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28 April 2010

Go The Irish Times

Over-Delivering the Hospitality

We have a problem with hospitality in Ireland.

For some crazy reason, and despite the fact that tourism has been a mainstay of our economy for several decades, we persist in the belief that hospitality is an instinct.
We think it’s something we just have – like freckles, or red hair, or the inability to finish sentences without saying “like”.
And we love to compare ourselves and our instinct to those who don’t have this instinct – the English, the Dutch, the French.
Do we need to work at hospitality? Do we need to learn it? Do we need to practice it? Hell, no way. Us? Sure we are all a bright fountain of quotes from Joyce and Behan, witty as Sean Hughes, fluent in the historical nuances of our little island, and anyway we all know someone who knows someone who knows just who you need to ask to get what it is you want.

This belief in our instinctual hospitality is not just ridiculous, it’s also dangerous. It’s dangerous to the well-being of our hospitality businesses. Several years ago I wrote a book called “How to Succeed in Hospitality”, written directly as the result of a series of disastrous experiences in several places to stay in Ireland just as the Celtic Tiger was roaring into overdrive.
The cream of the crop was a joint adjacent to the N6 where I broke my own cardinal rule: never complain. In the Bridgestone Guides, we don’t complain: we just pay the bill and walk away and consign the experience to the dustbin where those places live who will never get into one of our books.
But the N6 joint was just too bad: the filthy, uncleaned dining room; the untrained staff; the shambolic, straight-from-the-micro breakfast. I poured it all out to the lady behind the desk, whom I suspected was the owner, and I concluded by saying that I wrote about Irish hospitality, and that this place made me feel ashamed.
She looked at me steadily. Then she swiped my credit card.
She was the original Lisbeth Salander. Maybe, in retrospect, I was lucky to get out of there.

As Mr Justice Peter Kelly remarked recently in the Commercial Court, as creditors chased one of the many fallen angels who used to be masters of our universe, after hubris, comes nemesis. The hubris that built so many sorry-sad hotels is now headed for a nemesis called NAMA, and we have the truly appalling vista that hotels that include iconic names and destinations are to be managed by bean counters. Builders Hotels are going to become Bean-Counter Hotels.
What possible chance have these hotels of surviving? Little or none, in my opinion, in a market that is cannibalising itself with deeper and deeper discounts, and where only those steeped in the culture of hospitality have any real chance of being able to survive, thanks to the trust they enjoy from their customers, and their ability to get better.
But even the good are fearful, for the collateral damage being inflicted right now by hotels being kept open at any cost in order to reap tax benefits is causing the virtuous to suffer, big time. Between 1634 and 1637 the Dutch nation lost its collective sanity, on account of tulips: “tulipomania” drove those solid, sensible Calvinists crazy. What can we call our own mania for allowing thousands of hotel rooms we had no need of to be built: “hotelomania”?

Hospitality is an art form, but it is also a discipline, and a profession. Great hosts, like great cooks, are not born: they are made, and they are made through practice, and professionalism, which is why they master all the nuances of the art.
Everytime I meet someone who is truly great at the art of hospitality, I also meet someone who is a truly hard worker, and a truly dedicated person at that.
It’s almost twenty five years now since I first set eyes on Myrtle Allen, of Ballymaloe House. It was late during dinner service on a Saturday night, and Mrs Allen was clearing a table of its dirty dishes and cutlery and rolling up the messed-up tablecloths.
Fifteen years ago I made a television programme about Kelly’s Resort Hotel in Rosslare. My abiding memory of the programme and of the hotel is of Bill Kelly ferrying desserts out of the kitchen and into a packed dining room, late on a Saturday night.
In 2009, when the Hotel Federation reckoned hotel occupancy levels were not much above 50%, Kelly’s was trading with over 90% occupancy.
Time and again as we write our guides, the defining characteristic of a place is not the grandness, or the chicness or the design. Instead, it’s this sort of thing, from my editor Eamon Barrett:

“In hotels the greatest failing seems to be not getting the staff - every one of them - to understand how important it is that they engage with the guests. Eye contact, a smile, a greeting - all add to that sense of calmness that one seeks when staying in any guesthouse or hotel. In a 5 star hotel recently I stood at the bar for ten minutes while various staff members passed me by - all totally intent on their own task and problem - and oblivious to me as a guest”.

