Home Travel Sink or swim: Irish hotels quick to respond to pandemic challenge

Sink or swim: Irish hotels quick to respond to pandemic challenge

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John Burke, the managing director of the Armada Hotel and the first Clare person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, is never one to shy away from a challenge.

ust six months after the Spanish Point business clinched the Hotel of the Year and Best Wedding Venue accolades at the Gold Medal Awards, Burke had to temporarily lay off staff when the coronavirus pandemic hit Ireland.

“The initial lockdown was fairly severe, on myself and everyone who worked for me,” he says.

Once Burke had come to terms with the hotel’s closure and disappearance of its spring wedding business, he decided to put the hotel’s hibernation to good use. By May, he had launched the first in a long series of initiatives aimed at giving a sense of purpose to remaining staff and generating fresh income streams – a cocktail delivery service called the Blend Box. It includes Mist+Moss, a gin brand the Armada had set up a couple of months earlier, scented candles (since replaced by QR codes for playlists) and garnishes grown at the hotel’s own organic farm.

When the Armada reopened in early summer with social distancing in place for indoor dining, Burke installed an outside retro-style food truck selling fried calamari and other seafood that diners could enjoy at picnic benches overlooking Spanish Point Beach. He also added glamping suites under the cliff-side ruins of the 19th-century spa resort that once sat on the site, a hatch to the hotel’s traditional pub that serves coffee and pastries, a sheltered outdoor dining area, and the Armada at Home click-and-collect service for meals cooked by its executive chef.

For this summer, the hotel – which has just kicked off a recruitment drive – is adding an outdoor pizzeria and a camper van called the West Clare Explorer that will be kitted out with bikes and waterproof gear and rented out to guests. At its farm, a 19th-century gate lodge is being restored after laying derelict for 60 years and will be transformed into a self-catering couple’s retreat with sea views, an outdoor seaweed bath, a butler on call, gourmet hampers, and 24-hour transfers to the Armada Hotel itself.

The hotel’s side-projects “keep our message fresh and keep our brand alive in the public’s eye, and retain our team”, Burke says. “They have an income stream, but it’s not our bread and butter – we need to get back to weddings and tourists.”

A growing number of hotels and small hotel chains are re-imagining their businesses as they strive to stay afloat until they are allowed to reopen to leisure guests. The country is enduring what may turn out to be the longest lockdown of the pandemic, with level five restrictions expected to remain in place until at least Easter, and Taoiseach Micheál Martin last week warned that a “critical mass” of the population must first be vaccinated before the hospitality sector can reopen.

For the most proactive members of the Irish hotel industry, which saw its combined revenue plunge by €2.6bn in 2020, the only upside of the prolonged shutdown is the opportunity to renovate their properties and to rethink their business models. These range from branching out into retail through gift hampers and new on-site stores to arranging sea-swimming lessons and guided walks and setting up Covid-friendly outdoor food trucks and dining facilities. While some of these new strategies may only last until Covid-19 subsides, others could prove to be a reliable source of revenue in the long term.

For some hotels, these initiatives combine with income from the fight against the pandemic itself, with plans to use properties such as Breaffy House – a popular wedding venue in Co Mayo – as vaccination centres or to quarantine travellers from high-risk countries. Others have remained open for much of the crisis because they host nurses and other healthcare workers who cannot risk bringing the virus home to an elderly parent or a crowded house-share. These include The Kingsley in Cork city, the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel in Dublin 8, and The Connacht Hotel in Galway.

The latter, which is the largest hotel in the west of Ireland, with 358 bedrooms, had entered 2020 with a fresh new look, ready to embrace Galway as that year’s European Capital of Culture. The half-century old hotel, which is the flagship of the expanding Connacht Hospitality Group, had just refurbished its ground floor, with an overhauled restaurant and bar, a new library space, and a barista bar. In late 2019, the group had acquired a fourth hotel, the long-vacant Galway Bay Golf Hotel.

Group general manager Wayne Neilon says: “Let’s just say 2020 didn’t play out as expected. The next 12 months ahead will be challenging too, because we rely on international tourism.

“You could wallow in it, but there is plenty we can do during the current challenge and we are focused on a post-Covid Connacht Hospitality Group, such as bringing outdoor dining space to the Connacht Hotel.”

Last summer, the group imported a giant luxury motorhome from Florida, parked it outside the Connacht and rented it out to guests seeking a unique self-catering option. While the group’s new 50-bed Forster Court Hotel off Eyre Square remains closed, the group took advantage of the Hyde Bar & Gin Parlour on the hotel’s ground floor to host regular virtual gin-tasting events. In December, it linked up with four Galway retailers so that guests staying at any of its three hotels could avail of discounts at stores by presenting their hotel key-card.

Restrictions on construction called a halt to the group’s plan to finish the redevelopment of the Galway Bay Golf Hotel into a four-star venue that complements its 18-hole championship golf course and to open it this May. The hotel will not launch until early 2023, but earlier this year the group invested €40,000 on a golf simulator that allows members of the Christy O’Connor Jnr-designed course to virtually play any golf course in the world, from Augusta to California’s Pebble Beach.

If there is one hotel with experience of handling a crisis it is The Kingsley, a four-star hotel in Cork that overlooks the River Lee. It was closed for five years after a flood that swept through the city, submerged its underground car park and swamped its ground floor, leading to the evacuation of 232 guests who had been staying at the riverside property.

The Kingsley was acquired by the Beijing-based Kang family in 2013 and became part of the Fota Collection, reopening its doors in 2014 after a six-month-long refurbishment.

