Hidden in the hills of Donegal is a marriage made in hotel heaven
Deirdre McGlone and her husband Marc have something truly magical in their lakeshore oasis
Most tourists who visit Ireland explain that among the things that impress them most about their stay here, is the natural beauty of our scenery and the genuine warmth of the people. But like many other businesses in recent years, the hotel and hospitality sector has had its fair share of hard times.
With this in mind, I took a trip to beautiful Donegal to visit one of Ireland's leading hotels and to try and get an understanding of what business is like for them now.
Located just 10 minutes drive from Donegal town, on the shores of Lough Eske and at the foot of the Blue Stack Mountains, Harvey's Point Resort Hotel is certainly something special.
The winding roads that lead me the last few miles to the hotel and the surrounding lake, trees and mountains all conspire seamlessly to create the perfect hidden oasis.
Run by Deirdre McGlone and her Swiss-born husband Marc Gysling, the hotel has won many awards - it has been voted the No 1 hotel in Ireland by TripAdvisor's army of reviewers for both 2013 and 2014, as well being ranking sixth in TripAdvisor's 'Best Hotel in Europe' and 22nd in the 'Best Hotel in the World'.
I've only just arrived and already I'm beginning to understand why. Noel Cunningham, the hotel's general manager, is immediately on hand and greets me with a warm smile and a friendly handshake. Before long Deirdre appears. She too is brimming with zest and enthusiasm.
"Is everyone here as friendly as you pair," I ask playfully.
"They are of course. Sure it doesn't cost anything to smile," she replies in a chirpy and upbeat tone.
Consisting of 64 rooms and suites, Harvey's Point has a real family feel to it. This is a significant year too for the hotel as they are celebrating their 25th year in business.
Deirdre explains that their customers are drawn mostly from the Irish leisure market. These consist of couples taking a break away together, as well as individuals and groups who come to participate in some of the many activities available in the area such as golf, angling, hiking, surfing and even painting courses. Many others simply come to unwind.
"We also have a thriving wedding business and a growing conference trade," adds Deirdre as she give me the grand tour. I discover that all the staff are indeed as friendly and engaging as she promised.
The decor is warm and soothing and the traditional turf fires throughout create an earthy smell and a homely feel. The ballroom is large and has been exquisitely laid out for a wedding the following day. The bar is a subtle mix between trendy and classical and the restaurant, with its open kitchen, has some magnificent views of the lough. The bedrooms are possibly the largest in the country.
Marc then joins Deirdre and me for lunch. However, she soon excuses herself and heads on a tour of all the tables in the restaurant, welcoming guests who have arrived and thanking those who are leaving, with an invitation to come back soon again.
It's easy to see that Deirdre loves what she does. Love too, has played a major part in how she and Marc ended up owning the hotel.
Harvey's Point was originally the brainchild of her now brother-in-law, Jody Gysling. He first visited Donegal in 1983, fell in love with the place and bought an old cottage on 20 acres of land.
Over time, Jody did up the cottage and extended it to cater for an increasing number of Swiss friends who loved to come to fish, walk and drink his beer. So frequent were their visits, that Jody built a small guesthouse.
Before he knew it, his guest house had turned into a 20- bedroom hotel with a bar.
Realising that he needed help, Jody reached out to his younger brother Marc, who was living in Switzerland, and invited him to come over and help him run the place.
Marc started out in the kitchen doing everything from scrubbing pots to helping the chef prepare and cook the food. He quickly found that he had a talent in the kitchen and by 1995 had taken over as head chef.
Deirdre had grown up not far from the hotel. Throughout her teenage years she worked part time in local bars and restaurants. After completing a course in European Studies and languages at University of Limerick, she returned home for a summer break and was invited by Jody and Marc to help out in the hotel during the busy season.
"I never envisaged for one moment that Marc and I would end up owning the hotel," explains Deirdre.
But that is exactly what happened. The young couple fell in love and later married. In 1996, they bought the hotel from Jody who, along with his wife Renate, lives beside the hotel and still remains an integral part of the team.
