When Stephen Gray noticed a dozen Game of Thrones fans, wearing helmets with torches, making their way in the darkness of a winter’s night along the road known as the Dark Hedges, the Northern Irish entrepreneur knew he had to buy the hotel and golf resort at its end.
Gray was driving along the Dark Hedges, so-called because of the tangle of branches formed by the avenue of beech trees near Ballymoney, County Antrim, in late 2014 when he had the lightbulb moment.
After standing in for the Kingsroad on the hit HBO show the public road, originally planted with 150 beech trees as the entrance to the Gracehill House country estate in the 18th century, has become a global tourist magnet.
“That was the moment when I knew this hotel and the ground around had the potential to be part of this globalised product,” Gray said. “If people were prepared to come on to this road at 11.30pm on a cold, dark winter night just to say they were on the Kingsroad, then they would come any time, throughout the year, any season. It was a no-brainer.”
Gray and his Belfast-based business partner Jonathan Gwynn bought the Gracehill House estate in early 2015 and have invested £5m revamping the house itself, the nearby hotel – named The Hedges – and golf course and surrounding grounds, set in 270 acres of Ulster countryside.
He has also bought the Dark Hedges trademark to cash in on Game of Thrones tourism. It is stamped on everything in the Gracehill House complex from Dark Hedges coffee to cider, vodka and gin.
The investment has increased the workforce, from 15 when Gray bought the hotel to 46 today. He is one of a number of Northern Ireland investors and business people hoping to exploit some of the most famous sites where Game of Thrones has been shot since its production located in the region seven years ago.
As Game of Thrones tourists from Spain, the US, France and the…