Irish five-star hotel market is game for rich people

Cantillon: K Club typifies top-end status hotels subsidised by owners as labours of love

The K Club in Kildare looks set to change hands, with Michael Smurfit in talks to sell it to Dublin investor Michael Fetherston.

As the nursing homes operator nears a deal, it is worth remembering that the gilded club he is proposing to enter – the coterie of owners of luxury Irish hotel resorts – is populated by some of the richest people doing business in the State.

The Irish hotel sector is near the peak of a seven-year tourism boom. Many properties at the top-end of the market, however, are subsidised by wealthy owners-turned-benefactors, unafraid to pour eye-watering sums into the properties as status investments or labours of love, and less as commercial ventures.

Dromoland Castle, the five-star Co Clare resort, was for many years associated with Sir Anthony O’Reilly, until he lost much of his assets to receivers.

The family of South African tycoon Beatrice Tollman, who bought Ashford Castle in Mayo, reportedly poured €75 million into the property in a lavish refit in recent years. Its hard to see how they will get all that cash back, but at least they have the status of owning one of the finest resorts in Europe.

Tens of millions

JP McManus has invested well over €80 million in Adare Manor in Limerick, and has been rewarded with the Ryder Cup for 2026, the ultimate status return.

American investor Fred Krehbiel, who owns the luxury Ballyfin resort in Laois, has invested tens of millions of euro in the property as a labour of love. He apparently joked to its general manager that if people ask how much he injected in total, tell them he "stopped counting".

And then you have US cable billionaire John Malone, who has spent about €300 million over the past decade assembling a portfolio of top Irish estates, including country house Humewood Castle.

The K Club has been subsidised through two economic booms and one crash by Smurfit, who also appreciated the value in its status. Its accumulated losses now stand at €45 million. Mr Fetherston, if he closes the deal, may see his first priority as being to drive the complex into profit.