“I HATE the term ‘Rip-off Ireland’,” says Trea Heapes of Pure Camping, a family-run campsite and yoga retreat on Co Clare’s Loop Head peninsula.
No-one benefits from that impression on either side… I hope everyone is fair this summer. We all need a break.”
She may be disappointed. As soon as summer holiday searches started this January, with little to no chance of overseas alternatives, cries of ‘rip-off’ followed. Screengrabs of extreme peak season prices were shared on social media. Radio debates sparked up.
“I’d get a week in Spain for that!” is by now a familiar cry. But this year, many like Heapes believe the quick-trigger outrage could do deeper damage.
With no overseas visitors, festivals or big wedding business, Irish tourism and hospitality desperately needs the jump cables of a strong staycation summer. A chorus of negativity that focuses on price over value, and doesn’t always compare like-for-like, is a growing concern.
“I think ‘Rip-off Ireland’ has become a bit of a soundbite,” adds Julie O’Brien of Runda, a company offering sales, marketing and revenue management solutions to the industry.
“I think in Ireland we need to take a breath and think about the people we are talking about when we say this stuff… a huge number of the people I work with are in tourism because they have a passion and they are literally looking to keep the wolf from the door and create a livelihood.”
Of course there are gougers in Ireland, just as there are in any country – and it’s not unpatriotic to question pricing. Instead of rehashing the annual ‘rip-off’ reflex, however, why not move the conversation on with a deeper look at what we’re paying for, using like-for-like comparisons?
2021 offers a chance for Irish punters to fall back in love with this country, and businesses to win over a whole new generation of home holidaymakers. Whichever side you’re on, here are 10 points to bear in mind before we put the price on our summer staycations.
1. What exactly is the ‘rip-off’?
This morning, I searched a well-known global booking site for a three-night break in a Killarney hotel. One price quoted for a family of four was over €1,600.
I couldn’t afford it. Few could. But what does the price actually include?
The hotel is a five-star offering two rooms including full breakfast for a family over the August Bank Holiday weekend. It includes all the facilities and service of a luxury hotel, free cancellation with no pre-payment, Covid compliance measures and equates to €133 per person a night in peak season.
There was a more expensive option in Killarney that weekend, and there were many cheaper ones, starting from €327 for a family of four in basic accommodation for three nights.
Simply highlighting the price means nothing. It’s like saying a €50,000 car is expensive, without describing the car.
2. Ireland is an expensive place to run a business
No holidaymaker wants to hear a hotel whinge about rents, fixed costs or VAT bills. But we should be aware of what it costs to provide a holiday here.
Ireland’s insurance, rents, rates, energy and labour costs are higher than many of the sun hotspots and cheap city breaks we often compare them to. Kilkenny is a very different place in which to pour a beer than Krakow. The cost of business in Kerry is higher than the Canaries.
Irish tourism and hospitality businesses, when you hear staycation prices described as “a rip-off”, what is your constructive response? How do you counter this, or explain otherwise? I’d love your thoughts for a piece.#JournoRequest pic.twitter.com/Hv87UTPeHN
— @poloconghaile (@poloconghaile) February 12, 2021
It’s not just holidays. We see that cost of living in our weekly shops, rent and takeaway coffees. This year’s hotel or restaurant bills also have to cover Covid-19 health and safety measures, from perspex screens to hand sanitiser and reduced capacities.
3. None of this lets hospitality businesses off the hook
The home holiday industry also has some thinking and explaining to do. Irish people are acutely sensitive to being over-charged, the memory of Celtic Tiger excesses remains raw, and though many households have saved money in the pandemic, many have lost jobs and income too.
“There’s a danger we’ll self-destruct if we start abusing the situation,” as one hotelier told me.
Punters understand that prices rise in peak season. We’re not stupid. But worst-case scenarios in the past, when rates skyrocketed to coincide with big concerts, rugby weekends or events like the Galway Races (problems we may only wish we had right now), have left a bad taste too.
“If we truly want to look after customers then these fluctuations should be kept reasonable,” says Seamus Leahy of hospitality consultants, Invite Resorts.
“The balancing act is key – between short-term opportunism and long-term sustainability. For me, the first step is honesty for hoteliers.”
4. Value does not mean ‘cheap’
I’ve eaten terrible sandwiches that cost a few euro. I’ve also paid hundreds for special-occasion meals out. The sambos were a waste of money, but some of those meals were the best I’ve ever had, combining mouthwatering food, cutting-edge Irish cooking and super service.
Bad value stings; good value gives us a glow. The price tag often has little to do with it.
Is that apartment in a great location, by the coast or in the city centre? How many bedrooms? Is it luxury or basic? Does the hotel have a pool, or kids’ clubs? Ireland can offer amazing service, great culture, and generations of family-run properties at the top of their game.
That’s all included in the price.
5. Staycation businesses need to think ‘value’, too
We don’t need a long list of essentials like Wi-Fi, water or towels. But creative explanations of what packages and price tags entail can bring a lot more value to light.
“I think the Irish breakfast is a very good example,” says Julie O’Brien of Runda.