Over the intervening years, the couple continued to invest in the hotel adding a further 56 rooms in 2005, at a cost of over €5m.
"That transformed the place from a restaurant with 20 rooms into a superior hotel," explains Deirdre.
Their investment turned out to be a wise move. Two years later they won the AA 'Hotel of the Year' award and the following year received the Conde Nast Johansen's award for the most excellent service in Ireland and the UK.
Awards are something Deirdre and Marc receive a lot of. In 2012, Deirdre was named 'Hotel Manager of the Year' by the Irish Hospitality Institute and the hotel received the award for 'Best Customer Service' that same year at both the Irish Restaurant Awards and the National Hospitality Conference.
But the story of Harvey's Point has not been without its challenges. "For many years, our location in the North West was a major problem, as tourists tended to head to the West or South West," explains Deirdre. "Today however, our location, with its unspoilt natural beauty, has become one of our unique selling points," she adds.
The years of the Troubles in the North, also presented many challenges for the business. Due to their proximity to the Border, many visitors avoided the area.
"But today we're finding that what was once a challenge is now an opportunity, as more and more people are visiting Northern Ireland - and that helps our business too," she explains.
Deirdre, Marc and Jody seem to have a knack for turning challenges into opportunities. In an effort to make the ballroom pay for itself, they started offering a Sunday carvery which has now become famous in the area and attracts hundreds of diners every week.
Similarly, in order to help fill midweek capacity, in 2000 they introduced a Summertime Cabaret. Running every Wednesday evening from June through to October, this has proved a great success with full houses every night.
However, their ingenuity was well tested during the downturn when they were forced to reduce wages and move to a three-day week during the quieter winter months. By 2011, with the worst behind them, they again began re-investing, developing the conference area and revamping both bar and restaurant.
"In many ways, our business has grown stronger as a result of the downturn. While we had to work harder, it also forced us to put in place tighter costs controls," explains Deirdre.
Their efforts were rewarded and since then they have experienced year-on-year growth in the business.
"Our staff are key to our success," explains Marc. "There is a strong sense of family here, of belonging, of caring for each other and this culture manifests itself in our customer care and in the general ethos of the hotel," he insists.
"Every one of the team is prepared to go that extra mile and with a smile. They have all played an integral role in the development of the business and our customer feedback measurement systems continually show our staff are definitely our biggest asset," adds Deirdre
Before I leave, Deirdre and Marc outline some of the exciting projects that they have in the pipeline which includes adding additional suites, renovating the banqueting suite, building a BBQ area in the old boathouse and developing a new swimming pool, gym and spa area. There is even talk of building a number of luxury tree-house lodges.
Harvey's Point began as a cottage hidden in the hills of Donegal. With imagination, love, and considerable investment, it has evolved, over time, into a holiday home, guest-house and now, an award-winning hotel.
This is definitely something magical about this lakeshore oasis. But, like many businesses, it is the friendliness of the staff who work there that really makes it special.
I think I'll leave the last word to one of their customers whose words I read on TripAdvisor. "Wow! Stunning, fabulous, outstanding, blown away, absolutely brilliant and a little piece of heaven," were just some of the glowing recommendations I found.
I think I might just have discovered the new benchmark of excellence for the Irish hospitality sector. It's called Harvey's Point.
Company Name: Harvey's Point Resort Hotel
Business: Hotel and restaurant
Set up: 1989
Founder(s): Jody Gysling and now owned by his brother Marc and his wife Deirdre Mc Glone
Employees: 120 during the summer season and 80 throughout the year
Location: Lough Eske, Co Donegal
DEIRDRE AND MARC'S ADVICE FOR OTHER BUSINESSES
Listen to your customers
"If you want your business to be a success, you have to know their expectations - and exceed them. And you have to take the time to develop strong relationships with them."
Have a business plan
"You don't have to stick rigidly to a business plan that you've drawn up before launching out down the road - but it's useful to have a road map to help you focus on the key priorities for your business."
Innovate to stay ahead
"You have to continually invest in your business - and that includes your products and your people. And you also have to continually invest in your own training and development."
Sunday Indo Business