‘We are passionate about the health benefits of seaweed baths’

Small Business Inside Track Q&A Neil Walton, MD, Voya Seaweed Baths

More than 40,000 visitors a year try out the healing properties of wild organic seaweed at Voya Seaweed Baths in Strandhill, Co Sligo.

What is special about your business? We developed the first modern seaweed baths complex in Ireland in 2000. We love what we do and are passionate about the health benefits of seaweed baths.

However, we also recognise that today’s customers want facilities of a high standard, so we provide nine individual bathing rooms with changing and showering facilities.

Traditional seaweed baths were usually communal, with one large area for men and one for women.


Our baths are about comfort and enjoying a 50-minute relaxing soak in privacy.

We are very environmentally conscious and hand-harvest our seaweed locally under special licence. After use, the seaweed goes to organic farms.

What sets your business apart in your sector? We were the first certified organic spa, not only in Ireland but also in Europe.

Our sister company, Voya products, which was started by my brother Mark and his wife Kira, in 2006, is the largest certified organic seaweed retail and spa brand in the world.

We were originally called Celtic Seaweed Baths but changed our name in 2006 as it made sense to have the two businesses branded the same.

In addition to the baths, we have three treatment rooms for organic facials, massage and wraps.

What has been your biggest challenge? Initially, when we applied for funding we had a hard time convincing the banks that upmarket seaweed baths on the west coast of Ireland were a good idea.

What has been your biggest success? Surpassing our original business plan projections by 20 per cent in our first year in business, building our customer base to more than 40,000 a year and creating 22 jobs in the process.

We have now reached a point where we need to expand again.

What key piece of advice would you give to someone starting a business? Develop a white-hot passion for and faith in your business. Both are key ingredients to a successful start and to keeping a business moving forward. You have to believe in your product for others to take you seriously.

Always view your business as a competition and continuously strive to be better. Who do you admire most in business and why? Really, anybody brave enough to take a leap of faith and start a business.

I have a lot of time for Insomnia founder Bobby Kerr. I'm impressed by the business he has built but even more so by his can-do, positive attitude.

I also greatly admire my brother and his wife for their determination to build a successful organic brand against the odds and all advice.

What two things could the Government do to help SMEs in the current environment? Address the lack of start-up capital available for SME companies in the banking system and make the 9 per cent service VAT rate available to more businesses that cater for tourism.

Also, the inequality in our income tax system for the self-employed needs to be addressed.

In your experience, are the banks lending to SMEs currently? Watch this space – we plan to extend and increase our number of bathing, treatment rooms and ultimately employees. A significant investment will be needed.

Anecdotally, there are signs that things are improving and in the past the bank has been quite supportive of our expansion plans. Let's hope they are this time. What's the biggest mistake you've made in business? Probably not envisaging that there would be a demand for spa treatment rooms on top of seaweed bathing rooms when we designed the baths initially. So we have had the cost of redesigning our layout to meet this growing demand.

But overall, I try to look on life lessons not as mistakes but as learning curves. I have no regrets just more experience – some good, some not so good.

What is the most frustrating part of running a small business? Not having enough time to chat with customers as day-to-day administration and paperwork take up a lot of my time. Wading through an exhaustive amount of red tape every time you want to do something to improve your business, that would in turn would benefit the whole area.

What's your business worth and would you sell it? My business is worth more to me emotionally than financially and I can honestly say I truly love getting up each day to go to work. I have a successful business by the sea with loyal staff and customers that I am very grateful for. You can't put a price on that, so wouldn't I be mad to sell it?

In conversation with Olive Keogh