But hang on a second? Aren’t we Irish brilliant at the eye contact, as we simultaneously take your bags, and ask how your dog is, and explain all 10 courses of the tasting menu?
We are not. And the reason why we aren’t good is because we think we are great.
Even the guys who are running builder’s hotels think they are great: at one place in Dublin every member of staff shook my hand when I arrived and left: it was like being the parents of the bride in a wedding line. Sadly, when it came to breakfast, it took no less than 45 minutes to get scrambled eggs. Perhaps the chef was shaking hands with the chickens.
Away from this comedy of errors, one central truth has emerged over the last five or six years as we have been selecting and describing the different addresses that make it into our annual Bridgestone 100 Best places to Stay guide: the best places to stay in Ireland are getting better and better. They are trying harder and harder to create destinations that reflect not just the tastes and interests of the owner, but they are expanding and developing the scope and depth of what they offer. And that no longer means having a golf course nearby for him, or a spa for her (women’s golf, as folk in the business call them).
The following six destinations are places that exemplify this new trend, but we could have chosen many more.
On our last visit to Ballymaloe House, for example, my kids made some incredible pottery on a day-long course with the brilliant Kinsale Pottery School. We could have chosen the cutting-edge cookery courses offered at The Tannery in Dungarvan or Ballyknocken House in Wicklow. If you want to learn to cook from the best chefs in the country you could also choose Kelly’s Hotel, where chefs like Eugene Callaghan and Neven Maguire appear annually, in addition to serious gardening and wine appreciation courses.
I like the way in which some houses like Grove House in West Cork, or Kilgraney House in Carlow are incorporating art galleries into the space. If you are doing a spot of self-catering at the glam Inisbeg in West Cork you can take a moonlight kayaking trip around Reen Harbour with Atlantic Sea Kayaking.
The best places to stay are becoming not just expert in hospitality, but also expert in all the adventures and specialisations that their location can offer. The days of just opening up your doors and thinking that you are magically blessed with the gift of hospitality are over. To succeed now you must be a Master of the Little Universe that exists in and around your country house, B&B or hotel, and you have to know how to bring that universe to your guests.

Kilcolman Rectory
In a perfect world, before you open a country house you would train as a chef, an interior designer, and a gardener. Sarah Gornall has trained in all these disciplines, and it explains why Kilcolman Rectory is such a dream country destination, hidden away a few miles west of Bandon. You could bury yourself in the gorgeous aesthetic of the house, but when there is fishing with an expert ghillie, cookery classes from Sarah and, especially, the chance to locate your inner Winston Churchill by doing a course on watercolour painting with local artist Jenni White. Select some of the garden’s beautiful flowers, set up your easel, and the rest is surely easy… (Enniskeane, Co Cork 023 8822913)

Rathmullan House
You can’t keep up with Donegal’s Rathmullan House. Pioneers of sustainable cooking and food production, celebrated as one of the best kitchens in the country with Kelan McMichael having succeeded Ian Orr, they even operate a Rathmullan House mobile kitchen, which won the Bridgestone Award for sustainable cooking at 2009’s Electric Picnic. Back up at Lough Swilly, and the opening last year of the new Rathmullan Sailing and Watersports School is another enticement to head up to the Fanad Peninsula. Five days scooting around Lough Swilly on their new Laser Bahias, or exploring the coastline in sea kayaks, should build up a respectful appetite for great cooking.
(Rathmullan, Co Donegal, 074 915 8188)

South Aran
A few years ago, we went out one morning in Enda Conneely’s boat and, only a short distance out into the seat at Inis Oirr, we were quickly hauling in mackerel and pollock on our rods. We brought them back to Enda’s Fisherman’s Cottage restaurant, sliced them for sashimi and enjoyed them with wasabi and soy sauce, and a perfect espresso. It remains one of my all-time favourite breakfasts, and I want to do it again, maybe taking in a powerboating course, or doing some more serious sea angling. If the water isn’t your thing, then Enda and Maria also offer yoga, pilates and chi gung courses, sea vegetable and macrobiotic cookery courses, as well as life coaching. (Inis Oirr, Aran Islands, Co Galway 099 75073)

Gregan’s Castle Hotel
There are a number of places in the Burren in County Clare that are splendidly out-of-the-box, and which feel as if they couldn’t exist anywhere else – The Burren Perfumery and Tea Rooms; O’Loclainn’s Bar; An Fear Gorta, to name just three. But amongst modern Irish country houses, Simon and Freddie Haden’s Gregan’s Castle is one of the most singular, thanks to a sublime aesthetic – Mrs Haden is one of the great interior designers – and also thanks to Mickael Viljanen’s incredible cooking. They can organize surfing, rock climbing, horse riding and more, but our ambition is to take a day-long guided tour of this extraordinary landscape with local guide Shane Connolly, digging deeper into the flora, geology and history of this out-of-the-box place. (Ballyvaughan, Co Clare 065 707 7005)

Gougane Barra Hotel
Every summer, Neil and Katy Lucey set up the Theatre by the Lake, just at the back of their splendid Gougane Barra Hotel. Everyone arrives for dinner before the show, then troops into the little theatre, where Aidan Dooley might be performing his Tom Crean extravaganza, or Des Keogh might be confessing the life of an Irish Publican, or Mick Lally might be sorting out suitable matches in John B. Keane’s The Matchmaker. To see such chamber dramas and comedies in such a setting is a blessing, whilst the hotel itself is one of those traditional, modest, family-run Irish hotels that happily constitute the very antithesis of the brash builder’s hotels. (Gougane Barra, West Cork 026 47069)

Parkswood House
Terrie Pooley used to run a fashion design business in London, so if your ambition is to learn how to make dresses, fashion perfect trousers that actually fit you properly, or maybe just understand how to work a sewing machine, all the while enjoying comfort, incredible views over the River Suir and great local foods, then a course at Terrie and Roger Pooley’s Parkswood House at Passage East is just for you. The Pooleys are great people people, amd Parkswood is simply pristine (Passage East, Co Waterford 051 380863)