Relishing the sheer challenge of running cliff top hotel

Kenya-born Adriaan Bartels has all the required sophistication to manage a five-star boutique hotel

Adriaan Bartels: “We realised that the only people who would come and stay in those days were the Irish, and there was only so much they would pay.”  Photograph: Patrick Browne

Adriaan Bartels: “We realised that the only people who would come and stay in those days were the Irish, and there was only so much they would pay.” Photograph: Patrick Browne

 

In the world of Adriaan Bartels, small is definitely beautiful. Bartels is the man in charge of the Cliff House Hotel, which overlooks the bay in Ardmore, Co Waterford. There are just 39 bedrooms, but the hotel has a Michelin star for its restaurant.

Not bad for a property that Bartels admits is somewhat off the beaten track and barely six years old. “Small hotel, big heart” is the slogan that he used in a marketing film made for the hotel in 2009.

“Small hotel, big welcome is what I was trying to convey, I suppose,” Bartels says, sitting in from a quiet room with a stunning view across the bay to the green fields of west Waterford.

The five-star Cliff House is owned by Cork businessman Barry O’Callaghan, better known for his involvement with Irish education publisher Riverdeep and subsequent iterations of that business. The hotel opened in May 2008, just as the Irish economy was falling off its own perch.

The economic crash was hardly the perfect backdrop to the launch of a five-star property in rural Ireland that cost “over €20 million” to develop. Its survival and subsequent success is all the more remarkable when you consider that 80 per cent of its business is domestic.

The doors had barely opened when a 10 per cent pay cut was introduced. In 2009, consultants were brought in to advise on how best to tweak the business model to suit changed economic circumstances.

“We realised that the only people who would come and stay in those days were the Irish, and there was only so much they would pay,” Bartels says. “We were doing competitive opening rates to get people to come and try us. We started at low rates and worked up from there.”

The initial rate for a double room was between €160 and €180 a night. “It was the only way to generate some revenue to get the place going. In a strange way, it was good that we didn’t know any of the good times [in the Celtic Tiger years]. We just started from scratch and, as a result, we focused on every little thing to align us to that sort of market.”

Slowly but surely the business has grown. The Cliff House received a major boost in 2010 when its restaurant, run by Dutch chef Martijn Kajuiter, was awarded a Michelin star. At the time, it was the only hotel in the Republic with a star, and the only restaurant outside Dublin with the prestigious industry award.

“It certainly helped to put us on the map,” Bartels says. “It gave us a USP [unique selling point] and there are foodie people who like to travel and try these things.”

Staff played their part, agreeing to work extra hours to keep the show on the road. The pay cut hasn’t been restored, though an incentive scheme was introduced to reward staff if the hotel met certain targets.

“I didn’t want to let Barry down,” Bartels says of the opening. “I wanted to make this work. It was a pride thing. We’re professional hoteliers. I was hired to make it work. So, yes, it was difficult. But look at the location of the hotel and the product we have to offer. We just had to be successful. We had no choice.”

Bartels had earlier uprooted his family from Kerry, where he had run the Sheen Falls Lodge in Kenmare, to work on a project near Clonmel, which ultimately didn’t come to fruition. “Then this opportunity arose. They were just about to sign off on the project and I thought I could commute from Clonmel.”

There was previously a “rickety” old hotel on the site, but O’Callaghan pushed the boat out and developed the Cliff House into a top-class boutique property, with the help of capital allowances. Clad with copper stone, it blends into the cliff so nicely that you’d barely pick it out from the beach below, thanks in part to a moss-covered roof.

Each of the rooms, restaurants and bar has a view of the sea. There’s a spa with a 15-metre infinity pool and outdoor jacuzzi for guests who just want to chill out. Some of the suites have two levels and generous balconies with sun loungers to catch the rays in summer.

Bartels says revenues this year will be a record €5.1 million– almost double that of its sister property in Dublin, the nine-bedroom Cliff Townhouse overlooking St Stephen’s Green. “Both properties are profitable,” he adds.

The Cliff House’s performance is a sign of the recovery in consumer sentiment as the economy rebounds from six years of austerity. Previously, its record of consecutive days of full occupancy was five. “This year we got 17 in a row,” Bartels says. “It was a running challenge for the guys in sales and reservations. Can we keep the record going? It was a fun thing and the staff were energised by it”.

Is there much co-operation between the two Cliff hotels?

“Absolutely,” he says. “The idea to co-brand it was to have a sales house in the middle of Dublin for this hotel. The whole idea was to combine our sales team, our accounts team, our back of house area – those things are all dovetailed.”

O’Callaghan’s involvement stemmed from many summers as a child spent in Ardmore with his family. He now has a house of his own in the area.

How involved is he in the day-to-day management?

“Like every owner, he has a keen interest,” Bartels says. “In the summer, we’d see him regularly. We meet monthly. But we’re in communication very regularly. We’re always emailing and he’s very up to date on what’s happening.”

