“It was a somewhat difficult decision, but the pandemic convinced us,” says Niall Hughes.
In 2021 our new lodges were really very successful, but the B&B lagged behind. So we decided to convert the B&B into a high-end lodge as well, and we did that all winter.”
Niall and his wife Darra have run Sea View House, an award winning B&B in the quaint village of Doolin, Co Clare for 25 years. They have welcomed a steady stream of guests from around the world to their home, where picture windows offer stunning views of the River Ailie and the Atlantic Ocean.
But change is coming. From this month, the traditional B&B aspect of the business will be ended, and all of the couple’s accommodation will be upgraded to high-end self-catering options, with guests being able to rent one of the three luxury lodges on-site, or even the Sea View House itself.
The beautiful three storey home has now been converted into a luxury four bed lodge with three king bedrooms and one twin sleeping eight people and an inviting hot tub newly installed on the expansive private deck.
It’s not just about “out with the old people”. Guests have their own private kitchens and dining rooms, but there’s still the option of a freshly prepared Burren Food Trail breakfast buffet, where locally produced breads, jams, cereals, yogurt, and even Niall’s famous breakfast frittatas come quietly to the lodge doors No dressing required for dining room.
“In a way, it’s the same business model; it’s just different,” says Niall. “It was certainly a difficult decision, but given the success of the lodges in the domestic market over the past two years, it was a no-brainer for us.”
“Pivot” was a word we heard a lot during the pandemic as companies creatively adapted to rapidly changing rules and restrictions. For some accommodation providers this will continue as we emerge from Covid. Whether it’s changing business models or enhancing the guest experience, many hospitality businesses across Ireland are looking for new ways to transform in 2022.
Some are switching to a bespoke self-catering model. At Longueville House, a Blue Book property in Co Cork, for example, there is a trend towards exclusive rentals – groups of 13 to 30 guests can now choose to rent the stunning 301-year-old Georgian mansion for three nights or more . Inch House in Co Tipperary has taken a similar step. After running a restaurant for 25 years, the owners are now making it available for vacationers to rent exclusively.
“We’ve had guests who have been coming to us for 16 years who are coming in and have their most recent stay with us and I’m in tears when they check out,” says Christine Gannon of The Old Convent, another country house in Co Tipperary. “Letting go is very emotional for me.”
The Old Convent Country House is nestled at the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains and Christine and husband Dermot are preparing to close the overnight aspect of their hugely successful B&B business.
Lockdown played a part in their decision, but it’s not a change based on Covid-related concerns.
“Our life took a very different turn when our child was diagnosed with a rare syndrome,” explains Christine. “Last year’s spring lockdown gave us time to step out of the routine and reflect on what has worked for the family, what hasn’t, and where our priorities lie. We just realized that we can no longer do everything.”
She continues, “I think a lot of people definitely assume it’s because of rising commodity costs, rising energy prices, or a lack of staff, but the real story behind it is a family decision.”
The Old Convent will continue with Dermot’s popular eight-course Irish Artisan Tasting Dinner and Christine, a qualified yoga teacher, will open yoga classes. They plan to turn the building into a yoga space and transform the posh former drawing room into a gorgeous new dining room. A Sunday “Yoga and Brunch” event is being planned.
Many providers have recognized that a broader range has a greater chance of success. Siobhán O’Leary, for example, has no plans to end overnight stays after 17 years of running a B&B in Co Cork. But she’s passionate about the need to further develop “La Cita,” her custom-built five-bed property.
During the lockdown, Siobhán’s online cooking videos grew in popularity, prompting her to explore how to maximize the cookery school aspect of her business model. “I’ve been sitting down during lockdown – and I tend not to sit down too much – and I’ve decided the wall separating the kitchen and dining room needs to go.”
The open space is now perfect for cooking demonstrations. Siobhán has also been working with a business mentor to see if she can work with tour operators as a cooking stop – where international guests can learn to prepare locally-sourced dishes such as Beamish bread en route to and from Blarney Castle.