When the pandemic first hit in March, The Kingsley shut again, but entered into a deal with the HSE to accommodate frontline health staff working in three local hospitals. The business has been using the latest downtime to revamp 67 of its 131 rooms, a project due to be finished by April, according to general manager Fergal Harte, who is also chairperson of the Cork branch of the Irish Hotels Federation.

The hotel also invested in a new takeaway cabin that sells snacks and coffees, called Bean & River, at the back of the property, where it has become a stop-off point on a riverside walkway.

“We had talked for lot of years about having a takeaway cabin at the back of the hotel,” Harte says. “But we put it off because the hotel was always so busy. Covid had the effect of making us sit down and ask ‘what can we do to retrieve some of the business we lost and keep the name of [the] hotel out there?’

“Bean & River has proven to be a great success. We thought we’d stop running it in September when the summer was over, but we kept it going throughout the year and added to the menu. We put in lots of outdoor seating and it’s created a really nice atmosphere and buzz. Cold weather doesn’t really seem to have an effect on the business at all, and the feedback we’re getting from customers is that there is going to be huge demand for outdoor dining in the foreseeable future.”

The Kingsley also teamed up with the retailer Kilkenny Group in December to open The Larder, an online boutique and on-site shop that sells homemade and local food products, spa products and gifts.

Harte and his team introduced new SuitePad tablets to each room to allow guests to order room service, book restaurants and reserve spa treatments and time in the pool or gym – all without the need for physical interaction with staff. Guests can also check-in online instead of presenting a credit card at reception. The Kingsley’s spa team, meanwhile, is busy producing wellness videos demonstrating massage techniques and at-home facials as the hotel works on refurbishing the spa’s treatment rooms and thermal suite.

Last August, the Cliff at Lyons, a retreat set on a restored mill village in rural Kildare, introduced a casual takeaway from a trailer for its Aimsir restaurant. After this experiment, the Cliff Group – which also includes the five-star Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore and the Cliff Townhouse in central Dublin – in January set up Aimsir at Home, a meal kit for an eight-course tasting menu that enables customers to recreate chef Jordan Bailey’s two-star Michelin star dishes at home with the help of step-by-step videos. Cliff at Lyons also set up a pantry takeaway that sells coffees, salads, bread, pastries and pizza from a new outdoor dining area. When the hotel reopens, it will offer guided tours of its kitchen garden.

The Cliff Group also stepped up its retail offering at Cliff Home, an online delivery service of goods from the three Cliff hotels. These include homemade spa products, homewares, and artisan food from The Pantry at Cliff.

Honor Byrne, commercial director of the group, says: “The small silver lining of (the Covid-19 crisis) is that we have a bit more time to spend on these things. And any plans to improve or renovate rooms has been enhanced by the additional time lockdown has given us. We’re busier than ever.”

The company has refurbished the bar and restaurant at the Cliff House Hotel, added a new on-site villa called the Cliff Beach House, and is moving through a renovation of all the bedrooms. The luxury property has also captured the country’s renewed enthusiasm for sea swimming by offering a package called Seas the Day, which includes two swimming lessons with a professional tutor.

While the Radisson Blu on the border of Limerick City and Co Clare was this week announced as a vaccination centre, its sister hotel at the crossroads of Golden Lane and Chancery Lane in Dublin 8 is adapting to the pandemic: the Radisson Blu Royal has teamed up with healthcare provider Vida Care to provide Covid-19 screening for delegates to conferences, events and meetings once indoor gatherings are allowed to return.

Before the pandemic, such events accounted for about 60pc of business at the newly refurbished 234-bedroom hotel, says general manager Madeline Riley. To facilitate the return of meetings and conferences, delegates can have a PCR test from Vida Care and stay overnight while awaiting the results, or take an antigen test half an hour before the event begins. Once the results are verified, they will be uploaded to V-Health Passport, a security-controlled app that can be scanned at entry points to the conference room.

“Business is primarily done face-to-face so we’re trying to offer something that will enable people to come back together again safely and network,” Riley says. “It’s all ready to go as soon as the Government lifts restrictions.

“Hotels now have to think outside the box all the time. We just can’t do business the way we did before.”

FAMILY FAVOURITE

When the Connacht Hotel in Galway City bought a giant motorhome from Florida, management had intended to use it to promote the hotel while on sales trips around the country.

But when the pandemic arrived and ushered in the need for social distancing, the hotel decided to launch the Connacht Cruiser to the staycation market last summer. The vehicle became a symbol of the hospitality industry’s need to pivot — the business buzzword of 2020 — by offering a hybrid between the traditional hotel stay and self-catering.

The Connacht Cruiser was intended to be used with a driver, but instead it sits stationary in the hotel car park, albeit with guests free to use all hotel facilities (when the Connacht re-opens after lockdown), from the gym and pool to the property’s revamped bar and restaurant.

“It became very popular with families, because it sleeps up to eight people,” says Wayne Neilon, group general manager of the Connacht Hospitality Group. “We’ve also had groups of friends who want to stay at a hotel but also have their own space.”

Even with a large family or group staying, there’s unlikely to be any fighting over what to watch on TV — the motorhome has six flat-screen TVs and comes with wi-fi. The master bedroom is en suite and has a king-sized bed which can be inclined for watching TV.

There is a separate bathroom, two bunk beds, as well as a power drop-down hide-away overhead bunk over the driving area. Outside, there is a garden area and a barbecue that can be pulled from underneath the vehicle.

Rates for the Connacht Cruiser for July and August are €350 a night, with a minimum stay of two nights.

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