The Quinn family is well known in Sligo for their entrepreneural spirit and Fergal Quinn is no different. Fergal and his brother, Kevin, got their first taste of running a business when they were teenagers and helping out in the family businesses, which now includes The Embassy Steakhouse Restaurant, Lola Montez niteclub, Hen and Stag Sligo, a snooker hall and three pubs (the Bourbon Bar, the Belfry and Kennedy’s).
However, initially Fergal decided to pursue a different career. After studying Maths and Economics in Trinity College, he worked with Deutsche Bank in London before coming home to Sligo in 2000 to work in the family business. He had a few great years in the nightclub, pub and restaurant during the boom times, but after the recession things began to change. This encouraged Fergal to add a new business-generating wing – a hen and stag party booking service – to the family business. Fergal and his brother Kevin set up henandstagsligo.ie
In May 2014 and it has since established itself as a one-stop-shop for hens and stags coming to the North-West.
1. Can you tell us where you live now and why you like it?
I live in Sligo now after spending nearly eight years between Dublin and London. I was born here and moved to Dublin for college when I was 18. It’s a great town with loads to do for those who like the outdoors. I am a keen mountain biker and there are lots of great trails all over Sligo. I also enjoy running and it’s great to have two fantastic beaches less than 10 minutes away where I can run.
From a business perspective, there is a lot of ‘working together’ here which is great to see and probably a lot more than a few years ago. The economic downturn was a great catalyst to get people collaborating on events and projects that would bring people in to town so that we all benefit. We have numerous great festivals each year like Sligo Summer Festival, Strandhill Surf Festival and the Yeats International Summer School to name a few.
2. When did you start your business and what inspired you to do this?
Our core business was started by my parents over 30 years ago and has grown to now include three bars, a restaurant, snooker rooms and a nightclub. Myself and my brother Kevin run the day to day business now and we started the website Hen and Stag Sligo henandstagsligo.ie back in 2014.
The pub and nightclub business has changed quite a bit over the past decade and we were looking for new avenues to generate business. We noticed that some towns like Carrick-on-Shannon and Westport weathered the downturn a bit better than Sligo due to them being quite popular hen and stag destinations. Sligo was not seen as a ‘go to’ destination for this market but we knew it was perfectly positioned to capitalise here given the huge amount of activities you can do in the adventure capital of Ireland.
3. What were your start-up costs? How did you get the money, and what did you use it for?
Start-up costs were about €20,000 and it was financed through our main business. We used this primarily for the front-end website, back-end database systems and payment processing. The website is where all the content is and it’s our shop window for the customer, so we had to make sure it was designed right. We were conscious of having the right content to attract customers and the right structure for search engine optimisation.
We also had to design a bespoke database system that managed all our bookings. This is probably the most important spend for us as it contains every single piece of information relating to our bookings from accommodations to meals to transfers. We got a company in Pakistan to build this system. Lastly, we have a system to manage the online payments for all our groups. This has proven really popular with our customers as it really takes the hassle out of collecting money from everybody going on a hen or stag party.
4. Where is your market? How have you targeted international markets?
Our market is primarily Ireland and Northern Ireland. We get about 50% of our business from the Northern market and 50% from Ireland. It used to be slightly higher from the Northern market but I think the recent move in the value of sterling may have impacted here. Our target market is really about 150 miles radius of Sligo so it’s great to be able to target this exact area on both Google and Facebook.
We are considering targeting the UK market, particularly the cities that fly into Ireland West Airport which is only 35 minutes away from Sligo. Once again online advertising makes it quite straightforward to target all the major cities that have routes to Ireland-West.
5. How long did it take you to get your business off the ground?
Our first year was 2015 and it was really a case of learning the business. We were fortunate that bookings started as soon as we launched the website and have being growing since. In our first year, we would have had some weekends managing 100 people coming in to Sligo. We thought this was a lot at the time. This is now a quiet weekend for us and we hope to be bringing 400-500 people in on peak weekends this year. We have had extremely strong growth from the start and the first quarter of 2018 is looking like it’s about 50% percent ahead of 2017, so the momentum is continuing.
6. How did you learn and acquire the skills you use to make your business successful?
I always had a strong interest in computers. My undergrad in Maths included some programming courses which came in handy. However, the biggest part of the hen and stag business is customer service which is the same foundation as pubs and restaurants. We are in the business of customer service as we try to ensure the customer experience with us is fantastic from start to finish. It’s the fundamental principle of the service industry – we work very hard on ensuring our customers are happy.
7. How do you promote your business?
Since our business is online, it is natural that most of our marketing efforts are focused online. Our two main advertising platforms are Google and Facebook. We had a small amount of radio advertising in the past, but we now just focus online. We probably use Facebook more for brand awareness and Google for the more targeted advertising. The combination of both are best for any online business.
8. If you had it to do over again, what, if anything, would you do differently?
There is a huge amount of support for new business and it’s something we weren’t fully aware of in the early days. We have taken on employees through the JobsPlus programme and developed software solution with assistance from the Local Enterprise Board. We have also had huge support from Sligo Leader for a large marketing campaign. There is a huge amount of support out there – I wish I knew about this at the start.
9. What do you love most about being your own boss? What are the drawbacks?
I suppose the fact that it’s easier to run with your ideas rather than get them passed by someone else. Drawbacks are higher stress levels and it can be difficult to switch off.
10. What should happen in the West of Ireland to support self-employment / entrepreneurship?
Financial supports are an obvious area that helps business. We have got a lot of support from various bodies which has really helped us develop our business. From a business owner based in the North West of Ireland, I think the single most important issue is infrastructure. Whether it is for attracting new business to the area or attracting tourists to our town, Sligo requires a motorway from Dublin.
11. How does the cost of living in Sligo compare with where you previously lived?
It’s definitely a lot more affordable in Sligo compared to Dublin or London. Property prices are much more affordable here. It’s gone mad again in Dublin and it’s very difficult to get a foot on the property ladder. There’s loads of great properties in Sligo.
12. What are the main advantages and disadvantages of relocating / living in the West in terms of working and living?
The main advantage has to be quality of life. Commute time to work is nearly non-existent and there is a huge amount of things to keep the work-life balance in sync. While the scope to scale a business within the pub/club scene is clearly greater in big cities, I think the business is more personal in smaller towns like Sligo. It’s also great to be able to finish work and be out surfing or mountain biking within 20 minutes.
13. How do you find accessibility to where you live and access to public transport / road networks / airports?
There is no doubt accessibility to Sligo needs improvement, particularly the road network. The train link between Dublin and Sligo is good but there is scope to re-introduce the Western Rail Corridor. Ireland West Airport is a huge asset to the area and it really opens up the UK market to Sligo – we just need to advertise effectively to capture this market.
14. Why do you love Sligo? What are your top tips for any visitors to where you live?
I love going out on a Sunday to Strandhill. It’s a really popular area with some great pubs/restaurants/walks and they have a fantastic market every Sunday in one of the hangers of the Airport.
15. What advice would you give to anybody thinking about a life in the West?
If you have an opportunity to move back to the west, I would definitely highly recommend it. For me, Sligo has some fantastic opportunities and a real vibrancy about it. We have an incredible Institute of Technology that is expanding every year and a host of great primary and secondary schools. We’ve a newly built centre of excellence for GAA and a great Rugby Club that has numerous players representing Connacht. There is an endless amount of things to do for the adventure enthusiasts like surfing, mountain biking and coasteering – it’s easy to see why Sligo is known as the Adventure Capital of Ireland.
For more about Kevin and Fergal’s business, visit henandstagsligo.ie