Hotel of the Year: How Laois became the lap of luxury
Ballyfin Demesne has been named the AA's Hotel of the Year. Boss Damien Bastiat talks art, restoration, local suppliers and the value of operating in a niche with Ellie Donnelly
In 2014, Ballyfin Demesne, the super-luxury hotel situated in a quiet corner of Co Laois, hit the global headlines when reality television stars and pop music royalty, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, honeymooned there.
Despite the couple's incredible global audience - close to 77 million followers on Twitter and 110 million followers on Instagram - Damien Bastiat, General Manager of Ballyfin Demesne, says it didn't lead to a bounce in custom.
"I can't say there was necessarily a pick-up. The awareness has probably increased, but I can't say that it has brought anything into the business."
That might come as a surprise in an era when social media influencers can command millions for endorsing a brand, but in reality very few of the Kardashian-West's fans could ever hope to afford a stay at Ballyfin, where prices start at more than €600 a night.
The Laois mansion's rarified customer base - about 60pc from overseas - comes through its own website, word of mouth, and press articles, Damien Bastiat says.
"The one pick-up that we certainly noticed was in 2016 when we got voted best hotel in the world by 'Conde Nast Traveler' - that has had a huge impact for us."
"There is nothing quite like someone you know telling you 'you should really go and try this place'," Bastiat said.
In its latest boost, the hotel was last night crowned AA Hotel of the Year 2018.
In order to attract customers from the US - which accounts for the majority of guests, Bastiat said that he travels to America several times a year to meet travel agents and promote the business.
"The US would be a very important market for us. It is our primary market, but Ireland is the second market and it is nearing 40pc now - it is a lot better than when we started."
Bought in 2002 by US businessman Fred Krehbiel, the 20-bedroom hotel officially opened in 2011 after seven years of painstaking restoration.
"The house was built in the 1820s, and it was built for a family - the Cootes - they occupied the house for a hundred years, but in the 1920s it was turned into a boarding school for up to 400 boys, so I'm not sure if you could imagine what 400 boys would or could do to a house!"
The Krehbiels have been famously tight-lipped about the cost of restoration, but it can only have been eye-watering.
"We never really talk about financial investment, but whenever Fred is asked how much he spent on the restoration he says he stopped counting a long time ago," says Bastiat.
However for Mr Krehbiel, whose wife hails from Kerry, Bastiat says it has been "a labour of love".
"There was no short cut taken. In every aspect of the house no stone was left unturned."
The conversation turns to what it is that attracted the owners to a derelict property in Laois and what has inspired the restoration of the property.
"For the best part of 40 years Fred would have travelled extensively for work and would have lived three out of four weeks every month in hotels," Bastiat says.
"This gave him vision of what he would love to see in a hotel, and with his very good friend Jim Reynolds they decided one day, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a hotel and for it to be what we would like it to be'.
"They searched for a historic house that they could bring back to life and do two things; turn it into the hotel that they have always dreamed of, and use it to showcase their love for art and historical houses."
Mr Krehbiel's art collection can be found adorning the walls of Ballyfin.
"He has acquired a few paintings from the Coote family, which are now in their rightful place."
Despite 614 acres of land, the hotel has no major expansion plans.
"We are restoring one of the cottages that we have on the grounds, so by the summer we will have 21 bedrooms in total and there may be a couple of more of the outbuildings that we transform over the years.
"But there is certainly no plan to make it much bigger than it is now," Bastiat says.
"Maybe another two to three bedrooms over the years. Nothing is done in a rush, it is more about doing the research, doing things properly, rather than from a return on investment perspective."
Understandably the five-star hotel appeals to a niche group of consumers who can afford the full Downton Abbey-esque immersion.
"It is more of an experience than a commodity, we are trying to offer a step back in time," Bastiat says.
"I really believe that nowadays a real version of luxury is time and space and one thing that we often hear from our guests is that once they pass the gate they leave the outside world and time sort of stops.
"One of the biggest compliments we get is from people that leave after 24 hours saying that they feel like they have been here for three or four days.
"That is because I genuinely believe that nowadays that is actually luxury, because everybody is running around, everybody is busy, connected all the time."
The hotel features a spa, coarse fishing, clay pigeon shooting, tennis, archery and falconry, but Bastiat says that for many visitors "the luxury of doing nothing is great".
Operating in a niche and at low volumes, means the hotel can control the standard of service, Bastiat says.
And it gets an enormous amount of repeat customers.
"Once people have experienced Ballyfin, then they come back and come back again.
"In terms of sustainability of a business that is a great benefit."
Looking to the future Bastiat says that the hotel will continue what it had been doing, noting that when he first joined the property the hotel closed for nearly three-and-a-half months of the year. These days it closes for only two weeks for essential maintenance.
"For us, from a business point of view, this is terrific and at this stage, no one wants to be too ambitious or too optimistic, but we have had three very good years and we can only hope that the next few years are as good as the ones we have just had."
Most locals in Laois will never get the Ballyfin experience, but Bastiat says it has a reach into the local economy through "tremendous" local suppliers.
"There are some elements that we have to go further afield for, for example some of the linen we have is Italian.
"All the meats are local, the furthest-away supplier is in Co Kilkenny, other than that it is Mountrath," he says.
"More and more now people are conscious of where their food is coming from, and we are very lucky that we have two walled gardens that produce most of the restaurants' vegetables, herbs and flowers."
Shopping local gives Ballyfin greater control of its raw materials too, he says.
"The reality is that we can talk to our suppliers. We can have specific needs, and ensure the quality [of the produce from] farmers as opposed to a big company that deals with hundreds of thousands of orders."
On last night's award from the AA, Mr Bastiat gives full credit to the team around him.
"We are a small property, we only have 20 bedrooms, but I couldn't be more proud of the team that we have and of the effort that they do on a daily basis to make this a home more than a hotel."