Monday 11 December 2017

We really love being at each other's service

Joan and Stephen Belton first started dating when they were working in rival hotels in Kerry

Joan and Stephen Belton have three daughters and live in Cork. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Joan and Stephen Belton have three daughters and live in Cork. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Hotelier and TV personality Francis Brennan was very much on Joan and Stephen Belton's minds when they met in 1992. Stephen was deputy manager of the Park Hotel in Kenmare, which Francis and his brother John co-own, and Joan was front office manager at Sheen Falls Lodge at the time. They were rival hotels, so the pair worried about telling Francis that they were dating.

"A lot of the staff had worked in both hotels, including Joan, so everyone knew each other and we bantered about the competition," says Stephen. "Francis was like a father to both of us, so we wondered how he would react? We were afraid the hotels wouldn't want two people in managerial positions dating in case we went back and told each other things. I was a nervous wreck when I told Francis, but he told me that he was genuinely delighted for us and said that Joan was a gorgeous girl."

Hospitality is very much in Joan and Stephen's DNA. Joan, 54, grew up in Ballinasloe as the eldest of the late Bernie and Joe Grenham's five children. Her dad was a psychiatric nurse, and her mum owned a pub, Killians. After completing a secretarial course in Athlone and working in offices, she spent two seasons working on reception at the Park Hotel, which gave her a love for the hotel business. It was seasonal so they used to finish in October.

Joan went to London when her second season there ended and stayed for a year, and when she returned, Francis helped her get a job in reservations at Dromoland Castle. She then went to Sheen Falls Lodge for four years. At that time, local hotel staff used to meet up in Florry Batts Bar when they were off-duty, which is where she met Stephen.

From Raheny in Dublin, 48-year-old Stephen is the youngest of Christy and Margot's three children. His dad was a printer with his own company, and his mum worked in the Gresham and the Shelbourne. He started working part-time at the Clarence Hotel, and studied hotel management at DIT, Cathal Brugha Street. He began working as assistant manager at the Park Hotel in 1989.

"Our eyes met across the pub and I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, he is so handsome and lovely,'" Joan says, of her first encounter with Stephen: "A friend of mine knew him and she said that if I was going to get with a guy, it should be Stephen. I remember being really excited when he rang me later to go out on a date."

Or more precisely, he got his friend Liz to make the call, so as not to alert the Sheen Falls staff to his mission. "Joan was, and is, a very good-looking girl, and she was always great fun and laughed an awful lot," says Stephen.

The pair got engaged on the Aran Islands after a year, and were married in Hayden's hotel in Ballinasloe in November, 1994. They moved to Cork to manage a new hotel, The Baltimore Harbour, and then moved to the Bayview hotel in Ballycotton in 1995. Stephen became involved commercially with the O'Brien family who own the hotel, and together they began construction on the Garryvoe Hotel in 2001. Since then, it has gone from a two-star, 17-bedroom hotel, to a four-star, 84-bedroom one, with two ballrooms, a health club and a recently renovated bar and restaurant called the Samphire. Stephen looks after both hotels, which have 150 staff members between them, and he is also on the board of marketing organisation, Manor House Hotels.

"There are a lot of excellent hotels around Ireland that aren't very well known," he points out. "We are a very focused hotel and are passionate about what we do, which is why we have a lot of repeat business. We do a lot of weddings too, and what makes us special, I suppose, is our accessibility and honesty. A hotel is not about fancy wallpaper, it's about heart and about people."

Stephen and Joan live close to Garryvoe and have three daughters, Chloe, 19, Hannah, 17, and Abby, 12. Stephen is blessed among women, he says, although he has a serious rival for Joan's affections in the shape of their Westie, Oscar. "Oh, I'm jealous of Oscar, there is no doubt about it," he laughs. "The dog gets away with murder. Joan is an unbelievably patient person, and she shows the girls that it's important to do things for people without expecting anything back. She has an honesty that a lot of people have learned from, and her staying power with me is unreal because I'd drive the Pope bonkers." Joan stopped working when Abby was five as her dad was dying, so she was up and down to Ballinasloe. She has been kept busy since then raising the three girls, and hopes to return to work, maybe next year. Stephen works Monday to Saturday so Sunday is all about catching up as a family. Joan and Stephen don't get a lot of time together as life is so busy, but when they do, it's a real treat. "We went out to Cork city last week for my birthday, and we were like two young kids, just so excited to be out among the buzz," she says. "I have never met someone as suited to the hotel business as Stephen, as he is so patient and very funny."

Is Joan a good sounding board for Stephen as she was in the hotel business herself? "Yes, she definitely keeps my feet on the ground," he says. "We don't let each other away with anything, and that keeps us balanced because our heads don't get big. It's important to keep each other steady - that's a good partnership."

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