Irish hospitality has weathered the recession, says Georgina Campbell ahead of her 2016 awards. But raising prices without raising the bar is unacceptable.
Irish hospitality is back in fighting form.
The summer weather may have been disappointing, but 2015 has been a record year in many ways - with accommodation bookings up almost everywhere and a dizzying number of new restaurant openings, especially in Dublin.
Food and hospitality has played a leading role in our economic recovery, and I’ve found travelling around Ireland this year to be a tonic – there are smiles on faces, and owners who weathered the recession are optimistic again.
Largely, this is down to the vision and leadership shown by our very best hoteliers, restaurateurs, chefs and other dedicated industry professionals - an elite group for whom excellence and the constant effort to improve are simply a way of life.
That group is well-represented (in all price ranges) among those recognised at this year’s Georgina Campbell Awards, to be announced this afternoon.
But it’s not all good news.
We’ve had some underwhelming experiences on our recent travels, with some of the most unexpected disappointments coming in owner-run businesses where we found the proprietors absent - raising questions about staff training.
Similar to last year, most of our unsatisfactory experiences have been in four and five-star properties. Prices are rising again too, not only threatening our hard-earned competitive edge, but galling to customers where cost is not matched by improved quality.
The low prices demanded in the recession may not have been sustainable, but raising prices without raising the bar is not acceptable.
People often ask me for advice when opening hotels. I think a sound start would be to look at all of the things a good budget chain does well, take those on board and then add whatever extras you wish. A good budget hotel is supremely practical and the quality – albeit no-frills - matches the price point and more.
Result: happy customer.
Paradoxically, this year has seen some of Ireland’s top 5-star hotel’s invest massively in refurbishment (much needed in some cases), but I think the luxury sector is most likely to disappoint in terms of overall guest experience.
This year, we stayed at an Irish five-star where the room was cold and the bathroom almost freezing - due to a fault that was acknowledged, but the staff attitude was unbelievably off-hand and the promised assistance never materialised.
Breakfast was another let-down, largely due to poor staff attitude, but also because the much-vaunted quality based on local and speciality foods was noticeable by its absence. The price point in no way matched the experience.
Result: unhappy customer.
Consistency is a major problem. A lot of people are still struggling with tired premises that have been short on maintenance and renovation for years.
I have huge sympathy for owners in that situation, although customers may be less understanding, especially when prices are rising.
Bargains are thinner on the ground in 2015 but, even where special offers sound promising, they can also disappoint if standards are lowered for ‘special offer guests’ (yes, we had that too) and staff attitudes are condescending.
I’m not suggesting that we’re seeing an outright return to Celtic Tiger arrogance. It would be a shame, however, if we were to lose the Irish warmth and the competitive edge that we regained in the recession.
We should be proud of the achievements of recent years, especially when it comes to the surge in production of speciality foods and craft brewing - just the kind of thing that visitors love to find, and going down a treat with the home market too.
The international market picks up on competitive slippage in jig time, however - and if travellers get so much as a hint of a return to Rip-off Ireland, there will be murder to pay.
Georgina Campbell is one of Ireland’s leading food and hospitality writers and current President of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild.