Patricia Roberts, One Pery Square, Limerick
Occasionally, tourists with backpacks holding out-of-date guidebooks turn up at Limerick’s only boutique hotel, One Pery Square, and do a double take. “This used to be the An Óige hostel for Limerick until 2006,” owner and manager Patricia Roberts explains. There are no bunkbeds and dormitories here any more; instead there are 20 thoughtfully fitted-out bedrooms aimed primarily at business guests.
One Pery Square is in Limerick’s Georgian quarter, and its main section dates from 1825, where there are four period bedrooms, a bar, restaurant and drawing rooms. The former converted Rates Office links this corner building to a purpose-built bedroom block, which has 16 rooms. There is also a spa.
The project was five years in development, and cost €5 million. “We should have opened in September 2007, but we didn’t open until 18 months later. Everything in the economy fell apart just as we opened, and we had already lost 18 months of trading,” Roberts recalls grimly.
“I wouldn’t have given you an interview a year ago,” she says frankly. “Occupancy in our first year was only 18 per cent – bearing in mind you need 45 per cent to survive. But we’re up to 60 per cent now, and growing our business.”
At one point, Roberts considered buying a rural property and running it as a country house hotel. She is now thankful she didn’t; in addition to their 20 bedrooms, the hotel also has a 70-seater restaurant, Brassiere One, and a spa with eight treatment rooms.
“We treat them as three separate businesses. We couldn’t survive on the bedroom business alone, and if we didn’t have local people using the restaurant and spa, we might not be in business. There’s not a lot of passing trade when you’re in a rural location. And we’re lucky that we’re the only small niche hotel in the city.”
The spa element of her business, while initially slowest to grow, is now doing a good return. “That’s because we sell it as a day spa for locals, particularly mid-week, whereas I think a lot of Irish hoteliers see their spa simply as a service to sell the room. That’s a very old-fashioned way of looking at it.”
A double in the hotel is €165 at the weekend and €195 for a period room. Limerick city, Roberts admits, “is a hard sell as a destination. Some business guests who stay here don’t even go downtown; they eat in the restaurant.”
During the week, they get a lot of repeat legal clientele, medics, academics visiting the University of Limerick, and “ladies on business because they feel safe here”. On weekends, they are seeing a trend in new parents checking in for dinner and “a good night’s sleep”.
One Pery Square is open all year, and employs 10 people full time and 16 part time. Until the last year or so, Roberts scrutinised their roster every night. “I’d look at the business for the next day or week, and see if I could alter the roster to cut even 15 minutes off someone’s time. Every minute of every hour counted with our costs: it was the difference between surviving or not. I even had to be careful about buying a lightbulb: if we needed one before stock-taking, we’d take it from another room.”
The fact that she was the owner-manager was the incentive for putting in such long hours. “You couldn’t ask a manager to be looking at rosters and text messages at midnight, it’s too intense. I taught myself how to manage. I was that person turning lights off in corridors. When it affects your own pocket, you have to keep on top of costs at all times.”
The restaurant, Brassiere One, which showcases local produce, does not now open on nights when there are few bookings. “You can’t be open just for the sake of it, or because you think people will assume you are in trouble if you don’t open your doors every night,” she maintains. “We’re in different times. It doesn’t make financial sense. I think people understand that it if it’s quiet, you’re not going to be open.”
For 2103, they’ve opened a small shop that sells local artisan products, they’re launching a new afternoon tea menu, which is served in the lovely Georgian drawing room with original working fireplace that overlooks the square. They are also refurbishing some bedrooms and running a wine course. “We’re trying to consolidate what we have.”
There is still a large mortgage outstanding on the development. “I wouldn’t go through this again,” Roberts admits. “It’s a tough business anyway, but opening in a recession was very stressful, even though I am a very calm person by nature. But when you have no control over what’s happening in the world, or in the country, you just have to row in with it. All I can say is that I’m glad I’m still healthy, having been through what I’ve been through.”