Thursday 19 September 2019

Tour operators who are Wild at heart out West

Two outdoor enthusiasts have made the Wild Atlantic Way part of their day job, writes Louise McBride

Keith Mongan and Michael O’Boyle of Pedal and Putt on the Wild Atlantic Way in Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward
Keith Mongan and Michael O’Boyle of Pedal and Putt on the Wild Atlantic Way in Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

Most people only get to explore the remote wilderness and rugged cliffs of Ireland's west coast when on holiday. However, for outdoor enthusiasts Michael O'Boyle and Keith Mongan, the stunning scenery of the west coast is a key part of their day job.

The duo set up Pedal and Putt, a company which specialises in cycling and golfing tours, in May 2015.

There are two elements to the business: Ride Wild - which provides cycling trips along the Wild Atlantic Way and Golf Wild - which arranges the golf trips along the route. O'Boyle largely manages Ride Wild while Mongan looks after Golf Wild.

"Keith and I have worked together on various projects over the last 20 years," says O'Boyle. "When we started to think about setting up this business, we looked into having either a niche business in standalone cycling or standalone golf - or a combination of both."

The duo felt there would be an appetite for both trips - based on their experience dealing with the clients which they had built up throughout their careers.

"We found that a lot of the clients we had [before setting up Pedal and Putt] were into cycling and golf," says O'Boyle. "We had seen a shift in the profile of the clients we had dealt with.

"Many of our clients had been into golf a lot previously. However, post-recession, a lot of these clients started to look after their health more. They started to do more exercise than golf. They started buying bikes - and getting involved in cycling.

"So we decided to go with a business which combined cycling and golf - and it took off from there. The profile of our customers is typical golf course members who have also started cycling - because of the health, wellness and head-space benefits they get with the bike."

The business was set up more than a year after the launch of the Wild Atlantic Way - the coastal route which runs from the Inishowen Peninsula in Co Donegal to Kinsale in Cork.

"The launch of the business coincided with the Wild Atlantic Way becoming a signature route in Europe," says O'Boyle.

"The Wild Atlantic Way has definitely put the west of Ireland on the map. It offers some of the most amazing golf courses such as the Old Head Kinsale, Waterville, Lahinch and Portnoo - and they're all connected by amazing cycling routes.

"You have all these amazing golf courses with amazing cycling routes all in the same pocket - so the business was the perfect fit for the Wild Atlantic Way. It was the perfect fit for us too as Keith is a keen golfer while I have a background in cycling."

Mongan, who is from Killiney in Co Dublin, has a long career in golf behind him. He played in the 1989 and 1993 Irish Opens. He was also a head golf professional in Westport Golf Club and in Mount Juliet Golf Club.

O'Boyle, who is originally from Clifden in Co Galway, took up cycling almost 20 years ago. He is tour director of the annual charity event Cross Atlantic Cycle - originally named (and is still widely known as) the Rugby Legends Cycle.

O'Boyle has been tour director with the event since it started in 2012. The cycle raises money for Cross Charity, which supports cancer research.

It was originally a seven-day tour but it now takes place over five days. There are typically between 120 and 170 cyclists on each stage of the cycle.

"The Rugby Legends Cycle really appealed to the profile of our clients at the time - that is, people who were 45 years old or more, who were senior managers, or directors, or partners of their own company," says O'Boyle. "This cycle was started against all odds in the middle of a recession." O'Boyle initially became involved in event management when he moved to London in his early twenties. Although he has been living in Kilkenny for almost 20 years, he still does a lot of work in the UK capital. He worked in event management at the London Olympics in 2012 and the World Rugby Cup, which was hosted by England in 2015.

Pedal & Putt itself is based in Kilkenny, though the company also has sub-offices along the Wild Atlantic Way.

Along with O'Boyle and Mongan, the company employs five full-time staff. "When we scale up during the busy season, we would have an additional 25 support staff working on our tours and events," says O'Boyle.

The company caters for corporate and personal clients. Most of its overseas customers are from Canada and Britain but clients also come from France, Italy, Norway and Sweden.

"We did some research and found that a lot of people were visiting Ireland for five-day vacations," says O'Boyle.

"We saw some people were coming over for five days and they liked the idea of three days cycling and two days golf. We can customise a unique itinerary for a group of 10 or 15 people - this could be a group of corporate clients or a group of friends."

The company's customers also include Irish-based companies.

"There's a lot of focus on 'wellness' in companies today," said O'Boyle. "So companies are looking for two-, three- or four-day itineraries on the Wild Atlantic Way.

"This forms part of their wellness programme for staff. By the start of October of this year, we already had 42 orders for next year from companies booking wellness trips."

The company's tours largely run from April until the end of October. Over the last two years, the number of tours it manages has increased by almost a third, according to O'Boyle.

Earlier this year, Failte Ireland teamed up with Ride Wild to launch the Wild Atlantic Way Cycle Sportif - a series of bi-annual cycling events along the coastal route.

The aim of the events is to promote the Wild Atlantic Way as a cycling destination - and to attract visitors to the route during off-season months.

"Since we launched the Wild Atlantic Way Cycle Sportif last September, we have had some serious enquiries from cycling clubs in the US, Canada, Britain and Europe who are keen to cycle the Wild Atlantic Way," says O'Boyle.

"Many of these clubs are now looking at using this tour for their annual club event."

As outdoor sports enthusiasts, golfers and cyclists are clearly exposed to the weather - but O'Boyle is not concerned that the Irish weather could be bad for business.

"Our business is for a special interest group," says O'Boyle. "The people who come to us are prepared for the weather. There's no such thing as 'bad weather' anymore - rather, it's bad clothing and bad equipment.

"Our customers are looking for a challenge. They're not looking for sunshine. If you look at the Wild Atlantic Way Cycle Sportif which we just finished at the end of September, we had rain for two days of that 17-day tour.

"So out of 17 days and 2,100km, we only had to cut that tour short by 30km to compensate for a windy afternoon."

O'Boyle clearly admires the beauty of the Wild Atlantic Way. When asked which part of the route is his favourite, he cannot narrow his choice to one section - but instead chooses three routes.

"I love the route from Bantry to Sneem which goes through Glengarriff," he says. "It's a long cycle but the scenery is amazing. The length of the route also means this cycle has the challenge for the cyclist.

"I also love the Connemara Loop - the route from Roundstone to Doolough is an area of outstanding beauty. Seeing this route on the bike while hugging the coastline is lovely. The next route which I think is gorgeous is in Donegal - from Killybegs to Glencolmcille, Slieve League, Ardara and so on. It's a short route but it's very challenging."

Living the dream perhaps? O'Boyle doesn't go as far as that - but he and Mongan are not a long way off it.

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