Kylemore Abbey staunches tourism losses with insurance payout

Connemara estate’s sales fall three-quarters in 2020 due to Covid as building plan stalls

A near-€1.5 million insurance payout for business interruption during lockdown helped Kylemore Abbey and Gardens in Connemara, one of the country's top visitor attractions, cushion the blow of a near three-quarters decline in its revenues last year as the pandemic heaped pressure on the tourism sector.

Visitor numbers at Kylemore, which is also home to a community of Benedictine nuns, fell to 100,000 in 2020 from close to 530,000 in 2019, when it was ranked in the top 10 in terms of numbers.

However, it bounced back in 2021 by more than trebling the number of Irish visitors as domestic tourism grew, according to its executive director, Conor Coyne. Kylemore is also targeting a surge in British visitors after it features in a primetime BBC series that will be broadcast over Christmas.

Accounts provided to The Irish Times show commercial revenues from the abbey, gardens, shop and restaurant plunged from about €7.4 million to €1.6 million. Entry fees to the abbey and six-acre walled gardens dropped from more than €3 million to €630,000, while shop and restaurant sales fell from about €4.3 million to below €1 million.

Payroll costs

Including other income from grants and donations, the trust that owns the abbey saw its total income fall to €3.6 million, including the insurance payout from Allianz. After the State covered about 40 per cent of payroll costs with pandemic subsidies, the operating company for the commercial business recorded a loss of less than €8,000.

“There were obviously negotiations had, but Allianz was very supportive of us,” said Mr Coyne.

He revealed, however, that Kylemore has had to stall the building of a new monastery on the estate, which was to have been the first built in Ireland in 400 years. It decided not to risk drawing down bank debt for the project, which will cost well over €5 million. Construction work had already started and may not be resumed until the tourism industry recovers, said Mr Coyne.

“We had already laid the foundations and built the blocks up to shoulder height,” he said. The community of nuns who would occupy it, and whose predecessors moved to Kylemore 100 years ago from Ypres in postwar Belgium, currently live across three properties on the picturesque estate.

Despite the pandemic and “the most challenging year ever”, Mr Coyne remains bullish about Kylemore’s future.

Visitor demographics

Before Covid, just 10 per cent of its visitors were Irish, with 30 per cent from the US and only 5 per cent from the UK – the rest came from Europe. Irish visitor numbers were up 250 per cent in 2021, he said. Average spend per head also rose as 2021 visitor numbers climbed to about 160,000.

“The greater interaction with Irish visitors is the silver lining of the pandemic,” said Mr Coyne.

Some of the nuns, who are represented on the board of trustees, work in Kylemore’s chocolate kitchen and soapery, while also following a life of study and prayer on the estate. Kylemore will be one of three monasteries featured in December in a three-part BBC programme examining life in religious orders.

The estate, which is also home to a teaching centre for Indiana-based Notre Dame University, is investing heavily in environmental projects and links with local artisan producers, Mr Coyne says.

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is Business Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Caveat column