Business Showcase with Ulster Bank: A touch of fire and whiskey helps tourism navigate the North Coast
The Games of Thrones effect has made its way into a wide range of tourism offerings across Northern Ireland since it first aired over a decade ago.
nd Richard Lafferty has been ferrying tourists and locals around some of fantasy drama’s best-known hotspots for years as part of his Portstewart-based company Aquaholics.
However, the company is also, and has been for years, a leading five-star dive center, as well as a growing business offering boat trips across Ireland and as far away as Scotland.
“We are based on the north coast and operate a five star dive center,” explains Richard. This includes diving for a multitude of skill levels, as well as a wide range of boat trips for the domestic and international tourist market.
“We also offer boat transfers and excursions to places such as the Scottish Islands – both for pleasure and for business.”
Richard started the business around 25 years ago and has continued to grow and develop during this time, alongside his banking partner Ulster Bank.
This saw him invest in a range of new boats over the years as the business continued to grow.
“Business diversity has so many factors that we have [so much] on the north coast – geology, wildlife, movies and television.
“We also have various boat tours – behind the scenes of how things are made.”
Visits can be scheduled or potential visitors can join others. Richard says many of those taking advantage of the tours come from outside Northern Ireland, booking private charters. “We can really organize the trip to suit all needs,” says Richard.
Another area it has expanded into is day trips to Scottish islands like Islay and Iona.
The former is home to some of the biggest whiskey producers in the world and the company offers a much quicker way to get there.
“We have invested in a new boat in 2021 and it is an idea for the trip,” says Richard. “It has 14 suspended seats and is sheltered. It also has heating, air conditioning and a toilet.
“It allowed us to go further – for distilleries, birdwatching. We can do them in a day.
And Richard says the tourism market has definitely come back, even surpassing pre-pandemic levels.
“Covid has changed the market a lot,” he says. “A lot of our locals realized what they had on their doorstep – there’s a lot more activity going on.
“We are now above Covid levels and last year has been extremely busy. We are flat at the moment.
Richard and his company have also worked closely with Ulster Bank over the years on investment and expansion.
“We have worked with Ulster Bank for some time and they have helped us invest in new boats and facilities – we have bought between nine and ten boats over the years. Customer requirements are getting higher and higher, so we get the most out of the boats.
Small businesses are the engine of the economy
By Rhonda McClelland, Business Development Manager, Ulster Bank
The continuing rise in the cost of living is having an impact never seen before on individuals, families and businesses across Northern Ireland. Inflation has topped double digits and as the winter months approach, there is no doubt that pressures are mounting.
We know from experience that when consumers start to tighten their belts, they do so in areas such as retail and hospitality. Dining out, travel, and new outfits become harder to justify when there’s a squeeze on disposable income, and many will try to forgo those little treats in order to cover the essentials.
What could this mean for the many SMEs in these sectors? Working around the North Coast, I understand the importance of the tourism sector and see daily the number of jobs and livelihoods it supports. But I also see the challenges these companies face, especially in terms of rising energy costs.
Although we have yet to see an increase in the number of business customers contacting us for assistance, there is no doubt that many are finding it difficult. Our parent company, NatWest Group, recently announced a support package to help with the rising cost of living and it’s welcome to see that this includes a number of measures for business customers.
Group-wide, more than 2.7 million retail and business banking customers were proactively contacted and provided with assistance and cost-of-living information. We have launched an online Cost of Living platform to share resources and tools and inform customers of the range of assistance available to them through the bank and our partner organisations.
The bank has pledged not to increase published fees for business current accounts over the next 12 months and is considering sector support where it is most needed, for example agricultural customers who are facing impacts extremes on supply costs and profit margins. .
Amidst all the challenges, we also strive to help our customers seek out opportunities and want to ensure that as many SMEs as possible can realize the net benefits of carbon reduction efforts and innovation.
As such, we have lowered the threshold for our green loan offering, which means even more businesses can access the financing they need to support their transition to more sustainable business practices, thereby reducing costs. long-term.
SMEs, such as Richard and his team at Aquaholics, are the engine of our economy in Northern Ireland and Ulster Bank believes it has a clear role to play in supporting these customers. As the situation evolves, we will continue to monitor and anticipate their needs, ensuring we have the right measures in place to provide meaningful assistance for what matters.