Smaller hotels gain extra strength by acting together
MOST Irish hoteliers remember November for the devastating Bacon Report and its conclusions that their sector was desperately "insolvent" and needed to shed a quarter of its rooms to avoid collapse.
But for the eight boutique, country-house and townhouse hotels in the Private Ireland collection, November stands out in the 2009 calendar for a very different reason.
While Peter Bacon was putting the finishing touches on his downbeat report, and the Irish Hoteliers Federation (IHF) was demanding concessions in the Budget, Private Ireland was in the US promoting its properties -- and the Irish hospitality story -- to one of the world's biggest leisure markets.
Two months on, the hoteliers are confident that 2010 bookings will soon flow from the US following the rapt reception the owner and managers got from the high-end travel agents they were courting. And Private Ireland is planning much more for 2010 as its hoteliers band together to tackle the hotel industry crisis head on, despite the tiny size of some of their properties.
"You can look at any sector out there, everyone's downbeat but it's a matter of getting out there and fighting for your business, fighting for your cause, not expecting the customer to come to you," says Niall Ennis, owner and chef at Co Clare's 11-bedroom Carrygerry Countryhouse.
Ennis was one of a handful of Private Ireland owners who travelled to the US in November, promoting not just their own properties but also the hotels of their fellow Private Ireland members.
It was for this very reason that the group came together to form Private Ireland four years ago so their small properties could together have a bigger voice by playing the strength in numbers game.
Back then the smaller hotels were suffering at the hands of a market that was "awash with all these new properties", Ennis says, referring to the tax-break driven explosion of mega hotels that threatened to stamp out smaller family-owned competitors.
Four years on, the importance of strength in numbers has never been greater as the hospitality industry grapples with oversupply, poor local demand, and sharply falling visitor numbers.
"Cash is tighter than ever before this year, so we've had to be more creative in what we're doing, and we've had to get out there more," says Patricia Coughlan, owner of Limerick's No 1 Pery Square and founder of the Select Hotels.
Sales trips are a big part of Private Ireland's 2010 agenda and a delegation will be returning to the US in February. Their aspirations come against an 8pc fall in North American visitors to the Republic in the first nine months of 2009, as the US grapples with a recession of its own.
"They recover fast over there," says Ennis, insisting that there's "absolutely" still a point in chasing the struggling US consumer since "it's a very big country and there are a lot of people unaffected by it (the economic crisis)".
"When I hear all the talk about Americans not travelling and I look at my own reservations book, it just doesn't match up," he adds. "I'd have gotten more than 75pc of my clients from the US last year.
"Most of the Private Ireland members would have seen an increase in US visitors towards the end of this year, so that's very encouraging."
Similarly encouraging was the "vibe" from the US agents Ennis and co met in November.
After showing they meant business by dispatching hotel owners rather than marketing executives for the sales trip, Private Ireland fought to convince agents that the traditional "cead mile failte" is still alive in well in their family-run properties, mirroring their maiden trip in 2008.
"We were pretty successful last year and we're hoping the trip will bear fruit this year as well," says Ennis. "Agents are telling us that people will still travel."
Closer to home, Private Ireland also dispatches delegates on trips and to shows in the UK and continental Europe. Further demand is stimulated through a referral system. "After someone comes to Limerick it would be natural that they might go on to Kerry or Donegal," says Coughlan, "so we recommend them to one of our members".
The first hotel also calls ahead so the guests are greeted by name when they arrive at their next destination.
"It's amazing the reaction you get," says Ennis. "It's the small things like that that make the difference."
Online marketing is another part of the Private Ireland package, with search engine optimisation and other techniques already used to direct visitors to its website, while Twitter and Facebook are on the to do list for 2010.
The group is also beginning to evolve beyond its original marketing remit.
"For things like insurance, we can come together and get a group rate," says Ennis. "We've made significant savings on even basic bits of equipment, furnishings, whatever."
Private Ireland's full day meetings "every five or six weeks" are now the scene for general information sharing, with more experienced hoteliers bestowing their hard earned wisdom on young blood which brings drive and enthusiasm to the table.
"The mood's always very positive," says Ennis, who says he's "confident" that while hotels will close over the next 12 to 18 months, none of Private Ireland's hotels will be among them.
Coughlan is similarly positive on 2010 but then she's unlikely to ever face a year as tough as 2009 after she opened her 20-bedroom upmarket hotel on the same week as Ireland officially tipped into recession.
"We couldn't have backed out of it even if we wanted to," she says. "It was baby steps, will we survive six months, eight months ...
"We not only survived, but business is okay.
"There is light in the tunnel and we need to focus on that, customers in general need to focus on that too, if we all do, we'll make it better for ourselves."