Eddie McKeever, managing director of the McKeever Hotel Group, discusses the impressive growth of the family business with Robert McHugh.
The McKeever Hotel Group is a family-run business based in Newtownabbey, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The group owns five hotels in Northern and southern Ireland, including Corr’s Corner Hotel, the Dunsilly Hotel in Antrim, the Adair Arms Hotel in Ballymena, Dillons Hotel in Letterkenny, and the Dunadry Hotel in Antrim.
Last year, McKeever Hotels announced a banking partnership with Ulster Bank, as the hospitality group sets out fresh plans for growth. The partnership saw the business refinance to the bank to expand and upgrade its hotel portfolio, with major investments at two of the group’s flagship hotels.
Eddie McKeever is the managing director of McKeever Hotels and grew up in the hospitality industry. His father, Eugene McKeever MBE, established the McKeever Hotel Group in 1986, and Eddie’s mother, Catherine, and sister, Bridgene Keeley, are also part of the company.
In this interview, Eddie McKeever speaks exclusively to Hospitality Ireland about how his father greatly influenced his career, expansion plans, and his role as president of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation.
What was your first job in the hospitality industry, and how did that experience shape your passion and commitment to the field?
I grew up in our family business, which was a bar/restaurant that we lived above.
Our daily chores included stocking shelves and clearing glasses. To this day, it still annoys me if there are shelves stocked with the label not facing forward!
My first paying job was also in our family business, which was Corr’s Corner Hotel. This showed me how the business changed during the week and how important it was to work as a team, with structure in what you are doing. It also gave me confidence to deal with customers and hone my social skills.
Who was your first mentor in hospitality, and how did his/her/their guidance influence your growth and development as a hospitality professional?
My first mentor was probably my dad. Again, being a family business, it is from him that I learned about hard work and not turning away any business.
Can you elaborate on the factors that led you to decide on your career direction? Were there any influential individuals or experiences that encouraged you to take the route that you have taken?
I grew up in the industry, and whenever I was younger, I couldn’t wait to be able to be around the table with the other staff at the end of a busy night.
When I did start working in the industry, I found I was good at it and enjoyed trying the different departments. There were many experiences and people that helped me along the way, but my biggest learnings came from the experiences I had in the Burlington Hotel that made me know I wanted to manage large hotels.
Throughout your journey, could you walk us through the various roles that you have held in your career and the significant lessons that you have learned from each experience?
I began my career working behind the bar in Corr’s Corner Hotel, which our family owns. I then quickly began working around all departments, including the kitchen and reception.
I studied hospitality management in Queen Margaret’s University, in Edinburgh, and worked in various departments in hotels before working in a city centre bar called the Rutland. By the time I had finished my degree, I was assistant manager of another bar within the same group. This was my first experience of management. I learned how to manage people, control stocks, and deal with a variety of customers.
I put all these skills to the test when I ran a chalet in France for First Choice Holidays for a season, before coming back to Ireland, and gaining my first junior management role in hotels when I joined the Burlington Hotel, Dublin. From here I worked through F&B management positions to senior manager.
Shortly after Maldron Hotels launched, I began working for Stephen McNally and Pat McCann. This was a time when they began managing hotels in receivership and administration. It was a very interesting time, and I learned a lot from seeing what got these hotels into trouble, but also what needed to be done to turn them around. It was fantastic learning for me that came in useful for my family business, as, when I did return, the first thing we did was buy a hotel out of receivership and turn it around.
Which industry networks have you been a part of that have provided vital support and contributed to your career progression?
I am currently president of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation [NIHF], and I would say this is a great network to meet other hoteliers and suppliers and make connections.
One of the best things I ever did was go on an NIHF trip to Cornell University with a group of other hoteliers from Northern Ireland. We all got on so well and still keep in close contact today.
In your experience, what are the most significant challenges that you have faced while working in the hospitality industry, and how did you navigate through them?
I think, looking back, there have always been challenges, both for the industry and myself, personally. Coming up in the industry, the biggest challenge for me was which path to take. I didn’t know what sort of hotel I wanted to be involved in and how to achieve my goal of becoming a GM.
I was lucky that, at the time, I worked for Maldron Hotels, and they began moving me around other hotels, so I got to experience different hotels and figure out what type of hotel I preferred. I think, at the time, I was wanting to move quicker than I should have, and always looking at the next step instead of being happy to stay longer as a head of department, etc., and become a complete manager in this area.
Looking ahead, what are your career goals and aspirations, and how do you envision making a lasting impact on the hospitality sector?
My personal career goals are to continue to expand our family business. I would like to expand to more hotel properties around Ireland.
All our hotels are heavily involved in their local areas, and I would like to have them still being that centre of the community when I am finishing my career, and in a great place for the next generations to continue what my parents started.