16 hours a day, eight months a year

 

NO BOOM AT THE INN: INSIDE IRELAND'S HOTELS:In part two of our series, KATHY SHERIDANvisits Vaughan Lodge in Lahinch, Co Clare, where even the multi-millionaire visitors want good value

‘MOST OF us would be wealthy,” says Chip O’Hare from Boston. “Yeah. Multimillionaires . . . ” It’s not a boast. The Irish Timeshad asked frankly if they were an affluent group, since a casual enquiry about the previous night’s dinner in downtown Lahinch had provoked a group vent about the cost of the chowder. The discreet crest on their sweaters signifies membership of Boston’s prestigious Brookline Country Club, the 1999 Ryder Cup venue. Friendly, well-disposed, golfing millionaires they may be, but the fish chowder down the pub has lodged a metaphorical fishbone in the collective throat.

“It was great, but it cost €9.50 – about $15. In the US, that chowder would be seven to eight dollars,” says O’Hare.

It’s just 7.15am on a drizzly day in Lahinch, and a group of senior Microsoft men are already down for breakfast. Several of the Boston group are also up, alert and bright-eyed. Michael Vaughan, co-owner with his wife Maria of the six-year-old, four-star hotel, has been in the kitchen since 6.15am, cooking delicious breakfasts to order, scanning The Irish Timesand talking incessantly.

“What do we say when they ask what black pudding is made of?” he calls over to a waitress, who like everyone else, multitasks furiously. “A sort of pork pâté,” she chants in well-rehearsed fashion. He nods happily: “Never blood sausage!” Too off-putting for the visitors. “Show the love,” he croons, reminding her to garnish the scrambled eggs with cress.

Beyond the kitchen door, the chowder angst is being clarified. It’s the contrast between it and what Chip calls the otherwise “really very competitive” cost of this trip. He loves Ireland; this is his 11th trip since 1989. “But six years ago I said, ‘I’m afraid Ireland has killed the golden goose.’”

The southwest and Dublin were being “over-run” by American golfers and the fees for “trophy courses” were soaring to “unsustainable levels”.

Lahinch too, says Michael, later. “It used to be like Vietnam here some days, with the helicopters . . . We had a wealthy Irish businessman who landed on the putting green [a short walk away] and expected a chauffeur to bring them to the hotel.”

Over 35 years, O’Hare’s group has played and stayed at the world’s great courses. Now they’ve come to the northwest, looking for a place “more like Ireland was 20 years ago”. The trip was arranged through North and West Coast Links – a non-profit, co-operative club venture he can’t praise highly enough. “I didn’t say give me a cheap trip. I said give me first-class accommodation. They made it happen.”

So they got six nights per person sharing, eight golf courses – “counting Cruit Island: nine holes and awesome” – transport for eight days (a 15-person luxury bus), plus driver, all for €1,080 apiece.

Vaughan Lodge was an extra – “reasonable” €105 per night for single occupancy. The golf in Lahinch cost less than €50 at the member/guest rate.

In an update from back home in Boston, O’Hare pronounces it “terrific”.

“Vaughan Lodge was excellent. Obviously new and neat and clean. Superb food and service was cordial and first rate. Michael was a great host and hard worker. We had a dinner there on our last night with the guys from Lahinch and it was lovely.”

So while other costs have tumbled, for them the chowder symbolises “the very high food and drink costs relative to the States”.

The quiet, intimate, country-house comfort of the 22-room Vaughan Lodge – with its fine-dining restaurant and five-star chef – suits this group. Golfers constitute up to 80 per cent of their business, mainly American and Canadian, mostly men in groups of four to 16. At breakfast, the only guests apart from the Americans are a retired Irish judge and spouse, and a hotel inspector.

The Bostonians, being businessmen themselves, are torn between satisfaction at good value, and sympathy for the hoteliers they’ve encountered. Another Irish hotel that once charged €400 to €500 a night was giving rooms away for €80 to €90, says Chip O’Hare’s co-traveller George Prendergast. There was “almost no one” in another, “and that was over a weekend,” says O’Hare.

Lahinch has seen a lot of changes in the past 20 years. A tiny, old-fashioned, seaside village of 500 souls, scarred by the tax-driven gold-rush, explodes to 7,000 in the summer, with predictable effects on infrastructure. According to one business-owner, more than 70 properties are now for sale.

Yet, despite the glut, step outside the Vaughans’ front entrance and there, next door, unavoidably, smack between Vaughan Lodge and the sea view, is a very large house under construction. A guest wonders if Vaughan put up a fight. He smiles wryly. Later he says: “We’re seen to be the fat cats . . . the perception is that we are the embodiment of the Celtic Tiger.”