“I’m working on building that right now,” she says. “The B&B is coming back, but not in large numbers, so I want to improve the B&B experience. You always have to think, ‘What can I offer guests?’”
A rise in intimate weddings has also prompted a change of direction for Hanna’s Close, a clachan of 10 traditional holiday cottages that have lain at the foot of the Mournes near Kilkeel, Co Down, since the 17th century.
“I would never have seen us going to weddings, but obviously they called us because couples couldn’t do big weddings,” explains Lily Annett, manager of Hanna’s Close Holiday Homes. From idyllic backdrops to provisioning space to erecting tents and teepees, it’s becoming a coveted ‘hidden gem’ for weddings. Even if the restrictions are lifted, she believes demand will remain. “I think people have realized that they don’t have to spend a fortune or do the big deal where everyone’s invited to make it feel special.”
Covid support has enabled the renovation of a hay barn into a multi-purpose venue – with wedding flower arranging classes now scheduled for April – and a stunning, intricately painted wooden caravan has been added to the site as a base for storytelling sessions. This year there will be hands-on cooking demonstrations of traditional soda and potato bread making, with Lily leading not only demonstrations but also fireside baking classes.
“People don’t want to come on vacation anymore,” she explains. “They don’t just want to stay at Hanna’s Close, they want to experience it.”
That ‘E’ word pops up everywhere, whether it’s talking to a luxury self-catering business like Unique Irish Homes, which reports that even celebrity A-list clients are looking for ‘that little something extra’, or a family living on a rural property farm checks in. Guests want more, they want an authentic experience, and providers strive to provide it.
“I think people have changed their expectations of family holidays,” says David Ross of Top of the Rock, a popular family farm in West Cork. As well as two new underfloor heating Pods (which can sleep a family of six) and a children’s playhouse built last month, there are also new walkways at the farm to enjoy and an expansion of their Farmhands’ Tour, which allows visitors to get close to the action whether or not they’re watching lambs are born or dig up potatoes.
“People realize how special these things are, and you don’t have to fly miles to experience something memorable as a family,” says David.
The positive sides of panning are already showing. At Doolin, for example, fewer multiple check-ins means the Sea View House no longer has to close for a winter break. It’s now a 12-month destination and that’s having a positive impact on employee retention. The increase in the lodging stake has resulted in an increase in average room rates, but it also means that the average length of stay has increased.
“We’re finding a lot of people are booking three or four nights because we’re more of a base now than a place to stay,” says Niall. “Our offering is now much better suited to the domestic market and that makes the model more sustainable.
“For us, it’s more of a future-proof business.”
Five alternating stays
Ocean View Home, Doolin, Co. Clare
Explore the Cliffs of Moher and return to your luxury lodge to relax in your private hot tub. Two nights from €245 per person, with a sumptuous breakfast delivered to your door. seaview-doolin.ie
Hanna’s Close, Kilkeel, Co Down
Of game of Thrones From tours to electric bike hire, all the activities the Mournes have to offer are on your doorstep, but you still get a taste of a holiday steeped in history. Two nights in the 17th Century Cottages start from £190. mournecountrycottages.com
The Old Monastery, Co Tipperary
Some overnight stays are possible until July 31st. Afterwards, guests can enjoy the eight-course Irish Artisan Tasting Dinner, served on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays before Bank Holidays from €75 per person. theoldconvent.ie
La Cita, Co Cork
Enjoy a ‘total Irish home experience’ with a cooking demonstration (Beamish Brown Bread, Irish Stew, Boxty) before enjoying the results over lunch or dinner and a night’s B&B accommodation. From €100 pp lacitabb.ie
Top of the Rock, Drimoleague, Co Cork
After feeding lambs and exploring hay bale mazes, retreat to your cozy local family cabin at this family-run working farm. Self-catering, two nights for two adults and up to four children (bring your own duvets and pillows), including a tour of the servants, from €220. topoftherock.ie
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/staycations/changing-places-how-irish-b-and-bs-and-guest-houses-are-creating-new-post-covid-experiences-for-visitors-41403720.html Changing places: How Irish B&Bs and guest houses are creating new post-Covid experiences for visitors