Monday 21 January 2019

The natural beauty business

Des O'Dowd, owner of Inchydoney Island Lodge and Spa, tells Sean Gallagher what makes the resort so special

Des O'Dowd with Sean Gallagher on the beach at Inchydoney. Photo: Michael MacSweeney
Des O'Dowd with Sean Gallagher on the beach at Inchydoney. Photo: Michael MacSweeney
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

To most of us who live here - and to the millions of tourists who visit us each year - Ireland is most definitely a country of great natural beauty. From our towns and villages, to our rolling green hills and beautiful sandy beaches, there's something natural and unspoilt about this land we live in. Add to this the quality of our food, the uniqueness of our culture, and the warmth and friendliness of our people and it's easy to see why tourism plays such an important role in Ireland's economic future.

With that in mind, I paid a visit last week to Des O'Dowd, owner of one of the country's best known holiday destinations - Inchydoney Island Lodge and Spa in beautiful West Cork.

Located just outside the heritage town of Clonakilty and overlooking the magnificent Blue Flag beaches of Inchydoney Island, this is a real gem in Ireland's tourism offering. Built in 1998 and with an annual turnover of €7m, the resort is now a significant local employer with as many as 185 staff employed there at peak times.

"We are an Irish owned and operated four-star hotel and spa," explains Des proudly as he shows me around the hotel's expansive facilities which includes 67 bedrooms, 14 self-catering apartments, a seawater spa, two restaurants, a bar and a large function room.

The most striking feature of this hotel is, without doubt, its unique setting. Perched on a slope overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the entire resort enjoys magnificent panoramic views of the sprawling white sandy beaches that stretch out endlessly in front of it.

"We recently carried out research into why our guests choose to come back so regularly to us. And what we discovered really surprised us," explains Des. "We were sure it would be the high quality of our food, the uniqueness of our seawater spa or the high level of customer service delivered by our staff. But in fact, the answer turned out to be our unique location in West Cork, our proximity to Clonakilty - and this beautiful beach," he adds as he leads me onto the strand.

"While it's a gorgeous sunny day here today, the beach is seldom empty. People swim here all year round and there are always plenty of individuals and couples walking by themselves or with their dogs," he adds.

I also notice a thriving surf school adjacent to the hotel, and further down the beach I even spot a group of women exercising as part of a summer fitness boot camp. Back in the hotel, we visit the Gulf Stream restaurant. Specialising in seafood dishes, it too enjoys the most stunning sea views. Downstairs, the more informal Dunes Bar has become a real favourite for those who enjoy their steaks.

"The quality of our food is very important - and for that reason we source from local West Cork suppliers," explains Des.

Next, it's on to the hotel's award-winning spa. Back in 1998, this became the country's first Thalassotherapy Spa (the term derives from the Greek words for 'sea' and 'medical treatment') and includes a unique heated seawater therapy pool, as well as a myriad of treatments based on sea muds and seaweed.

"Our main market is Irish people who want to get away and spend quality time by themselves or with partners, friends and family," explains Des. "We are blessed with a very loyal customer base, with most of our business coming from repeat customers or those who have received recommendations from family or friends. Many of these have been coming here for years, which means a lot to us. While we do attract guests from the UK, Europe and the USA, these are normally individuals or small groups looking for an authentic Irish experience - rather the larger bus or tour operator type bookings," he adds.

Des O'Dowd is no stranger to Inchydoney. In fact, he grew up only a few miles away in Bandon. After school, he spent a summer working in Waterville Hotel on the Ring of Kerry which sparked his initial interest in the hotel sector. He later joined a local accounting firm in Cork as a trainee accountant before moving to Dublin where he qualified as a chartered accountant in 1991.

After a year working in the hotel industry in South Africa, he returned home to a job as an accountant in Mount Juliet. However, his break came in 1998, when Cork developer John Fleming - who had just finished building the new Inchydoney Lodge and Spa - began looking for an operator to run the hotel. It was the opportunity Des had been looking for. Together with another colleague, whom he had met in Mount Juliet, he decided to take on the challenge.

At the time, the pair also negotiated an option to buy out the hotel at some point in the future if the opportunity arose. And in 2008 (at which point his partner had moved on to pursue other opportunities), Des decided to exercise the option himself and became the proud owner of the hotel.

"My timing couldn't have been more off - it was right at the start of the downturn," says Des. "One bit of advice I got at the time was that Inchydoney is a jewel and to be successful, my primary job was to keep polishing that jewel. And that's what I've tried to do ever since," he adds.

While running any hotel involves managing a lot of complex moving parts, running an Irish owner-operated hotel brings its own challenges. When Des first began running the hotel during the boom years, he found he had to compete with hotels funded by wealthy individuals, who were not as focused on commercial returns as he needed to be. When the downturn took hold, he was then faced with having to compete with hotels that were being run by receivers or Nama.

"Today, we find ourselves increasingly competing with wealthy foreign companies who have more resources than we do," he adds.

Deciding not to drop prices and lose quality as some hotels did, Des instead took the more strategic decision of focus on his target market - loyal and repeat customers.

"You can't be exclusive and not exclude some markets," explains Des. "So we don't try and be five-star or three-star. We want to be an excellent four-star. Similarly, we don't cater for groups like hen or stag parties, as it would detract from our core market," he adds.

Key to their ongoing success has been the commitment and loyalty of his staff, most of whom have been with the hotel since it opened or shortly afterwards. Having survived the downturn, the team is now stronger than ever before.

"I take the responsibility that comes with being an employer seriously, and I strive to make this not only a great place to visit but a great place to work. Happy staff also make for happy customers," he adds. He recently invested over €500k on general improvement works and plans to invest the same again in the near future.

"My commitment to this business is not like that of a short-term investment by a hedge fund or an international opportunist buyer. My ambition is to be the long-term owner and operator of one of the most relevant and interesting four-star hotels in Ireland," explains Des passionately. "I absolutely love West Cork and I'm lucky to live and work in such a beautiful and friendly place."

Having experienced the uniqueness that is Inchydoney, together with its welcoming atmosphere and magnificent surroundings, I look forward to joining the ranks of those who come back again.

Next time though, I hope it's for longer.

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