Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort: Interview with Colin Johnston

Having joined the Galgorm Collection in 2001, Colin Johnston took the helm as Managing Director in 2016. He talks to Hayley Bortolotti about the Employee Assistance initiative implemented during the pandemic to keep staff members happy, healthy and engaged, about developing new guest experiences and what the events of 2020 have taught him.
Galgorm Spa Golf Resort

With many of your existing people returning from furlough how are you supporting their return to work in terms of engagement and re-training?

The development and growth of our staff has always remained at the heart of the Company, this is not something that ceased during the pandemic. Throughout we continued to produce weekly staff communication featuring a balance of personal insights from team members, updates of company developments to reinforce confidence in the sector and links to courses to encourage personal development.

Throughout the past year, we surveyed the staff on three occasions to assess and address their concerns. In response to the findings provided, we sourced and implemented an Employee Assistance Programme that provides staff members and their immediate family members with free access to counselling, fitness tracking, nutrition guides, exercise and recipe videos and e-learning.

In terms of re-opening plans, we opted to return staff on a phased return to work on a flexi-furlough basis to avoid staff members feeling overwhelmed with such a significant time spent on furlough.

I believe that by remaining in contact meant that the return to work did not feel as daunting as if we were to have little/no contact.


How are you dealing with the huge challenge of getting newly recruited teams trained and ready for opening?

To ensure we were able to avail the widest pool of candidates we made the decision to launch our recruitment campaign early. Although the recruitment and selection of 180 staff was not without its challenges.

As we made the decision that interviews would be completed by senior managers and myself, it meant that middle managers didn’t get to meet the successful applicants prior to their induction. To overcome this barrier, we arranged for managers to “meet” their new team members using Microsoft Teams. We also re-designed our induction programme to comply with Covid restrictions whilst offering an informative and educational experience to allow the staff members to feel part of the family.


Are you concerned that newly recruited people from outside the industry are likely to leave you once other sectors recover? Have you adapted your employee retention strategy to reduce this risk?

A common theme from the interviews was that people of all ages are making life choices. Some candidates used furlough to work on themselves and retrain and others advised they made the decision to pursue what makes them happy and change their career.

I believe that those who have come from a non-hospitality background will quickly see the benefits of this sector and the opportunities it will provide them with, as those who left the industry during the height of the pandemic into other industries have all sought to return to the sector as it provides something that no other can.


What marketing campaigns are you putting in place to attract the staycation market and what impact are you seeing on forward bookings for the summer?

Trends are showing the demand for staycations and we have some amazing experiences to offer in Northern Ireland. I would encourage people to stay local and support the local tourism and hospitality offering that we are renowned for – Embracing our own Giant Spirit.

Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort was among the first hotels in the UK to secure The AA’s Covid Confident mark, and logos such as this are important to include on marketing collateral as they give external verification that the measures we have adopted are best practices and reassures guests and visitors that the resort is safe to visit.  We must remind guests of our Safe Haven and the hygiene measures that we have put in place to quell any apprehension.

Our initial marketing campaigns will be based on The Great Outdoors, as market research indicates that there is a renewed appreciation and appetite for exploring and outdoor activities.

Our initial marketing campaigns will be based on The Great Outdoors, as market research indicates that there is a renewed appreciation and appetite for exploring and outdoor activities.  We are fortunate to have an abundance of space and will leverage our outdoor assets and link to the consumers newfound love of the outdoor and desire for adventure.

Since the announcement of indicative dates by the Northern Ireland Executive, we have seen a positive lift in our booking patterns which would indicate that people are hopeful for the future.

In the short-term our strategy will be to focus on the local market, but we must never lose sight of further afield – we must continue to engage to be at the forefront for when international travel does begin.


At the heart of your local community, you offer a lifeline to small local business.  Without the international traveller the impact will surely be felt amongst them.  How will you encourage the domestic staycation market to engage in what the local community has to offer?

