Getting his own House in order
STUFF THE world wide web and social media. It seems it’s still possible for major events to go unnoticed among large swathes of the global population.
Take Ireland’s economic collapse post 2007.
According to David Webster, general manager of the Carton House resort near Maynooth in Co Kildare, practically the entire population of India is oblivious to the fact that we’re now broke after years of buying up foreign apartments and hotels, purchasing helicopters, and bringing home suitcases full of Tommy Hilfiger shirts and jumpers from discount malls in the US.
Webster travelled to India five months ago to try and drum up conference and events business for Carton House.
“The place is just booming and everyone I talked to wanted to talk about Ireland,” he says. “They were saying Ireland is like India, it’s a real tiger economy, and I’m saying, ‘No, that ended three or four years ago’.”
Are you really suggesting that no-one in India, the world’s biggest democracy, has a clue that Ireland is virtually bust?
“Not one,” Webster shoots back. “A few didn’t even know where Ireland was. They didn’t know that the Irish economy had collapsed and I’m talking everyone . . . not one person could talk about it.”
Has anyone told the National Treasury Management Agency? Maybe we could sell them some Government bonds.
Sadly, Webster felt the need to put them straight on our current predicament. Not that this has put them off coming here, it seems.
“They’re all happy to come,” he reports cheerily, adding that Carton House’s €120-a-night bed and breakfast rate is considered great value in India.
“We’ve had quite a few enquiries since and have got a bit of business from them. That’s a market well worth investing in going forward. It has real potential.”
There is much about Carton House that is sure to appeal to Indian visitors if and when they visit. The picturesque estate comprises about 1,100 acres, with two championship golf courses (it will host the 2013 Irish Open), modern conference facilities and what Webster describes as “four-star deluxe” accommodation.
There are also top class football pitches that have been used by GAA county teams preparing for the final stages of the All Irelands, the Irish rugby team, and everyone from Wayne Rooney to Ronaldo.
The hotel itself is a successful fusion of the stately manor house, which dates back to mid-18th century, and newer glazed extensions that give a modern twist to the facilities. Motorway and other road improvements have also made it more accessible to Dublin airport and the capital in recent years.
Not that the hotel has escaped the impact of the recession. Its investor owners are saddled with debts from the development that are now difficult to repay.
Developer Paddy Kelly is a part owner and his loans are with the National Asset Management Agency.
However, Carton is probably more associated with the Mallaghan family, who were a driving force behind its development in the last decade, much to the annoyance of some heritage groups.
Webster steadfastly refuses to discuss the finances of the resort’s owners, insisting he can only talk about the hotel and golf courses.
“Everything was trading great for us in 2006 when we opened and in 2007. Then [in] the last quarter of 2008 the whole thing just literally fell off a cliff,” he says.
“A lot of our business is conferences and events, and leisure and golf. The conferences and events were built around the banks and the construction industries and they just turned off the taps.”
Pay cuts of up to 10 per cent were implemented in 2009 and its full-time headcount was trimmed from 126 to 114.
Happily, business has rebounded somewhat. Turnover last year ticked up to €16 million and will be “slightly ahead” of last year, Webster predicts.
He’s coy about profitability. The hotel is making a “good” operating profit is all he will say. Carton House achieved an average room occupancy of 70 per cent last year.
“For a resort, that’s very good,” Webster claims. “The Dublin city centre annual occupancies are about 73 per cent, so we compare well with that.”
Like most Irish businesses, Carton House is having to run a bit faster just to stand still. Webster and his team focus much of their efforts on big sectors such as pharma and consumer goods. Its conference business is half and half, driven by domestic and international companies. He name checks Nestlé, Cadbury, Kraft and Kerry Group among its repeat clients.
“UK, France, Germany and the US. That’s pretty much it ,” he says. “We went to India about four months ago to test that water, we’re going to China towards the end of this year just to explore that market as well. We were also in Russia a few weeks ago to make sure all our eggs aren’t in the one basket.”