Niall Rochford, manager of Ashford Castle, Cong, Co Mayo
Ashford Castle general manager Niall Rochford. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
As Niall Rochford, manager of Ashford Castle in Cong, Co Mayo says sagely, “Of the two words in the name of our hotel, ‘castle’ is the important one. That makes Ashford unique and authentic. People want to live the dream, to be king or queen for a day.”
Open all year, the Ashford estate has a moat, parklands, lakes, surrounding mountains, a golf course, falconry, and its famous crennellated castle, the erstwhile home of, among others, the Guinness family. It has an internationally recognisable name, and is currently one of the 450 members in the Leading Hotels of the World (so too is the Merrion Hotel in Dublin).
To attain and keep this membership, each hotel must meet no less than a staggering 2,500 individual items of operation. Rochford, who has been manager at Ashford since 2002, says these range from “how you turn the bed down, to the amount of time it takes to clear a table”. Once a year, inspectors come incognito, either by themselves, as part of a couple, or with a family, and meticulously check the list. “The minimum pass rate is 80 per cent.”
Last month, Ashford was sold for €20 million to the Red Carnation Hotels group. It had changed hands for €50 million during the boom, bought by property develop Gerry Barrett. Then, guests spent extravagantly; one wedding involved a €250,000 flower order. There were also the de rigeur helicopter flights from the estate to the Galway Races. “You don’t see so many limousines pulling up outside now. People prefer SUVs, something more discrete.”
In November 2011, the hotel went into receivership, and was managed by Lloyds and Earnest and Young. The asking price before Red Carnation bought it had been €25 million, so depending on how you view it, someone got a bargain.
The years 2008 and 2009 were what Rochford describes carefully as the hotel’s “difficult years”. The economy had collapsed, and the plan for the estate, to “develop houses on it” was no longer an option. To survive, they had either to close for a couple of months, or cut staff payroll. There were staff paycuts, including Rochford’s, of between 20 and 30 per cent. In the high season, they employ 160 people, and 120 in low season. “I believe we’re the largest employer in south Mayo.” These jobs will remain under the new ownership.
They also tackled what he describes as “the sacred cow”, by reducing rates. Off-season, prices came down significantly, with packages and special offers successfully attracting a growing domestic market who may have previously perceived Ashford as the domain of wealthy Americans. Their market is broken down with 60 per cent from the US, 30 per cent Irish and 10 per cent from elsewhere. Occupancy in April was 83 per cent. “Summer is very strong.”
At present, their single biggest cohort of guests come from California. The hotel’s public spaces are beautiful: properly grand and vast, with 11 Waterford glass chandeliers glittering over the George V Dining Room, beams and panelling everywhere, glorious views out over the lake from huge windows, and sweeping staircases.
But it’s also clear that parts of the hotel, particularly the bedroom wings, are in urgent need of updating. Rochford says he would like to see investment into the fabric of the hotel and its “interior design”, as he puts it. As he shows me around, the occasional patches of flaking paint on the walls are noticeable. The rooms and suites have soft furnishings that look very tired.
There are plans for a new spa, “but I don’t think the country needs another 18-hole golf course”, Rochford says .
While Ashford is not marketed as a wedding venue, they do play a significant part in the business. For big weddings, all 83 rooms of the castle must be rented. Smaller weddings, numbering no more than 40, can also be catered for. This year, Ashford will host seven weddings where the party has exclusive use of the castle, and 20 smaller weddings. The current rate for a double room ranges from €415 to €950, depending on size and the view.
Next year is a big one for Ashford. It will mark it’s 75th year as a hotel; a landmark Rochford unwittingly refers to at one point as “our 75th wedding anniversary.” Diamonds are the symbol of a 75th wedding anniversary, but in this case, Ashford Castle itself is the diamond. Rosita Boland