Whilst the pandemic has thrown its fair share of challenges at the industry, it has encouraged change, innovation and collaboration. We have developed new ways to work, new guest experiences and new ways to operate our business.  We all need to pull together to revive and reignite the industry showcasing all those who have missed a year of hotels, theatre, dining out and all the incredible attractions that we have on offer locally.

Whilst the pandemic has thrown its fair share of challenges at the industry, it has encouraged change, innovation and collaboration.

We have introduced an explore page to our website which showcases some of our local tourism experiences, cliffs and castles, cities and the magnificent causeway coastal route.  We need to showcase not just what is on offer at our Resort, but what other experiences there are locally.

The council area in which we reside is also very forward thinking and quickly established a Hospitality and Tourism Task Force of which I am proud to have been selected as Chairperson.  The aim of the task force is to work together to deliver a clear action plan focused on recovery, and to raise the profile of the local tourism economy within Mid & East Antrim.  The action plan is supported by a robust communications and marketing plan.

We also have a tourism cluster in the local area to give a voice to all tourism businesses and to encourage partnerships and joined up thinking.

We are very fortunate to have a very loyal local customer base and thank every one of them for their continued support.


Many businesses have been forced to pivot their offering over the past 12 months; what changes and innovation have you introduced that you are most proud of?

As an internationally renowned luxury resort, we are continually seeking ways to enhance the guest experience, and with the closure of The Resort in March, we had the opportunity to further invest and expand.  We were thrilled to unveil our new, dramatically enhanced Thermal Village provision, representing an investment of more than £2 million in July 2020.  The new expansion project is the latest venture in our investment into The Resort, over the last decade we have undergone a £60 million transformation and there are further plans to invest an additional £20 million by 2025.

From closure on 21st March last year, we started preparing and rehearsing a precision-based approach to reopening which prioritised the health and wellbeing of all our team and our guests. We had developed “Our Hygiene Commitment” which detailed the new enhanced hygiene and standard operating procedures covering every aspect of The Resort.  This was also accompanied with a video which showcased our guest journey in a Covid world.

I am also extremely proud of my team at The Resort who have been resilient throughout the last 12 months.  They have used the time to review, plan and diversify to ensure that we deliver on our promises.  They have remained focussed and engaged throughout this pandemic and is testament to their nature of versatility, willingness and ability to adapt.


For you personally what has been the biggest learning curve over the past 12 months?

2020 was, without doubt, a challenging year despite the early months when the stage was set for a record year. March came around and expectations quickly changed, being thrown into the oblivion of closure. Whilst this alone presented its imminent challenges, it encouraged us to innovate – to seek different ways to work, to engage with supply chains differently to build and nurture relationships.  It was a time of change, a new way to work, this so-called ‘new normal’ but the rollercoaster approach of opening and closing was certainly challenging for both the business and our team.

It’s our people that are at the heart of our business and the opening and closing was extremely challenging and I must commend them for their resilience and adaptability while in the face of adversity.

The experience of 2020 has taught us the lesson to ensure we are always strategic in our thinking for the future in terms of capital and operational planning for any uncertainties that may come our way.


Colin Johnston Galgorm Resort

Colin Johnston

Managing Director, Galgorm Collection

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Colin has more than 25 years of experience in the hospitality industry.  Joining Galgorm Collection in 2001, Colin has held several senior management roles before taking the helm as Managing Director in 2016.  During this time Colin managed the integration of the £60 million development phase at Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort, as well as 2 Belfast City Centre restaurants – the iconic Café Parisien located in the former Robinson & Cleaver building and Fratelli on Great Victoria Street.

More recently Colin spearheaded the development of the £10 million renovations of the formerly known Templeton Hotel, which has been rebranded to The Rabbit Hotel & Retreat and is set to open early this Summer.

The Collection continues to expand with plans for a boutique hotel with a restaurant and bar on the Ormeau Road in Belfast and has aspirations for further hotel acquisitions.  Colin is also on the Board of Directors at Northern Ireland Hotel Federation and chair of Mid and East Antrim Tourism Recovery Task Group in Northern Ireland.