The 2019 Reader Travel Awards winners gathered in Dublin to celebrate their gongs, writes Leslie Ann Horgan
"No question is too great and nothing is too difficult to do for our guests," Helen Heaton says of her business philosophy.
As owner, along with her husband Brian, of Castlewood House in Dingle, Co Kerry, Helen's customers usually arrive at her door feeling tired after a long journey.
"You'll know instantly if they've had a big massive row in the car," Helen laughs. "You put on your best game face, your best smile, you shake their hand and say: 'You're here now, you can relax. We're going to look after you.'"
It's that expert eye, soothing tone and innate warmth that saw Castlewood House win Best Irish Welcome in the 2019 Reader Travel Awards. Established three years ago to honour the very best of the Irish tourism industry - in both home and overseas holidays - the awards are unique in that winners are chosen by the true travel experts: our readers.
Answering the call to reveal your holiday heroes for 2019, you voted in your thousands - sharing your experiences and insights with us along the way. Votes were counted and scrutinised by our panel of judges, and in January the winners of our 15 categories were announced in Weekend Magazine and on Independent.ie.
To celebrate being chosen by you as Ireland's favourites, we brought winners from all across the country together for an intimate luncheon earlier this month. They were joined by leading figures from the tourism industry, as well as representatives of our 2019 sponsors, Iarnród Éireann, in the chic surrounds of the Cliff Townhouse, on Dublin's St Stephen's Green.
After a delicious three-course meal, with refreshment provided by Wines of Spain, the group discussed what sets a business apart in a crowded sector - and what they did to win your esteem.
"You're the cream of the crop, as our readers see it," Irish Independent Travel Editor and event host Pól Ó Conghaile told the assembled guests.
"You're the people that understand the human connection. When people are booking with you and spending money with you they feel at home. It's increasingly apparent that that feeling means more to us in this age of screentime and distractedness, choice and overflowing inboxes."
The chance to switch off is something that rings true for guests at Hidden Valley - voted Ireland's Favourite Small Stay. The Co Wicklow holiday park offers camping, glamping and self-catering accommodation, as well as watersports and activities.
"It's really about putting away the phones and laptops and getting back to nature and spending quality time with your family," owner Molly Williams told the room. "People want to barbecue, roast marshmallows, and do things that we used to do in our own childhoods."
Nostalgia is a factor, too, in bringing people to Dublin's Phoenix Park - winner of Ireland's Favourite Local Attraction - confirmed Park Superintendent, Paul McDonnell.
"We speak to different people here, and their memories are of growing up running around the park," he said, adding that love for the park is passed down through generations. "There are so many communities around it, and there are huge amounts of families that don't have access to swathes of green space. It's somewhere to bring their kids, to learn how to cycle a bike or bring the dog for a walk."
Like the Phoenix Park - which is reviewing its facilities with the intention of attracting more international visitors to areas such as the historic magazine fort - the businesses that won your votes are the ones that don't rest on their laurels.
"She's an old lady but she's looking good for her 200 years," as JP Kavanagh said of the Shelbourne Hotel, where he is General Manager. Ireland's Favourite Hotel has been undergoing rolling refurbishments since 2007, and the latest phase will see an upgraded entrance, Horseshoe Bar and Lord Mayor's Lounge open in April. In the meantime, 'Pardon Our Appearance' packages are proving popular with a domestic clientele who feel an affinity with the property, according to JP.
"She is the grande dame, she is the front door for Ireland and we think it's important that people feel they can walk through that door."
Another operator that's received an image overhaul is Aer Lingus - the winner of Ireland's Favourite Airline unveiled its new-look logo and livery last month.
Keeping that look under wraps until its official launch was a challenge, revealed Head of Consumer PR, Paula Donaghy. "There are so many people on the ground physically scraping off old paint and putting on new paint, it's incredibly difficult to keep it under lock and key," she said. "There's huge excitement and huge interest in a change like that, because Aer Lingus is a brand that everybody has an affinity towards."
Paula told the room how Aer Lingus would be adding a tranche of new A321neo planes to its transatlantic fleet in the coming years, allowing the airline to expand its network to cities like Minneapolis-Saint Paul and Montreal.
Stena Line, too, is adding to its fleet, with three new ships arriving in 2020 to enhance Ireland's Favourite Ferry Experience. Asked if there was a resurgence in families boarding the ferry for their summer holiday, Marketing Manager Jill Kelleher said the trend had never gone away. "It's developing a lot more, especially on French routes," she said. "There's an older audience going off in camper vans and really experiencing France, or indeed coming into Ireland and driving around rather than staying in one place."
Royal Caribbean, winner of Ireland's Favourite Cruise Line, is also seeing an upswing in older travellers - albeit with their families in tow. "Nowadays, it's multi-generational," said the cruise line's Head of Ireland, Jennifer Callister.
"We can have grandparents and their children and their grandchildren, and there's something on the ships for absolutely everybody." The company is working hard with the other cruise lines in Ireland to get rid of the myth that cruising is only for the 'newlyweds and nearly-deads', she added. "Cruising is still in its infancy in Ireland, but it's definitely growing," Jennifer said.
As Ireland's Favourite Visitor Attraction, the Cliffs of Moher is well-established as a tourist destination. In fact, Director of the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Experience, Geraldine Enright, said that it had set new records in 2018, with some 1.58 million visitors coming to see the Co Clare landmark.
"Success brings its challenges," Geraldine revealed. "The 'new' visitor centre opened in 2007. It was designed for 100,000 visitors, and we're now seeing almost 1.6 million annually. We've had to change a number of key strategies to manage those people, and to ensure that every one of them has that unique connection with the landscape. They're there to see the Cliffs Of Moher as the sky changes, as the sea changes. It's the iconic image of Ireland."
