Thursday 21 September 2017

Dromoland's €20m revamp tees up US golf tourism drive

Five-star castle hotel resort is upping its game to attract high net-worth visitors, writes Simon Rowe

Dromoland Castle managing director Mark Nolan says it has continued to invest and is targeting an extra €500,000 a year in golf revenue
Dromoland Castle managing director Mark Nolan says it has continued to invest and is targeting an extra €500,000 a year in golf revenue

Simon Rowe

Dromoland Castle is putting the finishing touches to a €20m investment project that aims to put the hotel at the top of the golf tourism leaderboard, as well as cementing its global reputation.

Managing director Mark Nolan, a self-described "Dub from Donnybrook", has been overseeing 'Project Dromoland' at the luxury Co Clare hotel and golf resort for more than two years.

Nolan, with 29 years' service at the hotel, said the investment and restoration programme was vital to keep pace with the demands of its five-star guest clientele. It will also ensure Dromoland is not outshone by nearby rivals Ashford Castle and the soon-to-be reopened Adare Manor, which have both benefited from massive investment.

Attracting high-net-worth visitors from North America, especially those seeking a unique "castle and golf holiday experience" is Dromoland's USP. About 60pc of Dromoland Castle's annual revenue comes from North American guests.

The current investment programme is about Dromoland upping its golf tourism game with the installation of new pathways around the hotel's 18-hole parkland course, the purchase of a fleet of new golf buggies, and a golf academy.

The hotel has also spent millions on upgrading rooms, wifi, air conditioning, and water and energy systems - all deemed necessary to bring the castle and ancestral home of the O'Briens, Barons of Inchiquin, into the 21st century.

And with Shannon Airport just 15 minutes' drive away, the hotel is ideally located to appeal to cash-rich, time-poor US golf tourists.

Nolan says the hotel is targeting €1.7m in revenues from its golf course alone, with the upgrade bringing in a projected extra €500,000 a year.

Dromoland offers visitors who fly in on the 'red eye' from North America a fast-track package with direct transfers to Dromoland, a quick turnaround that allows them to freshen up and enjoy a hearty full Irish breakfast, before heading out to tee-off on the course.

In a major boost to Dromoland's golfing credentials, the course hosted this year's PGA Irish Club Professional Tournament earlier this month.

"We would like to be seen as a base for golfers," said Nolan. "If they come in on the 'red eye' from the US, the early flight into Shannon Airport, we pick them up, get them to a shower room, give them breakfast, and then they can head up to our floodlit golf academy and be out on our course playing very quickly. Lahinch golf course is 30 minutes from here. Doonbeg is 40 minutes away. And Ballybunion in Tralee is 90 minutes away. We think there is a big opportunity there for us."

It won't have escaped Nolan's attention that Dromoland is about to face stiff competition on its own doorstep when Limerick's five-star Adare Manor, which is undergoing a €50m revamp funded by billionaire owner JP McManus, is due to reopen later this year.

The JP McManus Pro-Am is due to make a comeback on Adare's grounds in 2018 on a revamped course billed as the 'Augusta of Europe'.

Up the road in Cong, Co Mayo, five-star Ashford Castle also recently underwent a €100m restoration and received acres of free publicity for hosting Rory McIlroy's recent A-list wedding.

Indeed, the McIlroy effect has been a boon to Dromoland. "It certainly hasn't done any harm to castle hotel enquiries in Ireland," said Nolan.

Dromoland's boss is keenly aware of what his rivals are doing, referring to "telephone number amounts of money" being bandied about.

But he points out that over the years, even in the recession, Dromoland always reinvested.

"We've always been fortunate in that we had a proactive board of directors who have always invested. Even in the toughest years we'd spend maybe €1m a year in upgrading. A lot of properties missed out on that during the recession and they cut back. But we didn't, we kept on investing. So this programme of investment isn't as significant as other hotels, when you hear the kind of telephone numbers involved elsewhere," he said.

Nolan, an investor and board member of Dromoland Castle Holdings, has made a massive success of the luxury resort, nestled on a stunning 330-acre lakeside site in Newmarket-on-Fergus.

Business is good at Dromoland. It achieves a year-round occupancy of about 72pc from its range of 98 rooms - including six top-end suites and 18 state rooms. Between now and October, the hotel has a confirmed occupancy level of 90pc - an impressive figure in the five-star sector.

In the most recent company accounts filed by Dromoland Castle Holdings Ltd, profits surged in 2015 as turnover climbed from €17.3m to €19.5m.

The firm recorded a pre-tax profit of €1.29m, and operating profit jumped from €491,314 to €1.4m. The firm also operates the Inn at Dromoland which it bought in 2012 for €2.1m.

Between the Castle and the Inn at Dromoland the firm employs over 400 staff. A further 250 jobs have been created by the renovation project.

John O'Brien, chairman of the board of directors of Dromoland Castle, insists that Dromoland's €20m restoration project is about protecting the castle's past while ensuring the hotel's future.

"The project has been carried out in harmony with the authentic integrity of such a historic destination, with a view to delivering on the highest benchmarks of comfort and modernity required by our guests. The hotel continues to prosper and is in an excellent financial position."

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