The former Burlington grew to be one of Ireland’s most beloved hotels. So how did such a big venue feel so personal, and what is happening there today?
‘I want you to use your imagination when this door opens. We’re going back to the 1970s...”
Frank Treacy is concierge at the Clayton Hotel Burlington Road, but like everybody else, still calls it The Burlo.
He’s taking me to the site of the hotel’s legendary former rooftop carvery. When the lift opens to the seventh floor, we step out into a nondescript hallway.
“You turned left here,” he says, knocking on a section of wall. “Behind here was the famous entrance to the rooftop restaurant... the big thing of ham, the roast, the side of fish. It cost seven pounds and was booked solid nearly for the year on Saturday nights.”
It’s just one of the stories hidden like teaspoons around this historic hotel. The Burlington opened 50 years ago, when PV Doyle built what was the largest hotel in central Dublin. Over the years, celebs like the Spice Girls, Johnny Cash, Audrey Hepburn and Leonardo Di Caprio have swanned through its lobby, bars and ballroom. Sports, movie and music stars have graced its awards and events. Przemek Sawa, senior operations manager, remembers the day he met Pele. Frank Treacy says Joe Dolan always called ahead before popping in after shows.
But anyone who knows The Burlo knows it’s not just about the stars.
The hotel’s gigantic events space, capable of hosting 1,400 people, has been described as “Ireland’s function room”. Generations have attended its debs, dos, GAA dinners, conferences, cabarets and charity balls. “Everybody in Ireland has had some connection with the hotel,” says manager Huey O’Byrne (his parents spent their wedding night here). “Stories come out of the woodwork.”
Testing the theory, I tweet asking for memories of the D4 icon. They ping back, from the old Annabel’s nightclub to spotting the All Blacks in the lobby, and warm, private moments. “My now husband and I lived in a little basement bedsit in upper Leeson St,” is one reply. “We planned our wedding in [The] Burlo bar on a brown paper bag. Married in ‘97. Still have him and bag.”
During the Celtic Tiger, developer Bernard McNamara bought The Burlo for a reported €288m. It subsequently went into receivership. In more recent years, the hotel has been a Doubletree by Hilton, and is now a Clayton — operated by Dalata, Ireland’s largest hotel group. Changes have seen that rooftop carvery (along with a former shopping arcade and swimming pool) come and go. So how is the old stalwart faring in 2022?
“Minding the building [during Covid-19] was just creepy,” Frank tells me. But today, it’s back to life. I pass lines of suitcases and a CIE tour bus outside. A burly crew is loading AV equipment onto a truck. Concierge and reception desks are hopping. In the lobby, a businessman takes a call next to a family with a buggy; tourists emerge from the lifts next to several young men in tuxedos.
“It’s like a switch was flicked,” sales manager Lisa Harrison says of its March reopening. Many bookings were rescheduled rather than cancelled, so it was straight back into those mind-boggling mega-events.
“It’s like a jigsaw... a very big jigsaw,” says general manager Sandra Doyle, describing the operations behind 502 rooms and a 2,100sqm events space. “Most people in the hotel industry would find this just daunting.”
But she and others I speak to appear energised by it. And despite the changes of ownership, €13.5m of recent investment, Covid-19 and a city and hotel industry utterly changed since it opened in 1972, you’ll still see familiar faces, and still hear people talking about “the Burlington culture”.
Frank began as a pageboy over 40 years ago. Head concierge Paul Fitzsimons has been here since 1996. “When I started I had two of my aunties working here, my father, my brother, and I think a couple of cousins as well,” he says, taking me on a tour. “You get absorbed into the fabric of this hotel, the stories; it becomes part of you.”
As we walk, he shows me photos from a staff Facebook group. There’s Charlie Haughey in a tux. Pele in a polo shirt. But as much time is spent talking about employees like former general manager Aidan Doyle, Frank Treacy or Mary Kerrigan, who has worked at the bar since the 1970s (“We would nearly call it Mary’s bar,” Przemek says).
For such a beast of a hotel, it feels personal. “We’re all cogs in a big machine,” as Paul puts it. “But we work together.”
It’s not utopia, of course. Everyone I meet makes a point of telling me how hard the work can be. You’d never call The Burlo hip, or beautiful. The rooms and restaurant feel generic, the bar TV screen-heavy, and I think more could be done to showcase its history — by reviving subtle photo galleries, for example.
Like all hotels, it’s also dealing with the challenges of staff retention (Sandra talks about promoting from within, minding people and providing career pathways, but has certainly had to pay more) and inflation. B&B rates for July range from €194 midweek to €414 on weekends for a standard double. Is it, and other Irish hotels, overpriced in peak season?
Sandra points to industry factors like rising costs, the bounce back of tourism and events, the fact that some 17pc of Dublin room stock is contracted by the State, and says better value can be found by booking further ahead. Nevertheless, she has been directed “to be very careful not to be exploiting the current situation”.
She also points out that the debate over peak prices isn’t new. “For Irish people, Dublin prices have always been too dear.”
For all the changes, this huge Irish hotel still feels like a brand people take personally — like Bewley’s or Aer Lingus. It still feels unpretentious, a place where all kinds of people can mix. Today, it’s called Clayton Hotel Burlington Road “to fit within Dalata brands”, the company says. But there’s no surprise when I ask what most people call it.
“It’s The Burlo,” Przemek laughs.