Caroline McComb - a tour de force in the coach business

Caroline McComb
Caroline McComb

Game of Thrones, HBO’s dark ages blockbuster is, unquestionably, massively popular and successful - but it wouldn’t be everyone’s preferred viewing - Caroline McComb included.

The magical, medieval adventure story certainly wasn’t up there on her list of favourite programmes, until the coach tour company she runs with her husband Rodney decided to tap into the ‘set-jetting’ phenomenon and run trips to the Northern Ireland locations featured in the series.

‘‘How Game of Thrones started for us was quite funny,’’ reflects Caroline.

‘‘We were working with a big American agent who sells tours for us and he said ‘Caroline, this Game of Thrones is really, really popular in America - we’ve started selling walking tours in Dubrovnik (the walled city in Croatia is also featured in the US series) and there’s no reason why you couldn’t do the same in Northern Ireland’.’’

However, Caroline admits she wasn’t initially sold on the idea.

‘‘Part of me thought, this will never work, but you’ve got to give everything a chance, so I put a smile on my face and said ‘yes, of course - I’ll have an itinerary ready within the week’.’’

McComb’s Coaches already transported Game of Thrones extras, so over a bottle of wine in their ‘boardroom’, ie, the kitchen table, Caroline and Rodney devised an itinerary, that would take in Ballintoy Harbour, Cushendun, and of course, the iconic, tunnel-like avenue of trees, the Dark Hedges.

Fast movers, the tour was on sale within a week and it proved an instant hit.

‘‘On the very first day of the tour we were full. We couldn’t believe it. I mean, nobody here had even really heard of Game of Thrones - it was all these people overseas who had heard of it - we could barely keep up to the demand for the tours.’’

Caroline confesses that because the company had garnered so much business off the back of the show, she had better gen up on it and see for herself what all the fuss was about.

‘‘I decided to cram in three seasons all in one go,’’ she laughs.

‘‘It wouldn’t be my ideal night - a night in front of the fire with Game of Thrones on, but I certainly appreciate and enjoy what it has brought for us. It has been priceless - it was that real trigger for our business to turn the corner and for people to really get to know our name.

‘‘And it’s funny, when I’m watching it, I can see why people are so enthusiastic about it and do like it so much. I love seeing the scenery. It is just so lovely to see Northern Ireland being projected all over the world and people who are potential visitors here seeing it in glorious technicolour on the biggest TV show in the world.’’

I meet 37-year-old Caroline in a Belfast cafe for a caffeine fix.

In addition to cappuccinos, she admits nice cars and handbags (today’s arm candy is a covetable Gucci number) are her ‘Achilles heel’. But this Portadown-born lady has certainly worked hard for her indulgences.

Speaking candidly, she says: ‘‘I was not a happy child at school. I started work at 13, waitressing in the Seagoe Hotel in Portadown. I was always at school, but it just wasn’t my favourite time - I would rather have been working. I never excelled at school. I was more of a practical kid.’’

Caroline left school at 16 after her GCSEs.

‘‘My mother and father weren’t best pleased at me leaving school then. I had a brother who had gone on to university and I suppose they were quite traditional in their views and thought that was the right thing to do, but I found a travel and tourism course at what was then the Catering College in Portrush and announced to my mum and dad I was leaving home and moving there to do a national diploma in Tourism.’’

The college was a revelation for the young Caroline.

‘‘Where at school I had always been average, I actually felt that for once I had really done well at something.

‘‘I went on to do HND at the Catering College and again did well and absolutely loved it. I really, really loved every minute that I spent there.’’

After college, and at the age of 21, Caroline got a job as the marketing manager for the Youth Hostel Association, She was there for three years and it was while there that she met her now husband, Belfast man Rodney.

‘‘Rodney was running his business out of the youth hostel. He was a taxi driver - but he was hijacked a couple of times and had a couple of grizzly experiences during the troubles.

‘‘He had had a horrible time and had wanted to move on from it and not do that anymore, so he started doing Causeway tours - he had four vehicles by then, all mini-buses, and was sort of dabbling doing Causeway tours and tours of Belfast, but still doing school runs and things like that as well.’’

Around this time, Caroline says she was ‘‘starting to fall out of love’’ with her job in the hostel.

‘‘There was a lot of travelling involved and I really didn’t want to do so much travelling anymore, so we put our heads together and decided to team up.’’

The rest, as they say, is history.

Fourteen years on the McCombs have a fleet of 16 high-spec vehicles and a staff of between 20 and 25. Turnover last year was £1.3 million.

The most popular tour is of the Causeway Coast - last year they took 70,000 passengers.

McComb’s Coaches cut quite a dash across Ulster’s roads. The sleek, luxury vehicles (some costing as much as £250,000) are kitted out with leather seats, toilets, tables, privacy glass - and every mod con you can put in a coach.

‘‘The vehicles now are always bought brand new - we never keep a vehicle more than four to five years,’’ says Caroline.

Last year McComb’s invested £110,000 in a quirky, glass-roofed Mercedes Cabriolet coach - the only one of its kind in Ireland.

Caroline is proud as punch of it (a photograph of it adorns her mobile phone cover).

‘‘It is a touch of class. It is so special, we do tours of Belfast, it was in the Gay Pride parade last year and we’re booked for it this year too. We do private group bookings as well.’’

It also does Search for Santa tours - something, Caroline’s daughter Katelyn, was able to take advantage of.

‘‘My eldest one’s birthday is the week before Christmas so she took great pride in having her party on Search for Santa last year and got terrific bragging rights because of it,’’ she smiles.

The firm has a small office in the International Youth Hostel on the Donegall Road for tour check-ins, a small travel centre in Victoria Square for ticketing and a depot for the coaches in Mallusk.

Over the years the company has added to its portfolio of tours including, most recently a short break to Fermanagh, with a stay at the Killyhevlin, and a Food and Drink tour of Co Down.

But one of Caroline’s favourite tours is to Kildare Village, the chic outlet shopping sensation near Dublin.

Her eyes brighten when she talks about it.

‘‘Oh, we love the Kildare Outlet Village - I love it. It’s a stunning place - the shops in it are terrific. I am a lot poorer for the fact that we do the tour,’’ she laughs

The company’s customer portfolio includes the IFA, the Hastings Hotel Group and schools.

They have transported quite a number of famous people over the years, including singers Bruno Mars and Jessie J, but she doesn’t always get to meet the stars.

‘‘When Take That were here last year - we drove the band and the dancers to and from the Odyssey and took them on a day trip to the Causeway as well.’’

But she didn’t get to meet her musical heros.

‘‘I was raging, because that’s the one group of guys I would have loved to have met,’’ she says ruefully.

The day-to-day running of the business is from the pair’s home in Jordanstown, which she and Rodney share with their two daughters, Katelyn, 11, and Ellen, 10.

Like any busy mum, Caroline admits juggling work and children, and also working from home has it’s challenges, but overall, it’s positive.

‘‘Working from home means that when the children come home from school, they can get their homework done, I can be with them, then go back into the office for a few hours later on.’’

But she concedes: ‘‘It can be difficult getting the separation from work, of course, but when you run your own business sometimes there just is no separation.

‘‘Every year we would be guaranteed to be sitting down to our Christmas dinner and a phone will ring and it’ll be some poor Chinese visitor who is in a hotel somewhere wanting to book a tour for the next day.

‘‘Now we do, of course, see the funny side to things like that - I think if you didn’t have your sense of humour it would be very difficult to cope with some of the things that do come up.’’