Following his heart pays off for the owner of Sand House Hotel
It's almost two-and-a-half years since Paul Diver bought the Sand House Hotel in Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal, for a tenth of its boom-time price.
The 55-bedroom seaside hotel had gone into liquidation in February 2009. Diver, who had managed the hotel for 20 years before becoming its owner, bought the property at auction for €650,000 in March 2012. It was an achievement to do so at the time because Ireland was still very much in recession.
"In the midst of the recession, it was very hard to put a value on the hotel," said the Donegal man. "I knew the potential the hotel held, but it was very hard to explain that to a bank manager. I bought this hotel with my heart rather than my business mind. The hotel was my life - and the life of its staff."
Judging by the pick up in the number of tourists coming to Donegal, Mr Diver was wise to follow his heart.
"In the past, Donegal would have got as little as 6pc of the overseas visitors coming to Ireland," said Mr Diver. "That's starting to grow now and is well over 10pc at this stage. In the past, the tradition was for tourists to fly into Shannon, turn right - and go to Kerry. Today, people are flying into Belfast, picking up a car, visiting the Giant's Causeway - and doing the Wild Atlantic Way."
The Wild Atlantic Way, which was launched last February, is a 2,500km-long tourist trail which stretches from the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal to Kinsale in Cork. It has already started to boost visitor numbers to the county, said Mr Diver.
"The trail has taken tourists away from the cities and into the more rural and less populated areas," said Mr Diver. "More people are coming to Donegal from Dublin and Wicklow. We are getting overseas tourists from America, Germany and Britain. People are amazed with the rugged beauty of the county and the amount of things there are to do. The amount of repeat business is phenomenal."
The improved roads have also encouraged people to visit. "There would have been a perception years ago that Donegal was a five-hour drive away," said Mr Diver. "With improved infrastructure, Donegal is only three hours from Dublin."
Mr Diver acknowledged that a number of Donegal hotels were forced to shut their doors during the recession. "However, the hotels that are open in Donegal are doing very well," said Mr Diver. "Up in Dunfanaghy, the hotels are hopping."
The Sand House Hotel has also seen a big pick up in local custom. "Before I bought the hotel, its focus was largely on overseas tourism," said Mr Diver. "Locals are big customers now. They see the hotel as 'their' hotel. They're staying in the hotel, eating here, coming to the bar and so on. In the past, it was a seasonal hotel which only opened for six months. Last year, we stayed open throughout the winter."
Rossnowlagh is a popular surfing spot, which has also boosted the number of visitors to the hotel.
"Activity tourism has grown," said Mr Diver. "When you go back a few year ago, people just went to the spa. Today, people get up on surfboards or they go horse-riding on the beach. We can arrange to have a wetsuit in a bedroom - and for a surf instructor to meet the customer at reception."
Mr Diver is well aware of the toll the recession took on Donegal. "However, this is the first year since then that we can see real life and real growth," said Mr Diver. "Visitors are staying longer. People are fed up with doom and gloom."
Sunday Indo Business