Ciarán Busby interviews the one and only Kevin Quinn of HenandStagSligo.ie
Can you tell us about yourself and how you got to where you are today?
My name is Kevin Quinn and I am from the class of BComm ’95 UCD and MBS ’96 Smurfit School of Business. After the completion of my studies, I travelled around North America for nine months and returned to Sligo in mid-1997 to take up a position in our family’s core business which is in the hospitality sector, primarily the licensed and late night trade. I have been involved in a full-time capacity since then and have enjoyed both the boom times and the expansion and diversification of our business operations, battled through the recessionary times with both the rationalisation and consolidation it entailed and also the search for new opportunities.
During the recession, we were looking for different ways to generate revenue. We were aware that towns like Carrick-on-Shannon in Leitrim and Westport in Mayo had a thriving business catering for the hen and stag market. Sligo wasn’t really performing in this market but we knew it was very well placed to compete here. Sligo is widely known as the Adventure Capital of Ireland so there are countless activities that would be perfect for hens and stags. We started developing www.HenandStagSligo.ie in 2014 and had it ready for the 2015 season.
What have you found to be instrumental in the success of the business?
The primary focus for the hen and stag part of our business was to market heavily in Ireland and Northern Ireland in order to put Sligo in their minds as a possible destination. Given the nature of the business, all available online tools were instrumental in our marketing plan. We used social media, YouTube, and Google Display for brand-awareness marketing and Google Search for more targeted searches. It was tricky at first to get the right combination but once we had it right, it proved invaluable to generating business for us.
“The four years I spent in both Belfield and Blackrock undoubtedly gave me the foundations for a solid career.”
What sort of challenges have you encountered, and how have you overcome them?
There were two big challenges for us (and Sligo) getting a foothold in the Hen and Stag market. Firstly, it was difficult to convince the existing package providers to include Sligo as a destination. They already had deals with other towns which were working for them so they were reluctant to change. Secondly, the package providers who were working with Sligo were looking for a lot, but willing to pay a little, so it made the business unprofitable for us. It was mainly due to these challenges that we decided to start our own site and basically cut out the middleman. While it involved significantly more work on our side, it did give us full control over the level of service provided to our customer from start to finish.
How do you advertise your business and how did you get help with advertising initially?
The main mediums for advertising are Google and Facebook. We have tried the more traditional forms of radio and newspaper but quickly found them less suited to our type of business given we are online. My brother Fergal has always had a keen interest in IT and quickly learned about designing advertising accounts on both Google and Facebook. He went on a number of courses and found endless amounts of information online that helped him become proficient here. He handles the advertising side of the business on a day to day basis and keeps a close eye on performance reports.
What makes your company unique? Do you feel that being unique is essential in today’s business climate?
Our Hen and Stag business is unique in that we package hens and stags to generate business for our core businesses, which involve bars, a restaurant, and a nightclub, rather than profiting from packaging which most of the companies in the market do. This allows us to price our packaging well below a lot of our competitors. This pricing advantage certainly helped us initially get the company off the ground. From the start, we have had a very strong focus on customer service. We are also one of few companies that have a team of people on the ground at the weekend to look after parties. This one-on-one service really goes down well with parties and is instrumental in us achieving 5-star reviews from our customers and getting repeat business down the line.
“There are always opportunities for the eager entrepreneur no matter how the economy is, and a keen astute entrepreneur will thrive.”
What are your responsibilities as a business owner?
Our core business in hospitality employs nearly 80 people so we have a strong responsibility to the staff and ourselves as business owners to run our business to the best of our abilities. We need to be able to adapt to changes in business and even try to identify changes in advance. We have some very loyal customers and we are responsible for keeping up a very high level of customer service and delivering a great product. Our business definitely fits the tagline ‘if you’re standing still, you’re going backwards!’ so we always like to be forward-thinking in order to stay ahead of the curve.
Do you feel as though your company helps the community it is based in?
I think our business and our staff most certainly help our community in many ways. Our primary business has been in operation for almost 40 years and effectively has operated as an SME giving valued employment to our loyal staff members. The Hen and Stag business unit works closely with other business owners and organisations in Sligo, and we feel this adds a definite quantifiable boost to the local economy. One area in which our businesses are particularly active is with festivals and we help organise a number of large music festivals in Sligo each year. I am an ex-President of Sligo Chamber of Commerce, an active member of Team Sligo assisting with the promotion of Sligo and also help out in the Sligo Tidy Towns.
How long did the process take to become established? Who helped the business to get where it is now?
HenandStagSligo.ie took about one year of development before we launched it. My brother Fergal was instrumental on the technical end of things and I mainly worked on establishing relationships with all the many suppliers we work with. We have well over 100 suppliers that we deal with in Sligo and we send six-figure levels of business to some on a yearly basis. On the IT end of things, my brother had a company in Pakistan working on developing a database system to manage bookings. It is incredible how the internet has allowed us to source expertise from all over the world.
To what do you attribute your success?
The four years I spent in both Belfield and Blackrock undoubtedly gave me the foundations for a solid career particularly in the strategic management in my business and the professionalism to deal with the various aspects of running an SME in a provincial town. However, I firmly believe in the college of life and that ‘every day is a school day,’ in that I am always open to learning something new. I liken it to the Japanese principle of Kaizen and continuous improvement.
I reminisce sometimes about my days in Belfield and the use of the computer room! I left college in ’96 and the iPhone was not released until ’06 and look how far we have come now. Advances in technology have been crucial to the setting up of HenandStagSligo.ie and, to be honest, it would have been much more difficult without the online platforms for group management and even marketing.
How did you uncover mistakes during the start-up process and how would you advise others to learn from these mistakes?
We bring many hundreds of people into Sligo most weekends. We organise everything from accommodation, meals, transfers, and activities so there is quite a lot of variables to have right. Sometimes a simple mistake like an incorrect bus time can snowball into a very bad experience for a party. We quickly realised after some minor mistakes that we really need to ensure we are 100% organised every single weekend. We invested heavily in IT systems and this really allowed us to scale our business with confidence. We also have a team of people on the ground every weekend to ensure everything goes smoothly for all our parties.
Do you have any tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?
When I finished my studies, I entered the workplace at the start of the 10-year strong economic growth, the “Celtic Tiger.” Business was strong and everything was positive, there was an air of infallibility to our economy. We, like a lot of people, diversified into areas of industry that were outside the scope of our core business and when the recession hit, it knocked the wind out of our sails and took a number of years to recover from.
There are always opportunities for the eager entrepreneur no matter how the economy is, and a keen astute entrepreneur will thrive. Most students now are studying for careers in areas of industry that may not have even been created yet.
However, I would advise not to overstretch yourself and to stick to what you know, what you are excellent at and what compliments your core business. It was for this reason that our strategy shifted towards an area of the market that would complement our core business with definite synergies.