To combat the "exponential growth" in day-tours from bigger cities - now accounting for some 300,000 visitors annually - Geraldine explained how dynamic pricing had been introduced for independent travellers.
"Those who travel early in the morning or late in the evening get a cheaper rate. It's encouraging people to enjoy the area, to stay longer and to overnight in Co Clare. We want them to get the real, true experience as opposed to spending seven-plus hours on a coach."
For Liam Anthony Griffin, Director of the Griffin Group, that 'real' experience is all important. "It's about the feeling when you walk in," he said of the group's Monart, which won Ireland's Favourite Spa for a third time.
"It's an atmosphere that can't really be created through brickwork, curtains and landscape gardens. Anyone could come along and recreate those pieces of the puzzle - what they can't recreate is how you feel when you walk in the door.
"Having an employee base that understands the ethos of what we're trying to achieve is hugely important. If everyone is on board and everyone gets it, then you're going to win."
Tanya Airey, Managing Director of Sunway Travel - voted Ireland's Favourite Travel Agent by our readers - agreed that an engaged staff is essential. "Most of the people who work in Sunway have been to most of our destinations and know them intimately. So, if you ring up and you want to talk about a cruise or a holiday in Spain, they'll pass you to a person who has been there. I think that's really important," she said. "The travel agent is still alive and they'll give you a really good service."
Another family business honoured at the awards was Ballymaloe House. Fern Allen shared the story of how her parents, Myrtle and Ivan, had first opened a restaurant at the Co Cork country house in 1964. "Ireland was a very different place," Fern said. "When my mum put the ad in the newspaper, she was actually embarrassed to put the name, so she just put the phone number. She thought that people might think that she was getting above herself opening a restaurant."
Now an international foodie destination, which has trained some of Ireland's leading chefs and food entrepreneurs, Ballymaloe was voted Ireland's Favourite Food Experience. When asked about its legacy, Fern replied modesty: "We've a big family and one of the great ways of stopping family fighting with each other is to keep them all busy, so that's what happened. Luckily, people have gone out and done their own things but under the Ballymaloe umbrella. It's kept most of us at home."
Celebrated chef Neven Maguire has also stayed at home and built on the reputation of MacNean House, in Co Cavan, which his parents opened 30 years ago. As a result, bookings for dinner and a stay at the Blacklion Restaurant run well into 2020. However, it's the most important meal of the day that earned our readers' praise and the award for Best Breakfast in Ireland.
"We put as much effort into the breakfast as we do our menu at night-time and that's down to a great team," Neven said. "They do it with such pride and consistency and that's what it's all about." Neven believes that "there's never been a better time to be in Irish food". "We always had good produce but the Irish palate has changed. They're sophisticated, they've travelled. There's a huge interest and excitement in food. For anyone to get in a car and drive a few hours to Blacklion is fantastic for us."
It's bicycles rather than cars that are the preferred form of transport at the Waterford Greenway - the 46km off-road trail voted as Ireland's Favourite Adventure. "It's an experience for everyone," said Michael Quinn, Director of Economic Development & Planning at Waterford City & County Council. "The scenery and the infrastructure and the heritage along it is just fascinating."
Cyclists of all abilities are welcome. "If you're a serious cyclist you'd need to be up early to get a fast run. It really does cater for your average cyclist and people with kids," Michael said. "I even had my parents on it in a rickshaw type of bicycle. My dad is pretty much immobile but it was electric powered so I could cycle the two of them along the Greenway. If you do have challenges in terms of mobility, there are options for you."
Impaired mobility is also not an obstacle to enjoyment at Curracloe in Co Wexford, winner of Ireland's Favourite Beach. Coastal Engineer with Wexford County Council George Colfer explained how a beach wheelchair scheme - a partnership between the council and local business - allowed everyone to enjoy what the sandy stretch had to offer, free of charge. "I can't offer a better sales pitch than come to Curracloe, it's free!" George added.
Local businesses working together is a cornerstone of a successful tourism offering - something that Joan McCarthy, Head of Tourism at Kerry Co Council, also emphasised.
"Four years ago Kerry Co Council developed a tourism strategy with our tourism businesses, after setting up a tourism unit. One of the taglines of that is: 'In Kerry, tourism is everybody's business'. And that really is the way that Kerry goes about its business," she said.
Small wonder, then, that Kerry was voted Ireland's Favourite Home Holiday Destination in the 2019 Reader Travel Awards.
"Killarney in particular is absolutely tremendous in working together, and Dingle has followed suit," Joan added. "The county is learning from each other very much."
Ultimately, however, it seems the things that can't be learned are just as important for the success of our tourism businesses, be they focused on domestic or international travellers. Time and again, our winners' discussion returned to the vital importance of the 'Irish welcome'.
"That céad míle fáilte may be very clichéd, but it's very real," said Eoghan O'Mara Walsh, CEO of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (ITIC). "There isn't a training programme where all tourism professionals come out the other end smiling and saying welcome. It's genuine. It's something within the Irish DNA - the friendliness and welcome and wit and humour of the people - and it's important that we maintain it. There's lots of stuff that we're not, but what we are we're very good at."
Your message to us was that the 15 winners of our 2019 Reader Travel Awards are very good indeed at what they do. Next year, the Reader Travel Awards will be stepping the celebration of your holiday heroes up a notch, with winners revealed at a gala event for some 300 people at Dublin's Mansion House in January 2020. We'll have our best game faces and our best smiles at the ready.
For details of the 2020 Awards, including how to purchase early-bird tickets, see here.