Over the past few years the country has been awash with faceless tax-break hotels, some of which are now in Nama and offering through- the-floor rates. This makes it very difficult for family hotels to compete.
Good hoteliers are solicitous and welcoming, unflappable, discreet and charming. No one fits this description better than Eithne Fitzpatrick Scott-Lennon of Fitzpatrick's Killiney Castle Hotel (FKC) in Co Dublin. Eithne is one of the hardest working 'hands- on' people I know. running such a successful hotel requires long hours and attention to detail at all levels. Eithne, however, credits her team.
2011 is a big year at FKC as, next January, they will be celebrating their 40th birthday. Eithne recalls laughingly that when, as a teenager, she first drove through the gates of the castle, known locally then as The Bastille, her mother said to her father "if you buy this place, I will divorce you!" Her parents, Paddy and Eithne Fitzpatrick, were legendary hoteliers. Paddy and Eithne moved to Wexford, where he was managing director of the Talbot Hotel, and where Eithne spent her first 12 years.
The family moved back to Dublin when he joined PV Doyle Hotels, but two years later the castle came on the market. "It was very dilapidated but dad was all excited and buy it he did." The first thing they did was to open the Dungeon Bar and restaurant to get cash flow; they worried about the rooms later.
Eithne, who is married to James Scott-Lennon of the Abbey Tavern in Howth, has four brothers, John, Paul, Pat and Tony. John owns Fitzpatrick's Hotels in New York, whilst Paul owns The Morgan and The Beacon Hotels in Fleet Street and Sandyford respectively. Pat and Tony are businessmen. Eithne says it was her and her mother against (in the best of senses) four brothers and a dad. It's funny now, she says, that she ends up again in a male-dominated household with four sons and a husband.
Eithne recalls that when they opened their new bedrooms, she and her mum made the curtains and swags for the first four-poster beds in the castle.
Eithne went first to a family hotel in Lausanne before going to the US for two years to the Radisson in Minnesota and Kansas City.
Fitzpatrick's Castle has always enjoyed a great American business "but my dad worked the length and breadth of America begging for that business. You do have to bin the pride in these days; I have no problem in asking for business".
Eithne says that, thankfully, they get great business. "We are playing on an unlevel pitch now in many respects, and a lot of the traditional hotels have gone by the wayside because they can't compete with the new 'zombie' hotels that are being kept open for the benefit of the banks.
"We have to fight harder for our share nowadays, but we get it because we are 40 years in business and our reputation is solid." She points that they are selling at a lower margin.
"We are not recruiting and are trying to keep the people we have as happy as we possibly can. Obviously the financial rewards are not there for any of us so we have to make their jobs a bit more fun. If nothing else, this has proved to me that being a team leader has its rewards because the people who want to be on your team really step up."
For the next five years Eithne says "we are going to have to work very hard with our banks to make sure that they support us. We'll make all the cuts, be as stringent as we can, but we can't throw the baby out with the bath water. We have got to keep investing."
Two of Eithne's sons, James and Mark, aged 25 and 22, are now in the business with her. Eithne would like to see the Government offer some incentives to help sustain the older properties that have a track record by incentivising them to reinvest in their product and plant.
Local-authority rates, she says, are penalising overheads and a delayed-payment programme would help.