In a new feature for our monthly newsletter, we’re giving students the chance to pose their questions to our experienced graduates.
This month, Ulster alumnus, Michael Stewart answers questions from second year Business Economics undergraduate, Jillian Linton-Walsh.
Michael Stewart: Diploma in Management Practice and BA Hons Geography & History, Jordanstown.
Michael is currently in his second term as President of Belfast Chamber and has over 35 years’ experience in the hospitality industry under his belt. A potted history of his achievements is like a whistle-stop nostalgia tour of much-loved hotspots. General Manager at Bob Cratchits and the Fly; Operations Manager at Botanic Inns with responsibility for six of its outlets: Apartment, The Fly, The Northern Whig, The Globe, Ryan’s, and Madison’s; Operations Director for Ultimate Leisure Group PLC with responsibility for eight venues: Bambu Beach Club, Bar Bacca, Irene & Nans, La Lea, Advocate, Potthouse, Destiny in Glasgow and Blu Bambu in Cork.
After being made redundant in 2003 he created Bar Czar Limited, a consultancy to the hospitality industry which he still owns and operates today. Michael was a director and co-owner of The Hudson in Smithfield for five years and a director in House Belfast for four years. He is currently working with Common Market in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.
Jillian is a second year Business Economics undergraduate with a strong interest in business, economics, marketing and hospitality. A mature student, FinTrU Women in Finance Scholarship recipient, and award-winning bartender, Jillian is pursuing opportunities to enhance and combine her hospitality management background and academic studies.
Jillian: What was your first job after graduating? How did you get it, and did it help you get where you are now?
Michael: I graduated in 1983 with a Geography and History degree. I had plans to become a teacher but that faded out as I progressed though Uni. I worked in Marks & Spencer while at university and continued there after graduating until 1986.
I moved to London for a while and worked in a magazine company but returned to Belfast in 1987 for my first “big” job which was General Manager of Bob Cratchits on the Lisburn Road. I was asked to attend for an interview by my good friend Pim Dalm who now owns The Clandeboye Lodge. He was a consultant for Guinness Northern Ireland at the time and Bob Cratchits was one of his projects. I attended the interview and was offered the role. This was the start of my hospitality journey.
I was GM for 10 years and this is where I cut my teeth and learnt the skills of the trade at the coalface and working with some great people. Many of these folk I am still in contact with 35 years later. Bob Cratchits was pivotal in my career in hospitality. It all started from there, no question about it!!
Jillian: Tell us about your career path and what made you choose hospitality?
Michael: Really like a lot of folk, I fell into hospitality, it wasn’t on my radar to start. The experience at Bob Cratchits really cemented my love for hospitality and it all went downhill from there!
Working in the hospitality world isn’t all about the money or the hours, it’s about the people. People as in customers and employees. If you are not a people person, then you need to ask yourself the question is hospitality really for me?
I am a strong people person and although there have been serious challenges over my career it is this strength that has kept me in the industry for 35 years.
Jillian: In your industry, how have the challenges facing new graduates changed since you left Ulster University?
Michael: I graduated in 1983. The changes have been immense, too many to mention here, but I will highlight the most important as I see it.
Back in the 80’s we were in the midst of the troubles. Operating a business with all the challenges that the troubles presented was challenging, dangerous and difficult. But it was FUN! Over the years I feel a lot of the fun has left the industry and it has become strictly business only. We all need to operate our business professionally, but we still need to have fun.
Costs were much less back in 1983 and hospitality to many represented good value for money. Today some people don’t perceive hospitality as good value, even though in most cases it is. For some it is seen as a luxury.
Competing industries and technology are more abundant now than back in the day. More choice means more opportunity which leads to better conditions at work.
The obvious P word, Pandemic, has to play a part in graduates deciding if hospitality is the career for them or not, but less graduates are entering our industry today and we have to ask ourselves why.
Jillian: What skills or traits should I develop to help me succeed in your industry?
Michael: Lots and lots, but for me there are a few that should stay with you forever. Pride, passion, enthusiasm, integrity, honesty, communication and stamina - both mentally and physically. Develop these and respect will come naturally.
Jillian: What’s the best job decision you ever made and why?
Michael: Joining Botanic Inns Limited in 1998. I got the opportunity to work with a lot of great people on a journey to create a group of bars that would be a game changer in Belfast. This company was led by the trail blazing Jaz Mooney, another graduate of Ulster University. I cut my teeth with Bob Cratchits but those teeth matured and grew stronger at Botanic Inns under the leadership of Jaz.
Jillian: What’s the best piece of advice someone has given you?
Michael: That we are on this earth not to see through each other but to see each other through if we can. It’s nice to be nice.
Jillian: What’s the best bit of advice you could give someone wanting to work in hospitality?
Michael: Research the company you are going to work for. Know what the job entails so there are no shocks when you arrive. Find a mentor. Enjoy, smile, talk and engage with customers and staff and the good stuff will follow.
I always quote the Botanic Inns Mission Statement: “To share a common goal with customer and employee. To listen. To talk. To share. To deliver.”
Jillian: Which has been more valuable in your career, education or experience?
Michael: Simple answer - experience, no explanation required.
Jillian: Tell us about a time when things didn’t go quite as planned. What did you learn from the experience?
Michael: My position was made redundant in 2003 with Ultimate Leisure. I took it personally at the time but later realised I shouldn’t have, it’s the way of business. It spurred me on to create Bar Czar Ltd and become self-employed. I remain self-employed to this day. There is life after redundancy.
Jillian: How do you think the hospitality industry here will change long-term as a result of the pandemic?
Michael: Noone really knows the answer. The industry will learn to adapt like many other sectors have already done so, and will do so in the future. The working week seems to have changed for many already with a shorter working week of Wednesday to Sunday. This may well change as the offices and other sectors plan a safe return for their employees.
Customers will demand value for money especially in the cost-of-living crisis that we currently find ourselves in. Customers have become more savvy. They might drink less but they will drink better. In other words, they will trade up for a more premium experience.
Visiting a hospitality venue now and in the future is no longer about the price or quality of the food and beverage offered. It is about the overall experience. People want an experience not just a visit or a night out.
Jillian: What trends do you see happening in the future of hospitality?
Michael: A number of customers now want a different experience. Street food offers and venues appear to be starting to come to prominence. That is why I got involved with Common Market.
As I mentioned earlier, it will be all about the overall experience, not just the food and beverage. The working culture will change. Employers will need to think constructively around retention of staff. It is no longer about the money. Work life balance, health cover and other “perks” will play a much more important role in the decision to accept a position or not.
People will still want to go out and socialise face to face as opposed to Zoom etc., it’s in our DNA. We just need to be up for the challenges that lie ahead.
Jillian: What’s next in the pipeline for you?
Michael: Heading towards a graceful exit and retirement in the not-so-distant future. If I reach that time, then I will have had over 40 years in an industry that I live and breathe. I sit on a number of boards and will continue to do so. And there’s still lots of development to take pace at Common Market so that will keep me busy – the future is not cancelled!