From appointing a ‘King of Connections’ to arranging Zoom calls with regular guests, Ashford Castle General Manager Niall Rochford reflects on a busy lockdown and the future for five-star hotels...
Ashford Castle might be closed, but there are people on site every day.
Every one of the 83 guest rooms is checked daily, and we have a team manning the phones for guest bookings and enquiries. Standards have to be maintained and the castle and grounds kept looking impeccable. I head in myself Monday to Friday, but for the first time in my working life, evenings and weekends are spent at home. It’s been a joy for me — although you’d have to ask the family how they feel about it!
We stay in touch with our regular guests. Together with our team, I’ve been telephoning to see how they are. The response is fantastic, particularly from overseas guests who miss their annual trip to Ashford. We hosted a Zoom call for them at Christmas and will do so again for St Patrick’s Day and Easter. To us, they’re more than guests. We’re using this time to show them that.
Staying connected has been the single most important thing we’ve done for each other, too. Very early on, we created an employee engagement programme that allowed us to keep in touch during hotel closures. In keeping with the castle theme, we appointed a King of Connections — Donegal native, Nathan Gillespie who works in our restaurant, together with his committee, was responsible for keeping spirits high at both Ashford Castle and The Lodge at Ashford Castle. And do you know what, we had some fun! There were Facebook Live cooking classes with our executive chefs, wine tastings with our sommeliers, Zumba classes and book clubs and plenty of socially distanced outdoor activities.
There are 30 staff from 14 countries living on the estate, most of whom have no family in Ireland. It was really important that this group felt connected, involved and cared for.
Both Ashford Castle and The Lodge are part of the Red Carnation collection, and the owners, Mr and Mrs Tollman, have been just fantastic. Many people think of international hotel groups as corporate behemoths, but the Tollmans take a personal interest in staff welfare and keep in regular contact. Because of their support, together with the support we have received from the Government, we have been able to retain all members of staff.
We’ve also set up a dedicated wellbeing committee and trained five staff members to become ‘mental health first aiders’. The rolling lockdowns and uncertainty that goes with opening and closing a business can really take its toll. People are living with financial worries, the challenges of home schooling and going from being really busy to having no work. I’ve found that listening to people and just chatting to them has really helped.
It has helped me too. Personally, this has been a crazy year but equally, it’s been a quietly revelatory period. It’s a funny old world when you can look back on the most challenging 12 months of your career and still feel inspired. This inspiration has come from different sources — the people I work with, my family, who have never seen as much of me, and Cong and its surrounding area, which I’ve never truly had the time to explore and appreciate.
At home, I’ve started cooking again, which I’m really enjoying. I’ve got several books on the go: I’m re-reading The Green Platform by Declan Coyle and Legacy by James Kerr, which looks at the success of the All Blacks. Both are brilliant reads for anyone looking for business or leadership inspiration or direction, particularly at this time. Sport has been a brilliant distraction, too, particularly GAA and rugby. I even got to see my beloved Limerick lift the Liam McCarthy Cup last year, so surely 2020 can’t have been all bad... can it?
What does the future hold for hotels like ours? If 2020 was the year in which we all learned how to pivot, I think 2021 will be the year of reimagining. Understandably, a lot of businesses have had to fundamentally change to survive the devastating impact of the pandemic. But at Ashford Castle, we don’t want to change. Our guests don’t want us to change either. What we see is an opportunity to evolve. We’ve asked our leadership teams to think about ways in which we can build on our current offering and reignite the passion after a torrid year. We want to go even further for our guests, coming up with new, unexpected experiences.
I think we’ll see ‘fast travel’ — a night spent here and another there — replaced by an era of ‘slow travel’, as people switch pace and take their time getting to know a place, immersing themselves in a location like never before. We will also see the rise of ‘travel tribes’; families or bubble groups that have spent lockdown together planning their travels. Multigenerational travel is a trend we are anticipating; three or even four generations of families creating great new memories together, too.
Making predictions can be a futile exercise these days, but I think with the vaccine roll-out well underway, we can face into summer with a lot more hope and optimism. It will mirror summer 2020 in terms of domestic tourism, I believe — the response from the Irish market has far exceeded our expectations, and we are extremely grateful for that. I’m hopeful that we will get to welcome overseas visitors by autumn and, once the country opens up, there could well be an avalanche. There is such pent-up demand, I think we are on the edge of a golden age of travel.
Ashford Castle was the only hotel in Ireland to achieve a five-star ranking in the 2020 Forbes Travel Guide. Future bookings start from €625 per night in May. See ashfordcastle.com