Does Irish tourism offer value for money?
Holidays in Ireland at the height of the Celtic Tiger were a costly indulgence, rife with over-charging and rip-offs. Are we finally back on the right road?
Edward Stephenson is listing off the “added value” items offered by the hotel he manages, Druid's Glen in Co Wicklow: complimentary bicycles, early buffet dinners for children, visits to Glenroe Open Farm. The list goes on. “Oh, and free wi-fi, of course.”
In the dying days of the Celtic Tiger years, it was common practice for hotels to charge guests for broadband, but Stephenson believes any establishment looking to make a killing from this in 2014 just isn't at the races. “Wi-fi is just like electricity and water,” he says. “There's no way that the guest should be paying extra for them.”
While the “added value” that Stephenson espouses has become de rigeuer for many hotels, it's the reduced prices that are most likely to tempt Irish holidaymakers to take a domestic break rather than opt for foreign shores. “There's huge value to be had out there,” he says. “We're charging 30pc less per room than we did seven or eight years ago. You have to if you're going to be competitive in this market.”
Domestic tourism has shown significant signs of recovery over the past few years. The Central Statistics' Office National Travel Survey from April found that spend on Irish breaks went up more than 7pc last year when compared to 2012. The number of nights spent in hotels has shot up by 10pc in the same period.
“Any hotelier will tell you that the domestic market is absolutely crucial,” Stephenson says. “We've seen a big pick-up over the past year or so, with families leading the way. When you factor in the cost of flights and transfers for a family, there's no doubt that Ireland offers them a much more affordable holiday.”
Fáilte Ireland, the agency charged with selling Ireland to the Irish, has spent €3m on a new Discover Ireland ad campaign. The commercial — built around home footage and featuring a catchy tune from rising Irish band The Riptide Movement — is enjoying ubiquity on a television screen near you.
“It celebrates all that's great about Ireland,” says Fáilte Ireland's marketing manager John Concannon. “The statistics show that more and more of us are choosing to holiday here and, not just that, but they're saying that they find that an Irish holiday offers good value for money.” The survey from Fáilte Ireland suggests that 85pc of respondents believed they received good value for their hard-earned cash.
Fáilte Ireland is targeting three potential groups — “Connected Families”, “Footloose Socialisers” and “Indulgent Romantics” — which, it claims, amounts to 52pc of the Irish population.
According to Fáilte Ireland: “Connected Families put their heart into finding out everything a destination has to offer and like to have a carefully planned itinerary before they leave home; Footloose Socialisers are value-conscious, independent travellers, who attend cultural and sporting events or engage in pursuits such as hillwalking during their short breaks; and Indulgent Romantics prioritise finding the perfect, romantic hub for their couples getaway, somewhere they can soak up luxury, reward themselves and be well looked after — and tell everyone on TripAdvisor about it if they're not.”
Concannon insists that “there's been a great response” to new initiatives like the Wild Atlantic Way, which is a specially chosen 2,500km route down the west coast of Ireland. “We worked with the National Roads Authority on this concept for four years and we hope it will help stimulate recovery in parts of Ireland that have seen tourist numbers drop. And we think it will be of particular interest to Irish holidaymakers who might choose to do the route in chunks.”
Michael Vaughan will be hoping that the Wild Atlantic Way will bring tourists to the Clare hotel, Vaughan's Lodge, that has been in his family for four generations. “I know that some parts of the country have been doing very well with domestic tourism, but it's been flat here. A lot of people are struggling to afford a holiday, even with the cut-price deals that are on offer.”
Vaughan talks of a hotel manager of his acquaintance who, desperate to resuscitate business, offered a super-cheap rate on a deal-of-the-day website. “He found that many of the people who bought the deal wanted to bring their own drink and food. He got badly stung. There has been something of a race-to-the-bottom approach among some Irish hotels when it comes to pricing, but quality service can go out the window.”
Tim Fenn, CEO of the Irish Hotels Federation, believes the cut in VAT has helped the industry to offer good value to domestic consumers and stresses that the importance of this market cannot be over-estimated. “About 70pc of all Irish bed-nights
are accounted for by people from the island of Ireland,” he says. “It is important to grow foreign tourism to Ireland, but the domestic market will remain the bedrock.
“Because of the hotel-building boom of the Celtic Tiger years there are a lot of hotels out there all looking for business. In that sort of environment, the consumer can get a quality holiday for a fraction of what they would have paid before. And as we all shop around that bit more now and do our research, the standard has risen to match expectations.”
But the insistence of Irish tourism stakeholders that domestic holidays offer value that is a long way from the days of Rip-Off Republic don't ring true, according to Dermot Jewell of the National Consumers' Association. “It's not all rosy in the garden at all,” he says. “There's a lot of over-charging in some of the tourist hot-spots in Dublin, for instance — everything from coffee to bottled water to pints of beer.
“And then, when you have a big event like a Garth Brooks concert, some operators charge ridiculous money for accommodation. And they're not in the least bit embarrassed about it. They talk about a free market — which it is — but what it amounts to is the sort of profiteering that was all too common in the boom years. I'm not trying to knock the domestic tourism effort because when it's good it's very good, but I wish some hotels and restaurants would take a long-term view.”
A long-term view is exactly what the Marker Hotel in Dublin's swish Grand Canal Square has in its sights, according to general manager Charlie Shiel. “We opened in April 2013 when the tide was beginning to turn,” he says. “Even six months earlier and it would have been a harsher climate. From day one, we have placed huge importance on the domestic market and right now it accounts for 60pc of our bookings at weekends. Quite a few of the people who come here are resident in Dublin, but want to treat themselves to a nice overnight stay in their own city.
“We're lucky to be situated in such a vibrant part of Dublin with Facebook about to move in next door and Google just a short walk away. But we won't get complacent and any hotel hoping to be in for the long haul just can't rest on their laurels. People are far more careful with the money than they were in the past and you will lose them if you take their custom for granted.”
Although the five-star Marker is at the higher end of the price point, Shiel insists that value-for-money is paramount to his business and not just for cheaper hotels.
While there may be very attractive bargains to be had now, Michael Vaughan believes such deals will not be sustained. “About 250 hotels are in bank control right now and when they're eventually sold off to new owners, those investors will have to pay off the debt in full,” he says. “Keeping rooms at artificially low prices will not be something that appeals to them.
“And now that many of the hotels that went up in the boom years are nearing their 10th anniversary, there's going to be a requirement to refurbish them — to change carpets, furnishings, that sort of thing. That will mean that the prices that are being offered now will have to stop. And then, there's the unavoidable fact that some hotels will simply go to the wall — they will never be able to make the sort of money that will allow them to be profitable. It's inevitable.”
Getting away from it all... in numbers
The percentage increase in spending on domestic holidays in 2013 according to the CSO's Household Travel Survey
The proportion of hotel stays in the Republic accounted for from the domestic market (including Northern Ireland)
The average length of stay on an Irish holiday according to the CSO. The figure for 2012 was 3.2 days
The percentage increase on the number of hotel bed-nights taken by Irish tourists in 2013 compared to the previous year
The average price per one night's accommodation that the Irish holidaymaker is willing to spend in this country according to a Hotels.com survey. The same poll found that we are willing to spend €115 for a day's bed and board abroad
The proportion of overseas visitors to Ireland who described the country as "good" value for money last year, according to Fáilte Ireland research. The corresponding figure for 2009 was 29pc
The proportion of domestic holidaymakers who described Ireland as good value for money in 2012, according to the most up-to-date date figures from
Fáilte Ireland's spend on the summer 2014 Discover Ireland ad campaign – aimed at domestic tourists