The full Irish: how B&Bs bounced back
‘They love that there’s always a slice of cake going’: the rebirth of the Irish B&B
The Irish B&B: 'They want a superb breakfast that they see me cooking in the kitchen beside them.' Photograph: Getty Images/Perspectives
Thought Airbnb had put paid to the Irish B&B? Think again. Turns out not every industry is ripe for disruption, disintermediation or any other dastardly d that Silicon Valley can throw at it.
Instead, this most traditional element of the Irish tourism industry has embraced platform technology and social media with gusto, turning them entirely to its own advantage. Not bad for a sector that still struggles with perceptions of what used to be derogatorily called “pin money”.
In fairness, the sector was forged by the housewives of Ireland. It emerged as a force to be reckoned with when tourists began arriving in serious numbers, in the 1950s. At the same time, the newly minted IDA needed to bring foreign big wigs on recces through the regions. Both classes of visitor found that, by and large, the hotel stock of the time wasn’t up to the task.
Farmers’ wives were the first to answer Ireland’s call, putting out the welcome mat and turning on the kettle. Before long, B&B signs were hanging at gates in every part of the country. By 1999 Ireland had reached peak B&B, at about 4,000.
The Celtic Tiger years marked the end of a long, slow decline however as Irish guests, once a stalwart, holidayed abroad and, for mini-breaks at home, opted for a hotel.
B&Bs closed at a rate of about 200 a year. Many of the closures resulted from changes in lifestyle too – with more people working outside the home fewer needed ways to generate income in it.
Today the number of B&Bs in Ireland stands at about 3,000, of which 948 are Fáilte Ireland approved. But if Irish visitor numbers fell off, those from overseas have grown. The result is that there is now a shortage of B&Bs.
“The sector is doing very well. Germans, French and Italians all love the B&B,” says Helena Healy, chief executive of B&B Ireland, a membership group with 750 properties affiliated to it.
“Yes during the recession bookings went through the floor but since 2011 we have been in a growth phase.”
Some of this is down to deft use of Airbnb. “It’s not a threat to B&B owners. It’s simply a channel to market,” says Healy.
“Airbnb is a huge online company that does both traditional B&B, as well as all kinds of accommodation, from self-catering to quirky to home stays, and that’s great. But it’s simply a channel to market and very many of our members use it as such. The same goes for Booking.com. They are OTAs [online travel agencies] that give huge reach globally.”
Foreign visitors who choose B&Bs do so because they actively want to stay in an Irish home, she says.
“The host is a big part of the appeal, being able to book reservations for them or recommend places to stay. They love the Irishness of it, the cup of tea on arrival and the freshly cooked food, to the point that there is now a shortage of B&Bs, especially in big tourism areas like Killarney, Galway and Dublin. We actually have a team now dedicated to getting new room stock in.”
Competing with unregulated room providers, available through Airbnb, is a challenge. “All our members are Fáilte Ireland approved. Airbnb’s rooms are not regulated. If you are bringing people to your home, and charging them money to stay, we feel those homes should comply in terms of fire, health and safety, and food safety regulations,” says Healy.
On the plus side, changing consumer trends are working in the sector’s favour. All sectors are seeing buyer patterns influenced by a desire for “authenticity” – something real and true rather than simply marketing spin. Check.
On top of that is a push back against big business, in search of what is small and local. No business could be more a “Mom and Pop shop” than a B&B.
Increased interest in food provenance helps too, with many B&Bs having become a dab hand at soda bread and homemade jams. And where they are not, they are a dab hand putting artisanal fare on the sideboard.
With average prices of about €75 to o €90 a night for a double, they speak to the post recessionary traveller’s demand for value for money.
The strength of the B&B is that it’s an authentic Irish experience
And they benefit from the growth in activity breaks. “If it’s hill walking in the Slieve Blooms you want, a B&B will get you right into them, and sort your maps for you,” says Healy.
The shortage of B&Bs is in part the result of an older generation retiring without a younger one that aspires to do it. On top of that is the general growth in visitor numbers to Ireland, up 3 per cent last year over 2016, to almost 10 million.
North Americans are our star performers, up 16 per cent last year. They can’t get enough of Irish B&Bs, accounting for about one third of all B&B bed nights.
This goes some way towards mitigating against Brexit damage. While it’s a huge worry for tourism generally, UK visitors are only fourth, and possibly even fifth, on the list of nationalities that stay in B&Bs. It explains how B&B Ireland’s revenues were up 14 per cent last year, and 23 per cent the year before. And while the recession pruned the number of operators, it yielded better fruit.
“The businesses that are in it now are really in it. Those for whom it was a sideline, or who were about to retire, have fallen away and what we have now is a great cohort of owners who really want to be in this business,” said Linda Campbell, Fáilte Ireland’s registrar for quality and standards.
The success of Fáilte Ireland’s marketing programmes, particularly in relation to the Wild Atlantic Way but also, latterly, Ireland’s Ancient East, has also helped.
“What we are hearing from operators is that they are really helping to extend what was before a very short season.”
Campbell would like to see more capacity. “The strength of the B&B is that it’s an authentic Irish experience. It gives you access to an owner who lives in and knows an area, who can tell you where to go and what to do and just have the chat generally. And they’ll cook you a fresh breakfast to order in the morning, something we’re trying to encourage hotels to do.”
While more research is required to evaluate the full impact of Airbnb on the sector, her sense too is that it is an attractive platform for B&B owners. In the meantime, the augurs for the sector look good regardless: “It’s still the largest category of accommodation we have – it’s huge, and it’s growing,” she says.
B&B owner Sharon Harrington knows why. From her suburban home in Swords, she takes in visitors from all around the world and knows exactly why they come. “They want a superb breakfast that they see me cooking in the kitchen beside them and hasn’t sat in a bain marie all morning. They love the chat. And they love that there’s always a slice of cake going.”