Rising costs, Covid-19, staffing problems, price-sensitive customers. These days, who would be a hotelier?
Aisling Arnold, that’s who.
“I love it,” the 36-year-old tells me from Dunfanaghy, Co Donegal. Aisling is the fourth generation of her family to run Arnolds Hotel, a busy three-star in which her summer days are spent pinballing from breakfast shifts to finances, hiring to housekeeping, and operations to chatting with guests.
She and husband Aidan are working all hours, “but it’s a short season for us, so it’s very important to make the most of it,” she says. And besides, she loves the “hectic-ness” of it all. “It’s never boring.”
Anyone who knows Dunfanaghy will know Arnolds. A member of the Original Irish Hotels collection, it celebrates 100 years in 2022 — a century during which it grew from guesthouse to “temperance hotel” to 31-bed townhouse with new-look restaurant, cocktail bar and Arnou Café & Burger Bar.
It’s the kind of place where local kids get their first jobs, and staff know returning customers’ names.
Managing wasn’t always Aisling’s plan. She left town at 18, studying accounting in Dublin and working with Deloitte. But during the downturn, with retirement on the horizon, her parents gave her a call. At 26, she was back.
Arnolds has weathered a crisis or two — from World War II to recessions and a pandemic. But 2022 has been “the most difficult year for hospitality”, she says. “I can’t see it getting any harder than this.”
That’s down to many things, not least inflation. The hotel’s energy and fuel bills are up 120pc, for example. She’s taken fillets of beef off the menu, and salmon is now rarely seen (“the cost has gone through the roof”). But still, a four-course set menu has inched up from €35 to €37.50pp.
The balancing act for a small business in a small community, Aisling explains, amounts to “keeping our customers on side by not passing everything on, and for us to make sure that we remain financially viable.”
Staffing is another existential issue.
“Everybody kind of hit the reset button with Covid; there were a lot of lifestyle and mindset changes,” she says.
The industry had to adapt, and while her own workload sounds exhausting (Covid means she can have to cover scheduling gaps), she’s tried to introduce more flexibility on things like weekends off, shift times, and peak-season holidays for staff. For the first time ever, the hotel will also remain open year-round — a step she hopes will help her retain people.
“If I’m honest, I took a bit of a speed wobble in May or June,” Aisling admits. “I was just really concerned about going forward, and in particular the wintertime, because everybody’s talking about recession.”
But she is “quietly confident” about occupancy rates and, all going well, plans to finish out a bedroom refurb programme.
“I’ve gone out of that kind of terror phase!” she laughs. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, or what’s ahead — sure we never do. But I actually feel very positive.”
Find more on Arnold’s Hotel at arnoldshotel.com
Original Irish Hotels is offering guests of participating hotels a €50 gift towards a future stay. Stays must be Sunday to Thursday, a two-night minimum, and booked between September 13 and March 2023. originalirishhotels.com/50