Interview: Hotelier bringing a Gallic flair to high-end Ballyfin

The Clooneys and Kardashians have stayed but it’s first-name service for guests at Ballyfin

 Damien Bastiat, general manger of Ballyfin Hotel in Co Laois. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Damien Bastiat, general manger of Ballyfin Hotel in Co Laois. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

Damien Bastiat wipes the rain drops off the windscreen of our golf buggy with a cloth, hops on the driver’s seat, and we’re off on a whirlwind tour of the 600-acre demesne that houses the luxury Ballyfin hotel in Co Laois, where he is general manager.

It’s a magnificent estate, dating back to the 17th century when Oliver Cromwell granted land to the Pole family – the current house was remodelled in the 1820s.

The demesne has a man-made lake complete with swans, extensive forestry, a large stone tower with a clear view across the midlands, an array of farm buildings, “rustic” stables, a temple with an adjoining water cascade, a fountain, a grotto, a picnic house (with no wifi to distract you) and two walled gardens that produce fruit, vegetables, herbs and fresh flowers each day for guests of the five-star property.

Some of its apple trees are up to 150 years old, and it has a brood of more than 40 hens that produce eggs each day for breakfast, providing they haven’t been attacked by local mink. “They [mink] are lethal, absolutely lethal. I hate the buggers. In one night two years ago they killed 39 hens,” the diminutive Frenchman says in flawless English on a stop at one of its walled gardens.

“One thing we’re not very good at is catching mink. We’ve been trying for about three years now with absolutely no success whatsoever. They have no fear.”

With that, the sound of gunfire is heard in the distance but it’s a guest at the clay pigeon shoot rather than a gamekeeper tracking predators.

We then stop at the six-storey stone tower, which offers views of the Slieve Bloom mountains and the midlands. Bizarrely, the tower was completed in 1861 as a ruin, to give the impression that the then owners, the Cootes, had been in residence on the estate for centuries.

“We had to put glass at the top because health and safety would have had a few concerns about it,” says Bastiat, opening one of the windows and declaring that you can see 16 counties from the top. “I wouldn’t be able to confirm that but you can see quite a few. It’s quite nice to come up here and take in the view.”

What is as clear as day from the top of the tower is the fact that it must cost a tidy sum each year to maintain the estate, inside and out.

Bastiat describes the figure as “eye watering”, with the heating bill running to “tens of thousands” of euro each year.

About half of the sprawling estate is actively maintained year round. “The rest is forest and we have 28 acres, which is the lake,” he explains. “But we don’t have any livestock. We’re not farmers.”

Interior

Inside, Ballyfin is equally impressive. There are only 21 bedrooms but they are all beautifully furnished. We chat in the aptly-named gold drawing room, where a large glass chandelier that was previously owned by Napoleon’s sister, Princess Maria Annunciate Caroline Murat, former queen of Naples, now hangs above an impressive deep pile rug.

It was bought at auction by Ballyfin’s wealthy American owner, Fred Krehbiel, who has pumped millions of euros into the refurbishment of the Laois estate since acquiring the property in 2002 with his wife Kay, an Irish woman who emigrated to the US as a nurse in her twenties.

“None of the chandeliers were left in the house so he had to find something,” Bastiat remarks.

Damien Bastiat inside Ballyfin Hotel in Co Laois. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Damien Bastiat inside Ballyfin Hotel in Co Laois. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Inside the main door, the antlers of a great Irish elk that perished in a bog more than 2,000 years ago hang, and there’s a Roman mosaic floor, that is carefully maintained.

Bastiat won’t comment on the cost of the eight-year refurbishment but it must have topped €50 million. “It was a substantial investment. You can see it was multi million, no question about that.”

It’s a question Bastiat gets asked a lot and he asked Krehbiel how he should respond. “He said, ‘just tell people that I stopped counting a long time ago’. This is a passion for him. The investment that was made originally will never be recovered because in order to do that it would have to be a 50 or 60 bedroom hotel, and we’d have to have lunch, dinner and afternoon tea here, and open the grounds to visiting, which is just not his vision.”

That said, Ballyfin has begun taking dinner bookings from the public, subject to availability.

Ballyfin’s room rates reflect the fact that no expense was spared by the owners in remodelling the property.

The rack rate ranges from €450 a night for a single room off peak to €1,710 for the Sir Christopher Coote Suite. He was a former owner.

In the peak summer season, rates go from €740 for a single room to €1,990 for the suite. At Christmas, you can expect to pay between €580 to €1,710 for the same rooms.

Ballyfin had 34 guests for Christmas last year. “They are essentially force fed for three days,” Bastiat jokes.

Hailing from Biarritz, a city close to the border between France and Spain, Bastiat has been lord of the manor in Ballyfin since October 2014, arriving here after six years at Gidleigh Park hotel in Devon, a 24-bedroom, Tudor-style country house in the south of England.

When he arrived, Ireland was emerging from a bruising recession, with Bastiat “surprised” by the depth of the economic slump here. “I remember driving through Portlaoise and seeing a ghost [housing] development...and I was a little taken aback by that.”

Jolt

Moving here from Devon was a jolt to the system. “Laois is a little different in the sense that the pace of life is very different. However, one thing which is lovely to see is that we have locals working here. In the UK, I had 94 staff and eight Brits in the team.

“Here, in the height of the season, we are 92 staff and 75 per cent of them would be Irish and locals. Caoimhe, who has just served us coffee, lives just up the road.”

“I would have never dreamt of addressing a guest before by their first name. Now, I’m thinking twice as to who’s coming and that if I call them by their surname they’ll be offended. I’ve had to adjust to that."