O’Callaghan’s day job is “running an education publishing business mostly in the Far East and the US”. “He’s doing well,” Bartels says, adding that the Cliff House is an “important part of his portfolio”.

Bartels’ journey to the Cliff House was long and somewhat circuitous. He was born in Kenya and lived there until he was 14. His mother died when he was young and his Dutch father remarried. His second wife was the daughter of the late RTÉ broadcaster Michael O’Hehir.

“That’s the Irish connection,” he say. “I was sent to boarding school in Clongowes [in Kildare].” His father, a horticulturist who grew seeds for export to France and the Netherlands, felt his son would be better off getting his secondary education in Europe.

“I barely knew anything about the country,” Bartels admits.

On leaving school, he studied at Cathal Brugha Street in Dublin for a career in the hotel industry. “I wanted to learn a trade where I could travel the world and there are hotels in every country,” is how he explains his career choice.

His first job was with Francis Brennan in the the five-star Park hotel in Kenmare, followed by a year in banqueting in the Shelbourne in Dublin and a stint at the Pennyhill Park luxury hotel in Surrey, a short hop from London.

He returned to Ireland in 1991 as assistant manager for the then newly opened Sheen Falls in Kenmare. This is where he met his wife, Catherine, who was working as a receptionist.

After four years in Kerry, Bartels returned to the UK, this time to become train manager of the Royal Scotsman. This is essentially a luxury hotel on wheels that offers journeys through the highlands.

“I did that for two years. It was a great job. You run a little hotel on wheels and you have to make sure you go from A to B. It was very hard work, three weeks on and one week off. But it’s a great life when you’re single.”

He was then offered the opportunity to return to Sheen Falls, this time as general manager. It was a post he was to hold for nine years before moving to Clonmel.

In spite of all his years in Ireland and raising a family here, Bartels doesn’t consider himself to be Irish. “I’ve a Dutch passport and I’m very proud of it,” he says. “But I love Ireland. This way I follow Kenyan athletes, the Dutch soccer team and whatever Ireland is good at. I can cover all bases.”

He has this romantic notion of one day returning to live in Kenya. “I would love to be in a position to go back and either teach or do voluntary tourism. That appeals to me.”

Would you like to run a hotel there?

“Absolutely, probably on the beach in Mombasa or Malindi. Tourism is a big industry there that has suffered [in recent years] because of the violence. I still speak Swahili and keep in touch with friends there. It’s close to my heart. If it happens, it happens.”

For now, Bartels’s focus is on continuing to build business at the Cliff House. It was practically full all summer, and most Friday and Saturday nights are booked out year round.

In mid-September, average occupancy for the year was running at 83 per cent. As business tails off in the quieter winter months, Bartels expects this to reduce to around 80 per cent for the year as a whole, up a couple of points on 2013.

With Sundays traditionally a quiet night across the hotel trade, a rate of around 80 per cent is close to full for a five-star property such as the Cliff House.

Bartels is constantly looking at ways to drum up new trade. Its restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday nights, so he experimented this year with afternoon teas on Sunday between 2pm and 5pm.

“That worked really well and it’s now being rolled out for most Sundays. We’re using the space better.”

In busy months like August, where nightly occupancy can reach as high as 98 or 99 per cent, it’s about “selling the rooms for the best price you can”. They call it managing yield in the trade. “That’s the trick.” A double room with breakfast can cost €235 a night in the peak summer season, ranging down to €200 in quieter months of the year. Bartel was planning a promotional trip to the US this month to drum up more business.

“We’re trying to get them [Americans] to come this way,” he says. “We’re not really on the tourist map. We would have liked to be on the Wild Atlantic Way. Actually, I would have liked it had they gone the whole way around Ireland and promoted it as the Wild Ireland Way. I think there was a missed opportunity there.”

If there was one thing he could change at the hotel, what would be top of his wish list? “We have this floating golf green [in the bay] and every year it gets washed away in the storms. So I’d like a permanent floating green that doesn’t get washed away. We’re on version six now.

“We use eco-friendly golf balls with fish food in them that dissolve in the water. We have the tee box in the hotel and, if we had a permanent green, it could be a year- round activity. We’re working on another version, so hopefully it will last a bit longer for us. It’s just a bit of fun.”

It’s a small thing, but that’s the beauty of Bartels’ world. CV Name: Adriaan Bartels Job: General Manager, Cliff House Hotel

Age: 48

Family: Married to Catherine with two sons

Lives: Clonmel

Hobbies: Shooting, golf and painting. “I don’t get much time to do any of them.”

Something we might expect: “I enjoy travelling and I like to stay in other hotels. Everywhere you stay, you learn something.”

Something that might surprise: “I frame menus from special restaurants I have frequented. I’ve easily more than 40. For example, I have the menu from the gala dinner for the opening of Sheen Falls. I have a signed menu from Conrad Gallagher. It’s a sort of memory frame. That’s where I was on a certain night. I just like to remember special events. I have them from my honeymoon as well. It’s just a fun thing to do.”