While French or Italian markets may hear ‘breakfast’ and think of coffee and a croissant, she says the Irish experience can offer huge value but is often taken for granted.
“You can say ‘breakfast’ anywhere in the world, but when you say it in an Irish B&B or hotel, you get a tonne of stuff for that. Cooked, continental, pastries, juices, yoghurts, tea, coffee. Outside of the service, a lot of that is cooked to order… comparing like with like is very important.”
“Many B&Bs offer added value often not taken in to account,” as Ardmore Country House in Kinnitty, Co Offaly tweeted me recently.
“We offer complimentary tea/coffee and home baking on arrival, a wide choice of breakfast only cooked when you sit down, including home-baked bread and preserves all for just €45pps.”
6. There are people behind the prices
One of the most heartening things about this pandemic is the way in which communities have rallied around to support each other. We have shopped local. Many hotels and restaurants provided meals to isolated or vulnerable people. We want to pull on the green jersey, but of course we don’t want to feel like we are being fleeced simply because we can’t travel overseas.
“We need to visualise the faces of the people we are talking about,” says O’Brien, whose clients range from hoteliers to beekeepers, kayakers and chefs. “And be aware that using the ‘rip-off’ message as a soundbite is doing a huge disservice to those people.”
Trea Heapes of Pure Camping adds: “When we are setting the pricing for our place, we always have in mind, ‘What would I be happy to pay?’ and, ‘Is this a viable business to keep a family going?’”
“It is a fine line. Every couple of years we have a look at our competitors’ pricing and offerings and try to gauge where we fit in. We have increased our prices this year, but it’s not Covid-related; it’s to deal with increased costs. We focus on making things more comfortable, adding more value and offering a more personal experience while keeping it affordable and ensuring we can be viable.
“We don’t want to be millionaires, we just need to make a living.”
7. Shop around. Book direct. And use the phone
No matter how fair prices are, they can still be expensive.
But consumers can shop around. Instead of a week away this summer, what about booking a couple of short breaks midweek? What about a night in Dublin, where only one in ten hotel rooms are currently booked in peak months, according to the Irish Hotels Federation?
We can look beyond July and August (September is shaping up as a particular sweet spot this year), search for self-catering inland, or look for packages that add value through inclusive meals or discounts for longer stays (eg, ‘three-nights-for-two’ offers).
While big websites are handy for holiday searches, they hit accommodation providers with booking fees of 15pc or more. By booking direct, you can often get a lower rate.
Better still, pick up the phone. If you’re staying a few nights, ask for packages including dinner or activities, a room upgrade, or resort credit-style offers like 10pc off spa treatments.
Hotels know that the longer you stay, the more you are likely to spend in bars and restaurants. It’s in everybody’s interests to have a happy customer walk through the door.
8. We may be ripping off Ireland’s reputation
Bad value and gougers should be called out. By continually stoking ‘Rip-off Ireland’ fire-storms without any meaningful discussion, however, we risk doing reputational damage to an industry that desperately needs future overseas visitors to recoup 160,000 job losses.
Intelligent debate and meaningful global comparisons? Bring ’em on!
But remember, we are talking about one of the world’s most beautiful places, with landscape (91pc) and people (83pc) among the considerations overseas visitors rate highest when considering Ireland for a holiday, according to Fáilte Ireland surveys.
Ireland is not cheap to visit, and never will be. But time after time, research shows it as a quality holiday experience and a destination with world-class customer service.
9. Stop luxury shaming
Luxury and high-priced holidays are not intrinsically bad things.
Of course, few can afford to spend €625 a night on Ashford Castle, no more than we might drive a Mercedes or buy an 65″ OLED TV or Fendi handbag. But luxury has a market, and high-end experiences attract visitors who in turn sustain local jobs, suppliers, drivers, tour guides and attractions.
Tourism doesn’t always trickle down fairly or sustainably, but when it does, it can bring huge benefits to local communities. Tourism Ireland has also identified the luxury market as one that may return to travel sooner, representing an early opportunity for tourism post-Covid.
10. Start turning guests into ambassadors
After being closed for so long, revenue is obviously critical to Irish tourism and hospitality businesses this year. But a great customer experience could be even more so.
“I firmly believe that we need to demonstrate a unique product, excellent service and a value proposition to our domestic market,” says Nuala Mulqueeney of the family-run Ailwee Caves in Co Clare.
“We, hopefully, will have an opportunity to serve, educate and entertain our home visitors which will in turn create a large cohort of knowledgeable ambassadors, ready to recommend and refer the Irish tourism product to others both here in Ireland and further afield, in time.
“The cost of doing business is high, yes, but a long-term, sustainable, regenerative approach needs to be applied. Make our own proud to have visited – thereby choosing to return and recommend, even all year round! Generations of people and families influence each other greatly.”
We all want the same thing this summer. We want to come home from a well-earned break, thinking, ‘I want to holiday in Ireland again’. We don’t want to think: ‘Never again’.”
Let’s start by rethinking the ‘rip-off’ debate.