20km off the Irish coast, €500 a night...and booked out until 2018

High-end hotel suites on least developed Aran island are poised for expansion

 

“If you build it, he will come,” Kevin Costner’s character memorably heard a disembodied voice telling him in Field of Dreams, and it seems to be a strategy that is working particularly well for Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites.

Located on perhaps the least developed of the Aran islands, in the heart of Galway Bay and 20km from the mainland, the hotel, which offers residents a luxury “nature lodge” experience, is in high demand. The hotel, at the time of writing, had just four nights available between now and September.

And while it may be small, a stay in the five-suite hotel does not come cheap. Modelled on five-star luxury, the suites – each of which has a floor area of at least 50sq m, and come with bikes, binoculars and breakfast in a box – will set you back €792 for a two-night stay in July or August – or €1,056 for a larger 130sq m suite.

The hotel was founded by Inis Meáin native Ruairí de Blacam and his wife Marie-Thérèse some 10 years ago at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom.

It has a large returning clientele; about half are Irish, while a third come from the UK or the US. Residents can rebook while staying, which means that, by September, the hotel will already be about 25 per cent booked out for next year.

“We haven’t had to do much marketing, but we have invested heavily in architecture and design,” says Marie-Thérèse de Blacam.

Island challenges

But while demand has always been strong, making the business viable hasn’t been as straightforward. After all, there’s a particular challenge in creating a business on an island; the length of time you can stay open, for one.

“We originally had a plan to have a 10-month season, but we underestimated the weather,” says de Blacam. Guests, unable to navigate the choppy seas, had to cancel.

After the first year, the couple had a rethink and now open from about the third week in March – “It depends on when Easter is” – until September. With just six months to post sales, and five bedrooms to profit from, “it’s been a long, slow haul”.

“Most businesses take three to five years to break even; for us, it’s double that because it’s a six-month business,” says de Blacam.

It took time to get the restaurant right too. Originally a 30-seater eatery, it has since been downsized to 16 covers, but the menu has been upgraded, with a four-course dinner menu for €70.

The business employs eight people during the season and finding people in a small island population to employ is a further challenge. The island is home to about 150 people, most of whom have jobs already.

The de Blacams have to entice chefs, housekeepers and cleaners out to the island – and find somewhere for them to stay over the six months.

“It’s probably the biggest challenge of our business out here,” says de Blacam. To resolve it, the couple bought a six-bed property to house staff – “So we have more bedrooms for staff than we do for guests!” says de Blacam.

Ensuring adequate stock levels is another challenge.

“We have a saying on the island: ‘It’s better to be looking at it than looking for it.’ If you run out of something, or the delivery isn’t correct, you can’t run to the shop and get a replacement,” says de Blacam. “You need to have a plan B, C and D.”

Expansion

Demand is such that the couple are now looking to expand the hotel. “We want to get more out of the core business that we’ve developed,” says de Blacam.

While it will “always be a small and personal business”, they have planning permission to develop as many as six other units, on an adjoining site with the same island and sea views, which would more than double its capacity.

And they are looking to use an established model in the hotel industry – of working with private partners – to fund the costs of development, with the property then being leased back to be offered as suites as part of the existing business during the season.

The first partner is already in place and ground will be broken for a new building this year, with the two-suite unit then used as a show unit to tempt other investors. It should be available to the hotel for the 2019 season.

“It’ll be a very high-end, beautiful building,” says de Blacam, noting that it will be built with the same architect, de Blacam & Meagher, as the main building.

Hoping to position the island as “the Martha’s Vineyard of Ireland”, partnering with the hotel won’t come cheap, with a price tag in the order of about €1 million on each unit.

But for the right investor it might make sense. “It’s an opportunity for a partner to have a foothold in a magical and truly authentic Irish location,” says de Blacam.

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