‘We feel we have made a positive difference to people’s lives’

Future Proof: Ray Byrne talks about running the Wineport Lodge outside Athlone

Ray Bryne of the  Wineport Lodge: “I always got a huge buzz from the energy in a commercial kitchen.”

Ray Bryne of the Wineport Lodge: “I always got a huge buzz from the energy in a commercial kitchen.”

 

Ray Byrne opened the Wineport Lodge outside Athlone in 1993 as a small lakeshore restaurant with his wife, Jane English.

Jane’s mother, Dorothy, owned the site along with her partner, Robin Baird, and they are avid sailors on Lough Ree. They had a vision to set up a sailing centre as an additional enterprise to their farming activities. At the time Bord Fáilte released some agritourism grants and Byrne received support to start the business.

“One of our first employees was Cavan native Norma Wilson. Norma has managed the business with us for 25 years and is the glue that holds the business together,” Byrne says.

She has worked for an artisan cheese distribution firm, the Traditional Cheese Company, for five years, and part of Byrne’s job had been to go into busy kitchens to meet the chef, who was his customer.

“I always got a huge buzz from the energy in a commercial kitchen. Flames leaping from the stove, soaring temperatures, everyone shouting, the delicate balance of chaos and control, gave me the spark to want to be part of that community – even though I’m not a cook!”

Byrne and his wife always liked staying and eating in unique places such as properties in Hidden Ireland, Ireland’s Blue Book, and places like Hotel du Vin in the UK. “We doubled the size of the original restaurant in 1996 and added 10 guest rooms in 2002. We followed this with 10 more guest rooms in 2005 and 10 more in 2006.”

It was around this time that they opened a treatment suite. Prior to that, Wineport Lodge had offered a range of treatments in the guest’s own room and that had worked out well.

Surviving the downturn

Business grew steadily until 2008 when the downturn came – then it dropped by double-digit figures from 2009. Byrne had experienced a couple of flat years in the 1990s though, as the business was expanding at that time, it was not as noticeable. The crash in 2008 was.

“We owed millions to the bank and were struggling to pay interest only on our debts. There was zero prospect of ever paying off the loan. So, we pulled in our horns, worked assiduously with staff and suppliers to bring down costs, and continued to focus on looking after the guests.

“It was great to see that, even though the customers too had less money to spend, and we had to reduce prices, people still wanted to come and treat themselves in Wineport Lodge. Eventually we refinanced the debt at a sustainable level with Bank of Ireland and haven’t looked back since.”

The business stabilised and growth returned in 2013.

Byrne benchmarks his business against other Blue Book-type properties. “Because we started out as a restaurant only, that side of our business is much busier and stronger than others that offer a restaurant almost as an afterthought as opposed to a driver of the business.”

Byrne outsources the hotel’s yield management to Roomyield, which has the expertise to ensure they achieve the highest occupancy and rates in the market.

Changes have been made to ensure Wineport Lodge survives and grows.

“We’ve taken a very flexible approach on pricing. For example, in the winter we offer value midweek, and we charge more when the demand allows it. The great thing about the hospitality sector is that it’s always changing – casual dining and afternoon tea is where the growth is now.”

Friendly staff

While developing Wineport Lodge, Byrne set up a hospitality management company NHance. Through it, he and his wife operate and manage 10 other businesses including Bestseller Café on Dawson Street, The Kilkenny Inn, Vicar Street in Kilkenny and The Eccles Hotel, Glengarriff.

His secret to his success is simple: “Be the absolute best at what you do. Today’s customer demands nothing less than that.”

Ensuring he employs friendly people who take time to connect with his guests is a priority too. “Having great staff is the key to Wineport’s business success. It’s also the biggest cost to the business. Around 40 per cent of revenue is spent on wages, so we have to be very targeted about having the right people doing the right jobs.”

As business is primarily domestic, Brexit is not a material concern for Byrne. The budget increase in VAT, however, will impact margins.

But, on the flip side, the opening of Center Parcs in Longford next year is seen as a positive attraction to the general area. Being only 15 minutes away, Byrne anticipates a positive spin-off from their guests.

“We’re really happy to be back in the steady-growth phase of the economic cycle and planning to invest over €1 million in the business this year in order to continuously improve the quality of the guest experience.”

Now 25 years in the business, Byrne and his wife Jane say it has been a remarkable journey that’s gone by in a flash.

“We feel we have made a positive difference to people’s lives by helping them to celebrate and enjoy special moments in their lives,” Byrne says. “We are proud to make a useful contribution to our community by employing local people, supporting local producers and showcasing Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands to visitors old and new.”

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