Northern Irish entrepreneur Stephen Gray tells The National about his plans to create a Dark Hedges resort
Hedge Funds: Cashing in on Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones fever has swept the globe like wildfire and for one savvy Northern Irish entrepreneur, the opportunity to cash in on the TV show’s popularity proved too good to be missed.
Back in 2015, Stephen Gray bought the Gracehill House estate that stands at the end of the so-called “Dark Hedges” – an atmospheric tunnel of beech trees in County Antrim that has become one of the most iconic filming locations in the hit HBO series, representing the Kingsroad.
“As I saw more and more people turning up to view the Dark Hedges, I knew there was an opportunity,” he told The National.
“I was driving back from a rugby match with one of my sons at 11.30pm at night, and there were fans out with head torches, looking at the trees. And I just said to myself – I can see where this is going.”
The following year, he bought the neighbouring hotel, and he also picked up the Dark Hedges trademark, which is now stamped over all of the products on the estate, from coffee to cider to gin.
Mr Gray was convinced that Game of Thrones’ huge appeal would provide a consistent stream of tourists to the site, and that hunch has so far proved correct. Northern Ireland’s tourist board estimates there have been 250,000 visitors to the Dark Hedges this year alone, and while the lion’s share is from Europe, there has been a recent uptick in tourists traveling from further afield, including Asia and the Middle East.
“We’ve had visitors from every corner of the globe,” he said. “There are very few things that could challenge the popularity of the show. If we can develop the Dark Hedges brand on the back of Game of Thrones, you’re looking at something that is already global which you can then commercialise and manage.”
Together with his business partner Jonathan Gwynn, Mr Gray has invested £5 million revamping the sprawling estate, hotel and surrounding grounds, spread over 270 acres of land.
Turnover is currently around £1.2 million and the company is on track to break even in the next financial year, although further capital investment is required to deliver Mr Gray’s full vision for the estate. He envisages adding a spa, additional accommodation, a whiskey distillery and new activities – essentially creating a “Dark Hedges resort”, which he believes will be a tourist magnet for years to come.
“We wanted to make the Dark Hedges a tourist experience, as opposed to simply arriving at a road in the countryside, having a look at the trees and then driving away,” he said. “We want people to come and stay at the estate, and then explore the surroundings, because we are very close to a lot of the other key Game of Thrones filming locations.
“We meet people from all over the world, so you can see the reach that the series has. And that’s why we want to invest further in developing our master plan so it becomes a visitor experience as opposed to just a flying visit.”
Jobs have grown quickly, from 15 when Mr Gray took over the estate, to 50 now. “We will confidently be able to double that number in the next couple of years, once we get our plans through, and we’re able to add the additional rooms and activities on the estate,” he said.
The government of Northern Ireland is also keen to capitalise on the fantasy drama.
“Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland have both gotten behind Game of Thrones very strongly. Both of them are keen to sell ‘Northern Ireland PLC’ on a global scale, and the TV show is probably one of the biggest hooks that’s encouraging visitors.”
Northern Ireland Screen, which helps fund the filming of the series, estimates it has brought almost £150 million into the local economy since production began in 2010.
In a way, Game of Thrones is doing to Northern Ireland what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand. That magical trilogy was filmed in locations across the rugged country and is also widely credited to have raised the number of annual visitors – or “Tolkien tourists”, as fans of the books and films are known.
Mr Gray says the tourism boost should be welcomed. “It’s not a bad thing that we are generating employment and trying to make money on the back of a very successful TV series. That’s a big, big positive.”
The final season of Game of Thrones is set to air in mid-2018. But Mr Gray has no doubt about the ongoing tourism pull, even after that date.
“Look at the show Friends. It was not even as popular as Game of Thrones, but it’s still on TV every day. In Ireland, you have examples like the Quiet Man – a film that was made 60 years ago, but is still attracting visitors to this day.
“The key is to develop other activities, and build a bigger offering on the back of the show’s popularity. Then it will become about a lot more than simply visiting a site of interest.”
Given Game of Thrones has a worldwide appeal, does the Dark Hedges have the same plans for worldwide domination? "Never say never," Mr Gray smiles.
“We’d love to roll the Dark Hedges out to many other places around the globe. We want to export the brand, the estate, Northern Ireland PLC as far as we possibly can.”