Family life and business pressures are leading Irish stays to rethink their offerings. ‘It’s just different,’ they say...
“It was a little bit of a difficult decision to make but the pandemic convinced us,” says Niall Hughes.
“In 2021, our new lodges were really, really successful, but the B&B was lagging behind. So we decided we’d switch the B&B to a high-end lodge as well, and that’s what we’ve been doing all winter.”
Niall and his wife, Darra, have run Sea View House, an award-winning B&B in the picturesque village of Doolin, Co Clare, for 25 years. They’ve welcomed a steady stream of guests from all over the world into their home, where picture windows look out on breathtaking views over the Ailie River and Atlantic Ocean.
But change is coming. From this month, the traditional B&B aspect of the business will finish, and all of the couple’s accommodation will pivot to high-end, self-catering options, with guests able to hire one of three luxury lodges on site, or even Sea View House itself.
The beautiful, three-storey home has now been transformed into a luxury four-bed lodge, where three king-sized rooms and a twin will sleep eight, and an inviting hot tub sits newly installed on the expansive private deck.
It’s not simply a case of ‘out with the old’. Guests have their own private kitchens and dining rooms, but there’s still the option of a freshly prepared Burren Food Trail Breakfast Buffet, where locally produced breads, jams, granola, yoghurt and even Niall’s famous breakfast frittatas can be quietly delivered to lodge doors, with no dressing up for the dining room required.
“In a way, it’s the same business model; it’s just different,” Niall says. “It was a difficult decision for sure, but given the success of the lodges for the last two years with the domestic market, it was kind of a no-brainer for us.”
‘Pivot’ was a word we heard a lot of during the pandemic, as businesses adapted creatively to fast-changing rules and restrictions. For some accommodation providers, that’s continuing as we emerge from Covid. Whether it’s changing business models or expanding the guest experience, plenty of hospitality businesses across Ireland are looking at new ways to switch it up in 2022.
Some are moving to a more tailored, self-catering model. At Longueville House, a Blue Book property in Co Cork, for example, there’s a move toward exclusive hire — groups of 13-30 guests can now opt to rent the stunning 301-year-old Georgian mansion for three nights or more. Inch House in Co Tipperary has taken a similar step. After running a restaurant for 25 years, the owners have now made it available to holidaymakers for exclusive hires.
“We’ve guests who’ve been coming to us for the last 16 years that are now coming and having their last stay with us, and I’m in tears when they check out,” says Christine Gannon of the Old Convent, another country house in Co Tipperary. “It’s very emotional for me to let go.”
The Old Convent Country House sits at the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains, and Christine and husband Dermot are preparing to finish the overnight stay aspect of their hugely successful B&B business.
Lockdown played a part in their decision, but it isn’t a change based on Covid-related concerns.
“Our life took quite a different path when our child was diagnosed with a rare syndrome,” Christine explains. “In the spring lockdown last year, we had time to step out of the routine and think about what was working for the family, what wasn’t, and where our priorities lie. We just realised we couldn’t do it all anymore.”
She continues: “I think a lot of people definitely assume it’s because of the rising costs of goods, rising energy prices or a shortage of staff, but the actual story behind it is a family decision.”
The Old Convent will continue with Dermot’s popular eight-course Irish Artisan Tasting Dinner, and Christine, a trained yoga teacher, will launch yoga classes. They plan to turn the building into a yoga space and transform the plush former drawing room into a sumptuous new dining room. A Sunday ‘Yoga and Brunch’ event is in the pipeline.
Many providers have realised that broader offering stands a greater chance of success. After 17 years running a B&B in Co Cork, for example, Siobhán O’Leary has no plans to stop overnight stays. But she is passionate about the need to evolve ‘La Cita’, her custom-built, five-bed property.
During lockdown, Siobhán’s online cookery videos soared in popularity, prompting her to look at how the cookery school aspect of her business model could be maximised. “I sat down during lockdown — and I don’t tend to sit down too much — and I decided the wall that separated the kitchen and dining room had to go.”
