Ashford Castle has long been regarded as the jewel in the crown of Irish tourism, and it was recently voted No 1 Resort in Europe by Conde Nast Traveller magazine's 2010 Readers' Choice Awards. The fact that this award was voted on by people who had actually been to Ashford Castle makes the accolade all the more stupendous -- particularly when you think of the exotic locations that are the competition, such as Villa d'Este on Lake Como, and Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc on the Cote d'Azur, which came in second and third respectively.
Ashford Castle, set on 350 acres on the shores of Lough Corrib in Cong, Co Mayo, was a former Guinness family home until it became a hotel in 1939. Built in the 13th century, it has naturally had various additions, the most significant being a French chateau section in 1715 and two Victorian extensions in 1852.
When it comes to castles, Ashford is the real McCoy, with its medieval stone parapets and bridge and wood-panelled halls and receptions rooms, yet it retains the feel of a great country house rather than a five-star hotel.
Of course, there has to be a captain of the ship to steer this great liner forward, making sure that standards are maintained and that it moves forward ever so gently as times require. This falls to the very charming and always welcoming general manager Niall Rochford, who wouldn't blink an eye no matter what a guest might require. He has seen the great and the good come and go in his 10 years at Ashford Castle.
Limerick-born Rochford moved with his parents first to Clare and then to Tipperary, perhaps getting his first taste of moving around.
His initial foray into the hotel industry was as a "young buck" of 15 in the Royal Hotel in Tipperary town (washing glasses), where he first fell in love with the industry. He then went to work in the Dunraven Arms in Adare with the Murphy family before going on to train in the College of Catering in Cathal Brugha Street, Dublin. He then worked in the Shelbourne Hotel before going to Chicago to gain wider experience.
On his return to Ireland he moved to Dromoland Castle, Co Clare, where he worked as deputy general manager under Mark Nolan for 11 years. Nolan had worked as deputy general manager under legendary Ashford Castle manager Rory Murphy, so when Rory Murphy retired, Niall Rochford was perfectly poised and experienced to take over such a special role.
Rochford makes the point that not only did Ashford Castle capture the pole position in the Conde Nast awards, but three other Irish resorts were in the top 10 in Europe -- a pretty impressive showing. The others are Mount Juliet in Kilkenny, Dromoland Castle, and Adare Manor.
"It is interesting that in a time when the hotel industry in Ireland is much maligned, that from an international perspective the Irish hotel business is very highly regarded. This is very important also from the perspective of the USA. Ireland is seen as a destination that is certainly still US-friendly, and has always been US friendly," says Rochford.
"It is recognised that there is a real quality product in Ireland now and that it is also good value for money. The personality of Ireland is still here. We hear a lot about how it is lost, but I am in the US a lot and our sales director, Paula Carroll, is there every month, and the sense of true Irish hospitality is still here.
"There is uniqueness about Ashford, and, as someone said to me recently, character is also in the characters here. That is what people enjoy about Ashford: the building, the structure, and the characters. Many of the people working here have been here for maybe 30 years, and their fathers before them.
"The grandfather of maitre d' Martin Gibbons is one of the beaters shown in a photo with King George V on his visit. His father worked here, and his sons will work here. We concentrate on the people, the environment, the experience, and we have young people joining our staff to energise.
"Every week we have our staff meetings starting off with our hallmarks of how you greet people, and how you interact with people. I suppose that's our fundamental, what we look at first."
Everyone from presidents to princes have visited Ashford Castle; indeed, the main dining room is the George V room commemorating the visit of the then-Prince of Wales. Such prestigious guests may have made people feel in the past "that Ashford Castle was a little bit out of their reach -- a little bit formal", says Rochford. He felt he had to make Ashford more accessible in terms of money and value, but also in terms of people's experience and "play down just a little in terms of formality. It's about spending time with the guests, spending time with people. It did open up the domestic market and we have captured that very well in recent years, and bringing in head chef Stefan Matz to make it a food destination. We have worked hard at creating a balance, a marriage of old and newer influences".
Like every other hotel, Ashford Castle had to rationalise in the past few years.
"We had to do things that wouldn't affect the guests. We all had to take pay cuts and, rather than having to let people go, we have all taken a bit of pain," Rochford says.
"We probably had our highest occupancy ever in 2009. The rates were down maybe by 10 per cent to 15 per cent, but it was very very positive. It continued in 2010, and we maintained the rate. This year, 2011, the US business is looking very positive, but we worked hard at it. Paula Carroll is out there every month. You need to be out there constantly, and we got out there to capture a larger slice of a smaller market. Then we went after the domestic market."
Rochford says they upped their marketing budget and worked successfully with Dromoland Castle.
"I don't want to underestimate the difficulties that are out there, it certainly is difficult as you are working three times as hard to get less, but it is positive."
The award is positive recognition for the people of Ashford Castle and for Ireland.
Ashford Castle's guest book reads like a roll call of famous people, from Princess Grace to Tony Blair, John Wayne, Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan, Rod Stewart, Pierce Brosnan, Russell Crowe and even TV's Judge Judy.
Ashford Castle has wonderful special offers on from now to the end of March, so this is your opportunity to live like a lord and get your name in the guest book.
On a parting note, Frommer's Guide has nominated Ireland as its top destination for 2011, and not only that, but the French Le Guide du Routard is telling its readers that our restaurants are great. This needs to be remembered when it comes to tourism/ Failte Ireland TV promoting Ireland abroad People need to see more in these ads than great scenery, pubs, and fellas banging bodhrans -- they need to know about our food and our restaurants.