
Steeped in history
The Dunadry’s private dining room buzzes as I sit down to ask Bridgene Keeley about her family’s business, the McKeever Hotel group.
Acquired in 2017, the Dunadry is the most recent addition, but there are five hotels in the group. Four are in Antrim; the Dunadry, the Adair Arms, Corrs Corner and the Dunsilly Hotel. The fifth, Dillon’s, which has just benefitted from a major renovation, is in Letterkenny, Co Donegal.
The listed Adair Arms Hotel in Ballymena town centre is an 1846 property; unique in that it was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon, who designed Queen’s University in Belfast and the Crumlin Road jail. But Corrs Corner, only seven miles from Belfast at Newtownabbey, is where it all began, Bridgene explains.
“That’s where my dad, Eugene [McKeever], started as a 12-year-old. He left school, knocked on the door of John Corr, who owned it at the time, and said: ‘Can I have a job please?’ It was a roadhouse then – basically a pub that served food – so he started washing dishes. John put him through his chef exams and he became head chef there for 12 years.”
The family’s first independent leap into hospitality was buying a restaurant in Randalstown with Eugene and his wife Catherine, moving Bridgene and her brother Eddie, who is now operations director, above it.
“So that’s where we learned about hospitality – not that we knew that at the time. It was also where my three younger sisters came along. We did everything from washing dishes and collecting glasses to cleaning ashtrays. You know, normal childhood things!” she laughs.
Seven years later in 1993, when the opportunity arose to purchase Corrs Corner, the family returned to Newtownabbey to start their 30-year journey of building up their now five-strong family-owned hotel group.
30 years in the making
Bridgene, now the company marketing director, first came back into the business professionally when completing the placement year of her business and marketing degree at the University of Ulster. Although her plan was to do something “amazing and glamorous”, dad Eugene encouraged her back into the business.
“We were opening Dunsilly. My parents had rebuilt what was a small pub into a 40-bed hotel. I intended on going out on my own but dad said to me: ‘You’re never going to get a better experience than opening a business. So I agreed and absolutely loved it. It’s just one of those industries that get under your skin,” she says of that decision.
The family ethos, however, is not reserved for relatives. With 300 people employed, she says it is “like one big family”. In recognition of this, the business won the [Business Eye, Family Business Awards] employer of the year in Northern Ireland in 2022.
This award was across all industries, not just hospitality, a fact that made Bridgene “really, really proud, especially considering COVID-19”.
“When it hit, it was especially hard for my dad. All his years working from the age of 12 right through, building this business from being a small restaurant to five hotels and having to shut it down. He said he just felt like his lifework was being pulled from under him.”
When the time did come to reopen, Bridgene is proud that a lot of suppliers needed to change credit terms to survive – but not with them, which she attributes to the trust they have built up.
“We paid every supplier right up to date when we had to close down in March 2020. We used any money we had in our bank accounts because all of our suppliers are local and always have been.”
Reflecting on this, she regales Irish Country Living with a story about her dad in his early years: “When we bought the Adair and refurbished it, dad needed TVs and went down to the local electrical shop and said: ‘I need TVs, this size.’ The owner said: ‘What about this TV?’ Dad says: ‘Yes, I need 90 of them.’ The shop man said: “Why? You could get these shipped in cheaper than I can.’
“Dad goes: ‘Yeah, but they’re not going to be standing here if they break and you will be and it’s putting money back into the economy and everything else.’”
Returning to the present, she continues: “They trust us, and our philosophy was that if we survive it, we’re going to need them to be able to get back up and going. They are local, they are families and they are businesses, too. We looked after our staff, with 95% of our teams coming back.”
With the majority of their staff and senior management intact, when the hotels were allowed to open, all five and every department were in a position to do just that on that first day. Bridgene acknowledges this was not the case for many in the sector. She also credits the return of the same team with their ability to maintain service and standard levels “because people knew what they were doing”.
Aware that some say, “McKeever hotels, it’s all right for you”, Bridgene is matter-of-fact.
“They didn’t see the years of struggling with mom teaching and lecturing two nights a week, kids upstairs or washing glasses, no family holidays. Or, when we did go, it was to Donegal and always cut short.”
These hard times stuck with Eugene and Catherine. Having spent years working Christmas day when Bridgene and her siblings were young because they needed the money, once they no longer needed the extra income they ensured that no one else would have to work that day either, with all hotels closing Christmas Day.
Remembering this emotionally, Bridgene says: “Dad and mom are grafters and we were brought up as grafters.”
So, with unexpected time found with COVID-19, unsurprisingly they started to look at the overgrown gardens of their Dunadry hotel, which was going through a major renovation. It was then they uncovered the old mill race and dug it out. A builder friend then helped to build the beautiful gardens that will now host concerts, art workshops and a myriad of other events this summer.
Her advice for others in hospitality?
“It’s one of those things. If you do something you love, you’ll always do it. Is it tough? Yes! People who go: ‘I’m going to start my own business for more free time.’ That is not going to happen unless somebody has a magic pill that I don’t know about.
“It’s very different drinking in the pub and enjoying the craic in the pub versus running the pub. But if you love it, you will do it and if you love it you will work at it. Be true to yourself, have your own values and treat people the way we’d like to be treated.”