Cashel House Hotel relies on vibrant community to help it grow its business
Futureproof: Local produce and repeat visitors are vital to hotel’s future
Cashel House Hotel owner Kay McEvilly with her son, Frank.
Cashel House Hotel was built in 1840 by George Emerson, a great-great-grandfather of the current owner, Kay McEvilly. She purchased the house with her late husband, Dermot, in 1967 and the couple opened the house as a hotel in 1968. Funding for the project initially came through their parents as the banks would not loan any money.
Kay’s son, Frank, and daughter, Lucy, are still working in the house today.
The inspiration to enter into hospitality for the McEvillys came from both sets of grandparents, McEvilly says.
“Dermot’s grandparents owned a hotel in Galway off Eyre Square, where the Park Hotel is now. My grandmother had a small hotel in Clifden called the Ivy House. We discovered that we both had helped out lots in the hotels when children, and we just loved the idea of meeting new people and seeing how happy they were on their holidays.”
The couple thought this business model was perfect and extended it in their own hotel. “When we opened first, it was mainly British clients until Bloody Sunday in the North, which put a full stop to that market.
“We felt that Europe would be a good market so we travelled to several countries on sales missions and were extremely lucky in our second year when [in 1969] General De Gaulle stayed with us. That really opened up not only the French market but other continental countries as well.”
This visit put the hotel firmly on the map but it didn’t insulate it from the harsh realities of business life. The hotel has been through three major recessions.
“Its impact on business has been huge but, each time, we dust ourselves off and look to other markets.”
After 9/11, American visitors stopped coming to Ireland and the McEvillys realised that they needed to nurture the home market. “The home market is essential for business and growth but there is always difficulty filling mid-week with the Irish market.”
Participation in Ireland’s Blue Book and other luxury and boutique brands has brought new clients. And the development of the Wild Atlantic Way has had a positive impact on the area. However, it’s not necessarily win-win. It entices people to be on the move and, for the business to benefit, visitors need to stay a minimum of two nights. Highlighting local provenance has also become increasingly important.
“We have always focused on using local produce but now we make sure our clients know about it,” McEvilly says. “We offer garden courses, walking weekends, demonstrations on using local seaweed among others. One of our most popular events is potato planting for St Patrick’s weekend each year.”
McEvilly has put much time and work into the garden producing food and improving the surroundings.
“People are conscious of what they eat and doing healthy activities and we need to be to the forefront in this type of promotion.”
Her advice on survival is to reinvest in your business. “You cannot take everything as a profit. A considerable amount of our earnings are ploughed into looking after the house for upgrading bathrooms and bedrooms, etc.
“Having good, loyal staff is important. We have great staff. Some have been with us for over 20 years. Where, originally, staff would have all been Irish and mostly local, nowadays there is a mix of Irish, European and Filipino.”
The local harpist, Lynn Saoirse, is a regular performer in the dining room entertaining guests from all around the world, some of them are part of a tour and other independent travellers and cyclists.
“Many of our clients are repeat visitors, and that doesn’t happen unless they have had a good time when they stayed with us. There is a tremendous sense of satisfaction when you see regulars coming through the door.”
Brexit is going to make an impact on the business, she fears, but the McEvillys feel many of their British clients will stay loyal. “The exchange rate does make it difficult for them and it will be a challenge.”
A greater challenge is the increased insurance costs year on year despite having made no claims. “We need to keep these overheads at a level so as not to penalise the hospitality sector,” she says.
Looking into the future, the McEvillys are clear about what they would like to see happen with Cashel House. “We would like to see business grow in the winter and off-season. We still have the same overheads during these periods but not the same income. While visitors don’t come to Ireland for the weather, we need to work harder to encourage them to come outside of the summer months.”
Because Connemara can be quite isolated, the McEvillys feel fortunate to be part of a strong and vibrant local community. “Many years ago, hotels marketed only their product but now villages and towns have become involved. Places such as Roundstone and Clifden are working hard to bring in visitors to the area so we are all a giant team now. People have great pride in their area and this is very obvious when you see the improvement to shop fronts and public areas.”
The county council has started developing a cycle track from Roundstone to Clifden and it is hoped that this will be a big draw to new visitors.
For her, the first 50 years running Cashel House Hotel have been hard work but very rewarding: the next 50 will be different but hopefully equally rewarding for the next generation, she hopes.