Onward and upward despite tough trading times
Publican Seán Murray returned to Northern Ireland in the wake of the Belfast Agreement determined to make a life in the city for his family after a career in the five-star hotel industry which took him all over the world.
He has a leasehold on two pubs in the city centre, the Deer’s Head, a listed Georgian building in a rundown part of town and The Fountain off buzzing Royal Avenue, which came as a package when he bought them five years ago.
It’s been a tough couple of years for businesses in Belfast with more and more retailers closing, their premises taken over by charity and pound shops. People talk of gym and golf memberships being cancelled; conversely, a chain of cut-price hair salons is doing a roaring trade. While acknowledging all this, Murray says he’s seen a slight upturn in business on this time last year and an increase in credit card usage at his bars. He sees these as signs, however small, that consumer confidence may be returning.
Moreover, he’s confident. Just a few months ago he bought another pub and refurbished it in six weeks. On this damp and cold week night it’s packed full of families with small children.
The Crooked Mile is located in the middle of a winding mile of road between west Belfast and Lisburn. The changes Murray has wrought in what was formerly The Farmer’s Inn tell a little bit of the story of how Belfast has changed in recent years. Just like in his other bars football jerseys are banned, although with his training at the likes of the Ritz in London Murray is not averse to offering alternative clothing to those arriving in football colours.
“When I came it was full of old Irish signs but I decided to give it more of a neutral touch with some lovely old Belfast photographs. I just can’t afford to let religion or politics impact on the business . . . I’ve created a place where I hope everyone can feel welcome.”
A warmer welcome has been top of the agenda in Belfast for a while with more than a billion invested in the tourism sector. The figures tell their own story. In 1999 the city welcomed about 400,000 visitors and two overnight cruise ships. Last year the city had 1.6 million overnight visitors while this year, so far, about 50 cruise ships have dropped anchor. Chief executive of the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau Gerry Lennon mentions the Titanic Centre, the city’s hosting of European Music Awards, the opening of the Belfast MAC and the newly refurbished Ulster Hall as reasons why the city is welcoming bigger numbers. This year the bureau’s welcome centre recorded an increase in inquiries, up 32 per cent up on last year.