The open-plan space is now perfect for cooking demonstrations. Siobhán has also been working with a business mentor to see if she can partner with tour operators as a cookery stopover — where international guests can learn to make locally sourced dishes like Beamish bread — en route to and from Blarney Castle.
“I’m working on building that at the moment,” she says. “The B&B is coming back, but it’s not coming back in huge amounts, so I want to enhance the B&B experience. You always have to be thinking, ‘What can I offer guests?’”
A surge in intimate weddings has also prompted a change in direction for Hanna’s Close, a clachan of 10 traditional holiday cottages nestled at the foot of the Mournes near Kilkeel, Co Down, since the 17th century.
“I would never have seen us going down the wedding route, but obviously because couples couldn’t have big weddings, they were phoning us up,” explains Lily Annett, administrator for Hanna’s Close Holiday Homes. From idyllic backdrops to space for providers to erect marquees and tepees, it’s becoming a sought-after ‘hidden gem’ wedding location. Even with restrictions lifting, she thinks the demand will remain. “I think people have realised they don’t need to spend a fortune or to have the big do where everyone is invited for it to feel special.”
Covid supports enabled the renovation of a hay shed into a multipurpose event space — with wedding flower arranging classes now scheduled for April — and a stunning, ornately painted wooden caravan has been added to the site as a base for storytelling sessions. This year, cookery demonstrations of traditional soda and potato bread making will be hands-on, with Lily leading not just demonstrations but also classes in fireside baking.
“People no longer want to come for a holiday,” she explains. “They don’t just want to stay at Hanna’s Close, they want to experience it.”
That ‘E’ word crops everywhere, whether talking to a luxury self-catering company like Unique Irish Homes, who report that even A-list celebrity clients are looking for ‘that little bit extra’, or a family checking into a rural farm. Guests want more, they want an authentic experience, and providers are pivoting to give it to them.
“I think people have changed what they want from a family holiday,” reflects David Ross of Top of the Rock, a popular family farm stay in west Cork. As well as two new underfloor-heated pods (capable of sleeping a family of six), and a children’s playhouse erected last month, there are also new walkways at the farm to enjoy and an expansion of their farmhands tour, where visitors can get up close to the action, whether that’s watching lambs being born or digging up spuds.
“People are realising just how special these things are, and you don’t have to fly miles to do something memorable as a family,” says David.
The positives of pivoting are already revealing themselves. In Doolin, for example, fewer multiple check-ins mean Sea View House no longer has to close for a winter break. It’s now a 12-month destination, and that has a favourable impact on staff retention. Upping the accommodation ante has precipitated an increase in its average room rates, but it also means the average length of stay has increased.
“We find a lot of people are booking three and four nights because we’re more of a base now than an over-night stay,” says Niall. “Our offering is a lot more suited to the domestic market now, and that makes the model more sustainable.
“It’s more of a future-proofed business for us.”
Sea View House, Doolin, Co Clare
Explore the Cliffs of Moher and return to your luxury lodge to chill out in your private hot tub. Two-night stay from €245pps, with a sumptuous breakfast delivered to your door. seaview-doolin.ie
Hanna’s Close, Kilkeel, Co Down
From Game of Thrones tours to electric bike hire, all the activities the Mournes have to offer are on your doorstep, but you still get a taste of holidaying in history. Two-night breaks at the 17th-century cottages start from £190. mournecountrycottages.com
The Old Convent, Co Tipperary
Some overnight stays are available until July 31. After that, guests can enjoy the eight-course Irish Artisan Tasting Dinner, served on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays that fall before bank holidays, from €75pp. theoldconvent.ie
La Cita, Co Cork
Enjoy a ‘total Irish home experience’ with a cookery demonstration (Beamish brown bread, Irish stew, boxty) before feasting on the results for lunch or dinner and an overnight stay at the B&B. From €100pp. lacitabb.ie
Top of the Rock, Drimoleague, Co Cork
After feeding lambs and exploring hay-bale mazes, retire to your cosy family pod on site at this working family-run farm. Self-catering, two-night stays for two adults and up to four children (bring your own duvets and pillows), including farmhands tour, from €220. topoftherock.ie