After tough times Irish hoteliers are managing again
The hotel industry offers a perfect illustration of Ireland’s boom - and then bust. With many controlled by Nama, or paying off huge mortgages, smaller tourist numbers and Irish customers wanting ever better deals, how are today’s hoteliers coping? Patrick Freyne and Rosita Boland report
Paul Diver, owner of the Sandhouse Hotel in Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal, which he bought last year at a distressed property auction for €650,000. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Paul Diver, manager turned owner of the Sandhouse Hotel in Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal
Paul Diver’s whole demeanour changes when talking about the time when the Sandhouse Hotel was in liquidation. “The uncertainty was terrible,” he says. “A lot of staff are here a long time. Elizabeth [he gestures out to where Elizabeth Harkin is sitting at reception] has been here over 50 years. Pat the maintenance man has been here for 50 years. It’s their hotel and their home. They have such pride in it and to see liquidators speaking to them as though they were just a figure on the page. . . ” He shakes his head. He looks upset even thinking about it. “I know liquidators have their job to do and that’s fine. But you don’t have to be the high and mighty and you don’t have to treat people like they’re a speck on the ground.”
The Sandhouse story has a happy ending. Diver, who manged the hotel for more than 20 years, bought it at auction last year for €650,000, saving 55 jobs and a hugely important local business.
The Sandhouse is a big, yellow-painted, higgledy-piggledy hotel on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. “That picture changes by the minute,” says Diver as we gaze out the window of the dining room conservatory. “A common thing we get is guests ringing down asking us to turn off the fan. We have to explain that it’s the sound of the sea.”
The hotel dates back to the mid-1950s when a small fishing cottage was purchased by Mary and Vinnie Britton and turned into a hotel. The family slowly added to it over the years. Diver, who began his career in the Central Hotel in nearby Donegal Town, was brought in to run it in 1991 when the Brittons’ son Brian took over the business. “The idea was that Mary would retire,” chuckles Diver. “But she had other ideas. She was here for another few years.”
The last few decades saw a lot of changes to the industry, largely driven by customer expectation. “People’s houses got better,” says Diver. “If the guests’ houses were more luxurious than a hotel why would they bother?” Unfortunately the cost of upgrading in the noughties saw Brian Britton borrow a lot of money and he opted for voluntary liquidation in February 2009.
“We were one of the first hotels to go into liquidation,” says Diver, “and the phone stopped ringing overnight.” The business was in liquidation for a year and then Diver leased it from the liquidators for another two. It was soul-destroying. At the time, the notion of buying the hotel, valued at the peak of the boom at €4.5 million, was a pipe dream. It was only when the valuation went to €1.2 million that he even considered it.
“I never dreamed I could own a hotel,” says Diver. He began raising the money to buy at this price when, without warning, the hotel was put up for auction. “I only heard about it from my own bank manager,” says Diver. “[The liquidators] didn’t even pick up the phone.”
It was by no means obvious that Diver would be able to buy it at that point. “I was talking to someone at the auction and he was very sure he was going to get it for between €1.8 and €2 million,” says Diver, “but he gave me his word that he wouldn’t bid against me and he was an honourable man. He was the first to congratulate me.”
The international media reception to his news he likens to the scene in Love Actually where Hugh Grant is besieged by reporters at the doorstep. Not that he minded. He and the staff have been overwhelmed by the goodwill ever since. “It’s like the opposite of when we went into liquidation,” he says. “The phone hasn’t stopped ringing.”
Right now the hotel is in profit. Traditionally it appeals to an international but older demographic (“A German family come every year for three weeks – the same rooms, same table, same everything every single day”), but the publicity has appealed to a younger crowd they offer special surfing packages.
What the Sandhouse has, he says, is old-fashioned friendly service and local knowledge. “Hotels forgot about ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ during the boom,” he says. “We’re an old-fashioned hotel and we don’t make any apologies for that. We’re not a purpose-built hotel – all straight lines. Every room is different. There are nooks and crannies. We’ve got creaking floor boards. It’s an old-world hotel.”
He speaks highly of other hoteliers, particularly the Brennan Brothers who run the Park Hotel in Kenmare, and he’s optimistic about the possibilities of the Gathering and The Wild Atlantic Way, a tourist trail to be launched next year, stretching from Malin Head down the west coast. “We’re getting a statue here of a surfer that we’re hoping will be a bit of a focal point,” he says.
What has he learned in his years in the business? “You need to be able to laugh at yourself and not take yourself too seriously.” And what was the best moment in his career? “Deleting the liquidators’ contact details from my phone,” he says. He still sounds relieved. Patrick Freyne