Fire-pits, adult-only breaks and linger-longer lobbies: Seven ways Irish hotels are changing in 2019
Pól Ó Conghaile shares the travel trends uncovered in our 50 best places to stay in Ireland this year
Picking Ireland's Fab 50 for 2019 involved a load of mileage, but it also helped distill for us the emerging trends in accommodation this year.
Here are seven of the highlights, from fire pits and money-saving tips to the stubborn persistence of single-use plastics.
1. Hotel lobbies are evolving...
Hotel lobbies used to be functional spaces. You arrived, you checked in... and maybe you admired the flower arrangements on that glossy foyer table.
That's changing. Forward-thinking Irish hotels are adapting to the way modern guests live and work by opening up their public spaces to incorporate food, bars, work and social spaces with solid Wi-Fi (which should be fast and free... no questions).
- Read our full Fab 50 for 2019 here.
Fine dining restaurants, while still an important part of the offering for luxury properties, are taking a back seat to all-day dining and menus... catering for the comings and goings of guests and the extra spend of non-residents.
Leaders of the pack? Drop into the Devlin in Ranelagh and check out its coffee hut, Americana bar and restaurant... or basement cinema. The tiny reception is tucked away under a Tracey Emin neon sign in the corner, almost like an afterthought.
In Limerick, the new Bedford Townhouse shares its ground-floor space with a café and travel agent, while the five-star Druid's Glen in Co Wicklow has just doubled the size of its smashing terrace overlooking the Wicklow woodland setting.
2. Book direct to bag a bargain
Most of the hotels and guesthouses on our Fab 50 list with online travel agents (OTAs) like booking.com, hotels.com, or airbnb.ie. They offer enormous reach.
There is a downside, however. Depending on the agent, owners and managers tell us that commission can cost them anything up to 18pc of the room rate.
While persisting with OTA strategies, we're seeing more properties encouraging customers to book with them directly (Hilton's 'Stop Clicking Around' campaign was a leader in this regard). This not only saves them the hefty commission, but opens up the chance to build loyalty with customers directly.
For guests, it's a no-brainer. By all means, search for deals on booking.com. But before you actually book, make a point of calling or emailing the property directly. Quote the OTA rate, and ask what they can offer if you book directly.
3. Couples making changes
Several of the properties on this year's Fab 50 are run by couples who have recently made big changes in their lives... and we're encouraged to see them bring new perspectives and a fresh, positive energy into tourism sectors that can sometimes be fusty - country houses and B&Bs, for instance.
Take Tristan Fahy and Emma King of Hook Lodge (above), who quit stressful careers in London to open a next-gen B&B on Wexford's Hook Peninsula.
Mary and Robert White of Blackstairs Eco Trails left hectic lives in Dublin - as a Green Party TD and bookseller, respectively - to build a pioneering eco-tourism business around their country home near Borris, Co Carlow, while Philippe and Brona Brillant have re-located to reinvigourate Wexford's Clonganny House.
Their lives and loves are chiming with guests, too. "We live in busy cities," as Mary White told me. "We need to get away."
4. Adult-only getaways
Kids are great, right?
OK, now that's agreed, let's talk about short breaks without kids. Several of the properties on our Fab 50 this year are unapologetically adults-only - ranging from Monart in Co Wexford to the Old Convent in Clogheen, Co Tipperary.
We didn't plan it this way, but the takeaways are there to see - in the past, parents tended to feel conflicted about taking 'me-time' breaks without their broods, but there's a growing sense that those breaks aren't just a valuable respite from stressful lives, but a bloody nice way to spend some time together.
Then there are the property owners. If you have a country house set up for fine dining, decorated with lavish antiques and carefully chosen beds and tubs... what's the point opening it up to children?
Here's a grown-up niche we see growing even further.
5. Enough with the plastics, already
It's not enough to offer the option of paper straws. Too many Irish hotels continue with token environmental initiatives - urging us to re-use towels, for example, or making plastic straws optional - while continuing to shower us in single-use plastics.
Think of the mini-toiletries, the shower caps, the little bars of soap, the throwaway water bottles, the tea and coffee wrappings, the sachets of ketchup or butter... it adds up so quickly, and is particularly discouraging for families making efforts to reduce waste at home.
It's time for tourism businesses to take the lead in cutting out single-use plastics. This can be done creatively, without appearing evangelical or pushy - just ask the Fab 50's Hotel Doolin, which was this year certified as Ireland's first carbon neutral hotel.
6. Everything is local...
One of the things we are delighted to note - and encourage - in our Fab 50 this year, is a growing effort among Irish tourism businesses to involve local communities.
Primarily, this is visible through the local ingredients popping up on menus - particularly in rural and budget properties.
"In the past there might have be one or two big ticket local names on the menu, while the breakfast buffet was filled with cheaper mass catering items," as travel writer Nicola Brady, who helped to compile the Fab 50, puts it.
"Now it seems like less of a trend and more of a shift in the way things are operated."
Of course, there's a long way to go with food product in hotels, but we've favoured businesses that make efforts to use local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients.
"I'm also seeing a lot more people link up with local businesses," Nicola adds. "The Montenotte in Cork has an artist in residence, for example, while the Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery has teamed up with local farms for tours."
Many of our picks are also sustaining local employment not just directly, but through thoughtful and inclusive initiatives ranging from Dunbrody House's thriving Sunday Market, to Blackstairs Eco Trails' regular use of a taxi driver who drives part-time to supplement his farming income.
Investing in local communities ticks so many boxes - creating jobs and local goodwill, telling a unique food story, enriching your guest offering and building a sustainable business that gives a true flavour of its location.
7. Spark up the fire pits!
Finally, to the fire pits... who knew?
Several of the places we visited this year pointed out their flash new fire pits, from Blackwell House in Scarva, Co Down, to the new Killary Lodge in Connemara.
Fire pits (or bowls) won't be new to grandstanding gardeners and home barbecue buffs, of course, but it's interesting to see them on the rise in Irish accommodation... providing colour for guests (and weddings), making use of outdoor spaces, and nodding, of course, to the Irish weather.
Read more:The 2019 Wander List: 20 hottest places to travel this year