Wineport Lodge more than simply a restaurant with rooms
The award-winning business was founded in a time of adversity but has survived through a combination of true love and hard work
'It's really a restaurant with rooms." That's how owners, husband and wife team Ray Byrne and Jane English describe their award-winning business, Wineport Lodge.
Located on the shore of Lough Ree, near Glasson, in Co Westmeath, the Lodge gets its name from the townland in which it is situated. As far back as 542 AD, St Ciaran's monks chose the area as the perfect landing place for their precious cargo of wine barrels from France.
First opened in 1993, Wineport Lodge has become an oasis of peace and tranquillity for those seeking to escape the stress of everyday life.
As I arrive at the Lodge, the first thing that strikes me is the beautiful cedar-clad log-cabin style exterior of the building. It would not be out of place on the slopes of an Austrian hillside or on a white sandy beach in Malaysia. Tastefully designed, the wooden jetty that projects from the hotel into the lake seems to almost magically link the Lodge and the water that surrounds it.
The Lodge boasts an award-winning, 130-seat restaurant which has been featured in six series of the RTE programme, The Restaurant. It is here that many well-known celebrities have tested their culinary skills on a panel of food critics.
"Our market is very diverse," Ray explains. "We get a lot of couples and families who want to get away for a break."
"And because of the intimacy and family-type atmosphere we try and create, we also have many groups who come here to celebrate major birthdays and anniversaries," adds Jane.
Because of their idyllic lake shore location and the secluded nature of the entire area, it is easy to see how the Lodge has also become a popular venue for intimate or exclusive weddings.
"Our corporate clientele is also an important element of our business," Ray explains, as he takes me on a tour to see the main meeting room. It has been set up for the following day where a major Irish company will hold an away-day for its board of directors.
As we settle down in front of the open fire to enjoy our coffee and freshly baked scones, I am surprised to learn that the place didn't actually start out as a guesthouse or even a restaurant. It started out as a sailing centre.
Jane's mother, Dorothy, and her partner Robin Baird, owned the land on which the hotel is built. They were farmers by profession, and like many farmers in Ireland at that time, their need to generate off-farm income led them to diversify into the agri-tourism sector. They decided to open a sailing centre on the lough in 1993 and Ray and Jane were invited to provide food on the site for the many sailing enthusiasts.
Because of the lack of overnight accommodation in the area at the time, the two decided that there was an opening to provide rooms for guests and so, in 2002, they invested more than €1.5m to build the first 10 bedrooms on the site. Business quickly took off.
They became so busy that in 2005, they extended the Lodge by a further 10 rooms. In addition, they added two spa treatment rooms and a popular Canadian hot tub that now sits outside, on the roof of the building, majestically overlooking the lake.
Demand continued to grow and a year later, the final 10 bedrooms were built. It was a hectic time for the couple. They worked hard on building a high standard of service within the Lodge and a strong brand outside of it.
Wineport Lodge is a member of Ireland's Blue Book, the prestigious Association of Country Houses & Restaurants in Ireland. In addition, it is listed in the Michelin, Bridgestone and Georgina Campbell Guides, where it has received many awards for excellence. Earlier this year, Wineport Lodge received the Travellers Choice Award from online travel giant Trip Advisor.
Running a hospitality business is challenging, even in the best of times. Restaurants and hotels have high staff costs and most operate on very tight margins. For that reason, I am keen to find out how the downturn has affected Ray and Jane's business.
"We are very dependent on the Irish market," explains Ray. "Cutbacks in the economy affect our target market directly and that has an obvious knock-on effect on our business," he adds.
From September 2008, their business, like many others around the country, simply nose-dived. "Thankfully it has stabilised over the last two years," he says. They did, however, see their turnover drop from €3.5m at its height to €2.6m in 2012.
It's still a great achievement, I tell him, given the challenges facing the economy.
"We have worked hard at the business and, for that reason, we have managed to stay as busy as we were five years ago," says Ray. "But people are spending 30 or 40 per cent less than they used to, simply because they don't have the same disposable income."
It's a situation many business owners throughout the country can identify with.
But the hardworking couple has not been put off. Instead they have redoubled their efforts, as well as their marketing activity, and are actively working to attract new customers, particularly during the quieter mid-week periods. "This mid-week business is largely deal-driven," explains Jane. "Discounted offers on Megadeals and Living Social incentive packages help fill rooms."
Ray and Jane now live across the road from the hotel. They are very hands-on and are keen to personally greet customers when they arrive. For them, it is part of creating the warm family atmosphere they both believe in.
Ray is from Dublin. Jane grew up locally. She studied Natural Science at Trinity College while Ray began his career selling farmhouse cheeses with The Traditional Cheese Co. Having completed a Start Your Own Business Course with the agency then known as AnCO, he was motivated to open his own business – and so, soon after, the couple moved to Tyrrellspass, Co Westmeath, they opened their first restaurant, based in a local castle.
Ray himself became heavily involved in the hospitality sector nationally and was President of the Restaurant Association of Ireland from 2000 to 2002.
Their business currently employs 15 full-time staff and 20 part-time. Both Jane and Ray are quick to acknowledge the efforts of the staff who have worked extremely hard in recent years to maintain the quality and service at the Lodge. They receive emails all the time from guests who have enjoyed spending time there and these are pinned on the kitchen noticeboard for all the staff to see.
"Running a hotel-type business is not as glamorous as it may appear," says Jane. "You have to work weekends and during major events such as New Year's Eve, Easter Sunday and Mother's Day. But we are blessed that both of us, and all our staff, love what we do" she adds.
"It's more like a vocation than a career," explains Ray. "You invest your life in the business. For that reason, you really have to enjoy looking after customers. In many ways, our life and our business have to be at one. It's almost Zen-like," he says.
Like many, the biggest challenge facing them now is to right size their level of debt. They have a sizeable debt which is an overhang from the construction of the rooms. This debt is currently with an overseas bank and Ray and Jane have recently turned to the two major Irish banks whose support they say they will need in order to sustain the business into the future. It's a familiar story across the country.
So what's the essence of this business, I ask Ray and Jane.
"It's about 20 years of hospitality provided by us and a wonderful team of dedicated staff, in a beautiful building in an amazing setting," they say.
Wineport Lodge was started at a time of adversity. Today businesses everywhere are facing similar adversity. For many, navigating the current downturn in the economy is like taking part in the famous but gruelling Tour de France cycle race.
I don't cycle. But friends who do tell me that it is during the uphill stages, those parts which are the hardest, that the lead changes hands. That is where we are now. When this economic recession ends, and the road levels out and things in business begin to pick up again, our position in the pack will depend on how skillfully we manage the demanding terrain we are in, right now.
Having spent the day with Ray and Jane, I know that they are putting the work in now, on the hills where it counts.
While not a large multinational, the jobs they have created are vitally important to their local community. Their magnificent Wineport Lodge is a credit to their vision and entrepreneurial spirit. It is also an important piece of the tapestry of a tourism sector that is critical to our national economy.
In addition to all their hard work, they have one ingredient you simply can't buy. They love what they do. And it shows.