Eggs, bacon and 12 hour days: the art of running a B&B

What does it take to run a successful B&B? Two artists, a former teacher, an engineer and an ex-army officer describe what it it’s like to take in guests

 

Many people have fanciful notions of giving up their day job and heading to the countryside to start a B&B in a fixer-upper farmhouse. But, for Emer Fitzpatrick and Russell Hart, that was never on the cards.

They were both working at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, loved their jobs and the city, so the thought had not crossed their minds. However, when Fitzpatrick’s parents asked who would run their B&B in Galway, the couple decided to give it a go.

“It felt like a reality TV show for about two years. Take a couple of artists out of IMMA and stick them in a B&B and see what happens. It was very interesting,” says Hart.

The Stop – located just a five-minute walk from Galway’s city centre – was a very traditional guesthouse when they took it over. Built in the 1930s, the country-style B&B-feel permeated the house and, though it was cosy, they didn’t feel at home.

They close every winter – around December until February – because of the quieter season and, in those periods, they gradually changed the house to suit them, starting by painting everything white, ripping up old carpets, pulling down heavy curtains, and framing and hanging artwork everywhere.

“In IMMA, everyone was our age and into the same kinds of things as us, so it was a lovely environment to work in and we wanted to make that in the B&B – our music, our art, our style everywhere,” explains Fitzpatrick.

Though they took it over in 2004, she says it’s only in the last three years that it’s truly felt ‘theirs’. This came about once they had finished major renovations, such as re-doing all the bathrooms, and they were able to concentrate on the design of the place – something that’s very central to the whole feel of the guesthouse.

Second to the arty vibe, The Stop is known for its breakfast. The menu for breakfast is short and sweet, made using local artisan produce as much as possible.

“I want things that are good quality. It doesn’t have to be a million things on the menu, you just want everything to be good quality and well made. You just want a bit of heart in a place, and personality,” says Fitzpatrick. Thinking about where they would like to stay, along with feedback from their guests, has led the development of The Stop – and that’s what makes it worthwhile, according to Hart. “It’s all encompassing, it’s 24 hours. It’s like having another child, you think about it all the time.

“We decided for it to work for us, it needed to be somewhere we could really love and it really needed to represent us, to be exactly the way we wanted it to be and a place we’d want to go to,” he says.

It’s a feeling Des O’Keeffe knows only too well. He runs The Coachhouse at Butlerstown Castle in Waterford, mostly on his own – meaning 6.15am starts and working until 11pm.

“The business is too small to employ a lot of people. I basically do a lot of it here on my own. You have to be able to turn your hand to anything,” he says.

He has been running The Coachhouse since 1994, after three years of renovations were completed to bring the ruins of the old coachhouse, attached to Butlerstown Castle, to a liveable standard. He had always intended to get into the B&B industry and, having grown up a mile down the road from the ruins of the castle, he purchased the site.

“It’s a very nice building so it was a shame to see it in the state it was in. We’ve gradually brought it back. It’s a nice part of the history of Waterford as well… If everyone knew what they were getting into, I don’t think anyone would bother doing anything. You take something like this on and it just starts to snowball. It just starts to take off and, lucky enough, it all went well enough,” he says.

Having decked out the guesthouse himself, he decided it would be kept very traditional to match the style of the building. The house is furnished from auctions over the years, and people appreciate the “unusual” furniture.

“I don’t like to go into an old house and see it very modern. I think it doesn’t work. You’d have your modern conveniences in the room, but sometimes you’ll see a boutique hotel-style bathroom shoehorned into an old house and I think it’s very much at odds with the house itself.

“I think if people are booking in, they want to see something old, they want to experience an older house and that’s what I tried to create,” he says.

Most of his guests are tourists, and particularly Americans, though he says that market is rapidly changing. “I have noticed the Americans have gotten less and less. I think their connection with Ireland is diminishing. Not as many of them are travelling here,” says O’Keeffe.

Sian Breslin, who runs Donegal Manor with her husband Michael and their son Sion, has also seen a change in visitors. They opened in 2004 and, at the beginning, many of their guests would have been Northern Irish tourists just passing through. Now, through TripAdvisor reviews and Booking. com reservations, she says there’s rarely room at the inn for passing trade.

“People are quite informed now before they even arrive and they’ve expectations. We’ve very few just passing the door, they nearly all pre-book… People come for our breakfasts; they all say they’ve read the TripAdvisor reviews.

“People love a good breakfast. We offer a choice and it’s all freshly made in front of them. Everything is homemade and locally sourced,” she says.

They built the house on Michael’s grandfather’s land on the outskirts of Donegal town, where they had been living for 20 years, and it was important for them to make use of it.

They knew they wanted to go into business so a guesthouse seemed ideal.

“There’s a lot of family history involved so it was important to us to put an iconic structure there and a family structure there. There was a huge emotional attachment to the land. It was farm land and farm buildings before,” she says.

She was a home economics teacher and he was a civil engineer, and Micheal helped build the guesthouse under budget. Sian has since set up a cookery school in the house, which Fáilte Ireland now uses to train commis chefs when the guesthouse is closed in the winter months. “Our skills just came together,” she says. “Without that, we couldn’t have done it.”

She says the house is one of the most informal guesthouses you’ll ever stay at, and that’s exactly how they wanted it to be. Designing it as a home from home, it’s set up to be cosy and there’s always someone around with whom to have a chat.

“We always have time to talk to anyone who wants to talk to us. We sit and chat all the time. We’re totally informal and here for a chat,” she says. “You get to meet such wonderful people. I’ve friends all over the world and they’d invite you to stay with them, from American to even Russia. ”

Warm and homely was also the aim at Number 31, a guesthouse off Leeson Street in Dublin.

However, Noel Comer, its owner, wanted it to have more of a boutique feel.

The building is the former home of architect Sam Stephenson, and is known as an example of the progressive architecture of the 1950s. According to Comer, it developed into the party house of the 1960s, with parties held there attended by former US Vice President Henry Kissenger, Ted Kennedy, Grace Kelly and Charles Haughey.

It became a guesthouse around 25 years ago, and Comer took it over 20 years ago. It now incorporates Stephenson’s former home and connects through a private garden into a classic Georgian house on Fitzwilliam Place.

“It’s a unique boutique guesthouse. It’s a guesthouse, or a B&B, but to a very high standard. It’s architecturally unique but it’s also very discreet. When you arrive, there’s no big indication there’s anything here. There’s no plaque or signs,” he says.

Wanting to take everything people love about a traditional B&B and giving them something extra, Comer has fitted out the rooms with Hasten beds, some of the best beds in the world, and is very proud of the breakfast they serve, which was nominated by Georgina Campbell as one of the best breakfasts in the country. “ [The breakfast] is a reflection on everything. Bed and breakfast is a simple idea but, in the midst of that, there has to be personality and you have to be able to make people feel welcome,” he says.

Comer is a retired army officer after 25 years in the defence forces, and he says his former and current positions require more similar traits than you first might imagine. “It’s all about organisation and personality. I think I have both of those.

“With these things, it’s always one thing establishing the business but quite another to maintain it.

“We have survived the downturn, and once you survived that, and stand, now you’re into a better period. There are always challenges to this,” he says.

While he says the markets for B&Bs dip as preferences change, and trends come and go, ultimately he feels there will always be a market for the personal touch and local feel you get at a guesthouse.

“B&Bs maybe went out of favour for some people but what we have here, people have a good experience. There’s a much greater experience in coming to a B&B than staying in a hotel.

“You meet local people and some people want that and others don’t, but for the people that want it, this is really how you get it,” he says.

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