MICHAEL VAUGHAN, STEEPEDas a child in the lore and labour of the Lahinch family hotel business, was in his early 20s when his father dropped the bombshell that he was selling up. The memory still hurts. Michael went on to work in Jurys Doyle, in London, Dublin and North America, immersing himself in the golfing market. The dream was to return to Lahinch and open his own hotel. “I knew I wasn’t a corporate man. I was a vocational hotelier.”

His wife, Maria, working in sales and marketing when they met, was a natural fit for his dream. They believed there was a niche in Lahinch. It had no four-star hotel, no fine-dining restaurant, “nothing to cater for the upscale American golfer”.

In a leap of faith, they sold their Dunboyne home (making a €100,000 profit), cashed in their pensions (€30,000), threw in their savings (€25,000) and got a few “small, advance legacies from decent relatives”. In all, they put in €250,000 cash.

Merely getting to the planning stage devoured €120,000 of that and it was just the beginning. Objections added three to five years and hundreds of thousands of euro in boom-time inflation to building costs.

Interest rates soared.

Then the hotel down the village added another 100 rooms.

They learned a tough lesson when they remained open throughout the first year and lost about €70,000 to €100,000 between October and December.

The second year, they managed to “just about pay” the annual interest.

In 2008, the American market “nose-dived”. After paring staff numbers from 22 to 17, the payroll remains at around €6,000 to €7,000 a week, seven months a year. Good chefs are such a rarity that the Vaughans keep their 32-year-old chef, James Coffey, on a retainer in the idle winter months.

The fine-dining is a quixotic venture, to put it charitably. Michael supplies a detailed costing of a €45 dinner, based on April and May of this year: food €18; wages €17.55; VAT €4.275; bank interest €6.30; light and gas €2.70; admin €2.70; rates €2.25; laundry €1.125. Total: €54.90. Loss per guest: €9.90. “Last year, it would have been better for us to give everyone a voucher to go for a bag of chips and a pint in Flanagan’s,” he says.

Even Coffey – with a wealth of gurus and five-star kitchens under his belt – can see no future in it. “Fine dining is gone. This is one of our worst years and I see a huge change. It’s main course only now.

“Michael tries to keep it up, but Irish people just want beef; a well-done steak.”

MEANWHILE, FOR THEVaughans, the battle to stay afloat is fierce: maxing out credit cards; borrowing from friends and relatives; re-negotiating tax bills; moving into the hotel with their small son to save on house rental. They have planning permission for a house but Maria’s dream of a home won’t happen any time soon.

The hotel is all-consuming. As well as the marketing, she does all the decorating and painting. He’s in the kitchen from 6.30am, cooking and cleaning up (that saves about €600 a week, since he doubles as breakfast cook and kitchen porter), then he moves on to maintenance, fixing the broken toilet and the Wi-Fi, before getting caught up in Irish Hotels Federation business. At 6pm, he’s back, suited up, supervising the restaurant until 10.30pm. He finally gets out around 11pm. And that’s every day from April to November.

Since 2007, Michael has taken winter work in other high-end hotels to boost income and pay the Revenue.

“All we ever wanted was a house and a holiday,” says Maria. Now they have neither, nor a pension plan. “But I’m very low-maintenance,” she says lightly. “The car is an ’02 Toyota RAV2. My jeans are from Dunnes. I spend very little. The only money we’ve ever spent was to adopt Daniel [from Russia]. We used cash flow for that.”

What they need now are a few good weddings (ideally, groups of 50 to 70), an influx of affluent tourists and some intimation of hope. He believes passionately that it is his kind of hotel that will best serve Irish tourism in the long run. “PLCs and hotels don’t mix. PLCs are in the metrics business. Their first thing is the bottom line, the last thing they consider is the client.”

We’re sitting in the warm, comfortable library area where, later in the evening, contented golfers will come down in their stockinged feet, kick back and call out for a brandy from the attentive host.

“What you see here cost €4 million. We’d be lucky to get €1 million for it now,” says Michael, recalling the ease with which the banks shovelled out the loans. “Stress tests?” he laughs. “Their advice was that interest rates wouldn’t go up for a decade and the population of Dublin would explode. They wanted me to take on a hotel in Castletownbere.”

There is only one way out now, he says. “This is going to come right only if the €4 million cost is revalued and payments realigned at €1 million to €2 million.”

Do they regret not biting the hand off the builder who offered to buy the place a year into the project? Before answering, he tells a story. Nosing around Maria’s kitchen soon after they met, he came upon a neat row of little envelopes, each containing the cash to meet individual household bills. This, he concluded, was a woman who would be deeply uncomfortable with debt.

“Now look at us,” he says with a heavy sigh. “Opening this place made up for a lot of things that went before, like my father selling up. But I do have regrets. My biggest regret is that in the past two years, I threw Maria into a level of stress and strain that no wife or partner should have to endure.”

She smiles wryly: “And if we hadn’t gone ahead, I know I’d be living with the most miserable man in Ireland.”