Bastiat says the atmosphere in Irish hotels is also “more relaxed” compared to previous employments. “I would have never dreamt of addressing a guest before by their first name. Now, I’m thinking twice as to who’s coming and that if I call them by their surname they’ll be offended. I’ve had to adjust to that.”

Previously, Ballyfin closed for about four months a year, mostly over the winter period. But that has changed on Bastiat’s watch. “Nowadays we only closed 20 days in January.”

Each year, Ballyfin tries to add another dimension to the business. This year is about adding air conditioning into the bedrooms, something that its wealthy American guests take for granted at home.

“It’s quite a project,” he says, fearful of the impact it could have on its centuries old walls and ornate ceilings.

If Krehbiel gave him an open cheque to change something, Bastiat would love to transform an old classroom (the estate was formerly a boarding school run by the Patrician Brothers) that is currently used for storage. “It would be lovely to have an old-fashioned bowling alley. Something indoor when it’s not so nice out.”

While Ballyfin occupies a sprawling estate, the 35,000 sq ft hotel can accommodate just 39 people per night. It is available to hire as a job lot, and hosts a number weddings each year.

According to Bastiat, Ballyfin achieved 4,500 room nights in 2018, giving it an occupancy rate of more than 60 per cent.

About half of its guests come from the US (mostly New York and the east coast), around 36 per cent from Ireland and the balance from Britain and elsewhere. Like other hotels in Ireland, Ballyfin has seen a dip in UK visitor numbers this year.

This has been balanced out by an increase in the domestic market as well as interest now coming from Australasia, he says.

“Room rates in 2019 have remained constant and the VAT increase [from 9 per cent to 13.5 per cent] has been absorbed by the hotel.”

He is too discreet to name check any of the famous guests who have stayed at the property but it was well publicised that Hollywood star George Clooney and his wife Amal stayed there in April as part of a get together with his Irish cousins. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian honeymooned there five years ago.

It was well publicised that Hollywood star George Clooney and his wife Amal stayed there in April as part of a get together with his Irish cousins. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian honeymooned there five years ago.

Bastiat says his riding instructions each year are essentially for the hotel to wash its face financially. “My ambition is to make it sustainable in a business sense. We have an amazing product and naturally it’s in our interests to make it sustainable.”

He says Krehbiel, who is 78, spends about six to eight weeks each year in Ballyfin. “He doesn’t tend to travel between Thanksgiving and mid February.”

In addition, his sons, Jay and Liam, “definitely have an interest in the property”.

“It’s still very much Fred’s baby. In terms of the long term, there’s no ambition for it to be ever sold. It’s definitely a family project. It’s a love affair for Fred. It transpires that the two sons are a picture of their father. They have that same vision.”

Working day

His working day generally starts at 8am and finishes around 11pm, although that routine will sure change after his partner gave birth to a baby boy this week. “I do have days off but generally speaking it would be a long day,” he says. “It’s the nature of the business.”

In spite of its huge acreage and the fact that it has a number of golf buggies on site, Ballyfin does not have a golf course, unlike some of its peers in Ireland – Adare Manor was recently awarded the 2026 Ryder Cup. “It’s not something that the owners wanted,” he says, adding that their aim was to restore the demense to its former glory rather than imposing a golf course on the landscape.

Some of its peers in Ireland also have Michelin star restaurants and Bastiat’s ambition would be to secure one for Ballyfin. “It would be lovely recognition,” he says. “Hopefully one day.”

The hotel has to balance its desire to provide high-end fine dining to customers, with the requirements of its American guests, many of whom enjoy a burger, ribs or a large slab of good quality meat in a casual setting.

In early 2020, Ballyfin will partner with the Merrion hotel in Dublin, bringing head chef Sam Moody to the capital where he will work with the Merrion’s executive chef Ed Cooney in its Garden Room restaurant. The idea is to bring a taste of Ballyfin to the Merrion, a logical move given the overlap in American guests.

To add to the connection, Jim Reynolds, a long-serving director of Ballyfin, designed the gardens at the Merrion some years ago.

According to Bastiat, Krehbiel, who spends most of the year living in Chicago, has three “clear passions”: collecting art, old houses and gardens, and hotels.

“Most of the art that you see here would have been part of his collection recently. And he bought a fair few items for this house.”

Bastiat is just 38 but says he is happy working in rural Laois, rather than running a five-star property in Paris or some other city. “I’ve always worked in smaller properties and I’m very lucky that I have a close interaction with the guests.

“The largest property I worked in was 150 rooms, and that was just for a year. It just wasn’t for me. I was young in my career. It’s just not what I enjoy.”

He moved to work in Britain in 2005 out of a desire to learn English. “I had assumed that I would move for six months, learn as much of English as I could and then come back home to a better job. But I thoroughly enjoyed England...I have no desire to go back [to France],” he says.

“I feel very lucky to be managing a property like this. It’s a different role altogether. I’m a custodian of the estate. I’m not the creator. I am perfectly comfortable with that role. I have a great relationship with the owners and I’m really happy here.”

CV

Name: Damian Bastiat

Job: General manager, Ballyfin

Age: 38

Family: His partner Leanne gave birth to a baby boy, Wyatt, this week.

Something you might expect: He loves to travel.

Something that might surprise: His favourite hotel (other than Ballyfin of course) is the Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli in Italy. “It’s 22 or 23 bedrooms, a beautiful Italian house, manicured grounds, two Michelin stars in the restaurant. You eat on the terrace overlooking Lake Garda. Sadly, it’s only open six months of the year.”

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