Thursday 19 April 2018

'You have got to be innovative, especially in the west of Ireland'

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Jon Fratschoel, owner of Ferndale Restaurant and B&B, Keel, Achill island, Co. Mayo Photo: Keith Heneghan
Jon Fratschoel, owner of Ferndale Restaurant and B&B, Keel, Achill island, Co. Mayo Photo: Keith Heneghan

Celine Naughton

It’s Ireland’s third biggest county, yet Mayo receives less than 4pc of the national share of overseas visitors to these shores.

For a place of such spectacular beauty, with its rugged land and seascapes and picture-postcard villages and towns, it seems astonishing that the Yew County should lag so far behind in the tourism stakes.

But one B&B owner on Achill Island wants to change all that, and he says the confluence of Brexit and

the vision behind Project Ireland 2040 makes this an ideal time to create some Mayo magic.  

With his luxurious five-star B&B Ferndale overlooking Keel Bay, Jon Fratschoel says there is tremendous potential to boost tourism to this beauty spot on the Wild Atlantic Way.

The Swiss native also believes that a hard Brexit would devastate the west of Ireland. 

It may be a long way from Switzerland to Slievemore Mountain, but when he first arrived in Ireland on holiday in 1985, it was a case of love at first sight for the trained chef from Zurich – first with the river Shannon and then with the rest of the country. 

He and his aunt Heidi opened a restaurant on the island 16 years ago. When the recession kept diners at home, they turned it into a luxurious B&B with six large ensuite rooms, each decorated in an opulent theme with sea or mountain views.

They were rewarded with a five-star rating from Bord Fáilte. 

“You have to be innovative, especially in the west of Ireland,” says Fratschoel.

“We have 2,500 guests a year, but the season in Achill is very short. High season is six weeks from around mid-July to end of August. We extend that in May-June and again in September, when our occupancy is about 60pc on high season. It’s a bonus.” 

Most of the guests are Irish, with 12pc each coming from the UK and Germany, and smaller numbers from elsewhere.

Of their British guests, the vast majority are from Northern Ireland. 

“It’s a very important market for us, so I hope there will remain an open border post-Brexit,” says Fratschoel.

“I believe Ireland should be able to negotiate a separate treaty with the UK, independent of the EU. We should have a bigger say in how things proceed, because Ireland is uniquely positioned next to Britain, and no other EU country will be affected in quite the same way.” 

He also feels there should be direct talks between individual communities and civic authorities to decide on how Project Ireland 2040 should be interpreted on a local level.

“I’d like to see research put together by the residents of each small town or village, in collaboration with local authorities, before deciding together how best the money should be spent in the interests of the community and, in turn, the country as a whole,” he says.  

Some specific aspects of Project Ireland 2040 that will impact on local community life and business are: 

  • a national €1bn rural regeneration fund to include investment in towns and villages nationwide, including Mayo; 
  • road improvements including the N4/N5 from Westport to Turlough, and the N59 from Westport/Newport to Mulranny; 
  • a significant investment in Knock Airport; 
  • a €19.4m investment in sewerage schemes for Foxford, Charlestown and Killala; 
  • a €3.5m investment in GMIT campus Castlebar; 
  • improvements to the Céide Fields Visitor Centre;
  • the completion of Ionad na hEachléime on the Mullet Peninsula.

While all this is going on, Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs) are also offering ways to cushion the blow from our nearest neighbour’s upcoming EU divorce.

What the outcome will be is still anybody’s guess, and according to John Magee, Head of Enterprise at Mayo Local Enterprise Office, the biggest casualty of Brexit at this point is certainty. So how do Mayo business owners and managers deal with that? 

“The best response may be to hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” says Magee.

“It is potentially hugely significant, but until we have clarity, we can only deal in general, abstract terms. In my opinion, we just don’t know how it’s going to play, and anybody who claims to know that for certain either has an agenda or is misleading. 

“In the context of this maelstrom of uncertainty, we encourage businesses to prioritise three key areas:

Market diversification: Any business that currently exports most of their product to Britain and has an over-reliance on the British market needs to seriously consider breaking into other markets;

Increase competitiveness: Will border tariffs be imposed? We don’t know. The best antidote to uncertainty is to be as competitive as you can be. Everything you can do to reduce your cost-base makes you more competitive. Not everybody gets what ‘lean processes’ are until they do a ‘lean programme’ at their Local Enterprise Office. Try it. You’ll get it;

Innovation: Pushing innovation in everything you do gives you a better chance of surviving in new relationships with UK and other markets. 

“These three pillars are as applicable to Brexit as to any future change that can pose challenges to business, and I believe they are the most appropriate responses to the current climate,” says Magee.

He points to the ‘Brexit Scorecard’ online tool designed by Enterprise Ireland as a starting point to help businesses to assess their readiness for what may lie ahead. You can access the scorecard at www.prepareforbrexit.ie. 

He also urges businesses to think of their LEO as a resource to tap into when it comes to dealing with challenges like Brexit. Each county’s office provides a combination of big-picture information and local knowledge and initiatives.

“Two years ago we set up the Ireland West International Trade Centre in Providence, USA,” says Mr Magee.

“Irish people have as much in common culturally and historically with America as we do with the UK, and we encourage and help people to get out there and talk to their counterparts in that part of the world. 

“In April we’ll be taking a group to Belfast to explore business opportunities in Northern Ireland.

“It’s part of our Going North initiative in collaboration with the Roscommon and Longford LEOs.

“Last year, over €1.1bn of products and services were sold by Irish businesses to customers in Northern Ireland and cross-border sales have increased significantly in the last few years. Plus, it’s only two hours from Mayo.” 

These are examples of what one Local Enterprise Office is doing, and other initiatives are running in other offices nationwide. 

“We typically work with start-ups and small companies with up to 10 employees, but we turn no one away,” says Magee.

“We encourage all businesses to think of their Local Enterprise Office when it comes to Brexit and other business challenges.”

For more information on Project Ireland 2040 visit the official website 

Irish Independent

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