Tourism in Co Clare: ‘We will lose our céad míle fáilte if we have to socially distance’
Businesses are considering halving prices and chartering planes to keep their industry alive
Hotelier Michael Vaughan of Vaughan Lodge at Lahinch, Co Clare. ‘This year is a total write off.’ Photograph: Eamon Ward
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It was the kind of perfect bank holiday weather people long for. The sun was out all day. There was no wind. The Atlantic was glittering at Lahinch in Co Clare. A few miles up the coast, sea-birds were swooping and calling over the Cliffs of Moher, and the yellow gorse was bright in the nearby fields. Everything smelled fresh, and the trees and hedgerows were abundantly green.
All that was missing were people; the tourists on which so much of the county and country’s economy depends.
The car park at the Cliffs of Moher, which has 500 spaces, was empty. The coach park, with its 29 bays, was empty. Not only was the immense carpark alongside Lahinch’s promenade empty, there were even several vacant parking spaces on the town’s main street; usually unthinkable at this time of the year, no matter what the weather.
While many people around the world who are still lucky enough to have jobs are now working remotely, the hotel industry cannot function unless guests turn up in person. An empty hotel – or any kind of business built on overnight accommodation – is purposeless.
Michael Vaughan is the owner and manager of Vaughan Lodge in Lahinch. “We should have had 50 people staying with us this weekend,” he says. The hotel opens seven months a year, from April to October, with the summer months bringing most business. Two-thirds of their guests are American golfers, many of whom book via tour operators.
“They are all rebooking for next year, but whether those plans to travel materialise, we don’t yet know,” he says. “This year is a total write off.”
Vaughan is a fourth-generation hotelier, and employs 20 staff locally. “It took a good seven years to recover from the last recession,” he says. It was only last year that he took “a very heavy loan” and added another 10 bedrooms to the existing 22. A double room with breakfast is 160 a night at this time of year.
“The majority of hotels in Ireland outside the cities, about 65 per cent of them, are between 10 and 35 rooms,” he says. “Everyone thinks of the hundred-bed hotel, but it’s not in fact the norm. Most hotels are small, family-run businesses in provincial towns and in coastal areas.
“A lot of my colleagues in west Kerry, and Connemara and Donegal are considering hibernating for the whole year, and not opening. That will have a devastating effect on local employment everywhere, particularly in coastal communities.”
Vaughan’s worry, and that of all other hoteliers, is trying to figure out what reopening will look like. “It’s hospitality we want to offer, not a hospital environment,” he says. “The idea of taking guests temperatures at the door is appalling. It’s saying we don’t trust you. But in order to trade, we must demonstrate that we have taken precautions to protect our guests and staff. Do you take the hygiene that goes on back of house to the front of house, and show guests that cleaning staff are in hazmat type suits? Does everyone wear masks?”
As Vaughan points out, the traditional Irish welcome has always depended on an element of physicality, particularly a handshake, or lingering by a table at service for a chat, and the atmosphere of buzzing bars.
“It’s like your worst nightmare, not being able to demonstrate hospitality in traditional ways. Touching elbows is culturally anathema to us. We are going to lose part of our céad míle fáilte psyche if we have to socially distance.”
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Vaughan is thinking of ways they could adapt, particularly if staff have to wear masks for some time. “I am thinking of trying to compensate for the lack of welcome. Could we print smiles on masks? Make a bit of a story around them, using Celtic imagery?”
Golfers are a large percentage of his guests, and many are groups of friends travelling together. “Friends would stay in twin rooms, but how is that going to look in the future? They’re going to want their own rooms, and the single room will be key to that, but again, we’re looking at less occupancy.”
Vaughan’s is a four-star hotel, which means that there is a restaurant on site. To reopen the restaurant with fewer tables under current social distancing rules would not make it commercially viable, even if every table was full every night.
“I think we should be looking at maybe trying to open some hotels later this summer on a B&B basis only. If communities were able to think collectively, maybe we could send the restaurant business to local restaurants and cafes, and then the whole community could benefit. But then again, would it make sense for them to open?”
Cliffs of Moher
Geraldine Enright is director of the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Experience. In 2019, there were 1.6 million visitors to the cliffs; the highest number of tourists ever recorded.
“At this time of year, we’d be seeing between 5,000 and 6,000 people a day,” she says. From May Day until the end of August, they open from 7am to 9pm daily. It’s a rough split of 50:50 between coach tourists and people with their own cars. There are some cyclists and walkers, but they are a tiny percentage compared with those arriving by vehicle.
It is looking really, really bleak for the whole county
In the peak season, 170 people are employed on-site at the Cliffs, where there are also a number of shops and various places to eat. “These workers are all local people,” Enright stresses. “All of these people come from the surrounding small towns and villages; rural communities.”
It’s not just the people working on-site whose livelihoods are now being affected. The gift shop alone, she says, showcases work from more than 30 Clare-based artists, food suppliers and other small businesses.
“Those items are mostly bought by our international visitors, who have more disposable income.” Three-quarters of their visitors are international, with many of those coming via tour groups. “It’s older people, in general, who tend to go on coach tours, so of course we are worried about when they might be travelling again, as they are in the higher risk category.
“It is looking really, really bleak for the whole county, to be honest,” she says. “The knock-on effect is everywhere – accommodation, ferries, surf schools, restaurants, bars, cafes. We’ll probably drop about 80 per cent in the numbers we see here. There’s a risk of tourism going back 30 years.
“Our hope is that domestic visitors will be longing to be out in nature again, and will want to come to the countryside when they can travel again.”
Mark Nolan has been the general manager at Dromoland Castle Hotel, near Ennis, for 31 years. There are no guests in residence, but staff are still out mowing the lawns, and maintaining the grounds. Reception is still functioning, and the property retains its security staff. The hotel, which has 97 rooms, completed a €20 million renovation just weeks before having to close on March 18th.
“We would have been full this weekend. Full for us is about 200 guests,” Nolan says.
In his three decades managing Dromoland, Nolan has experienced many challenges to business, but nothing like the current pandemic. “I would find it hard to imagine ever having a challenge like this in the future,” he says drily.
If I asked my customer to wear a mask and have breakfast in their room, I’d have to think why would that guest want to leave their own home for that?
The majority of Dromoland’s guests are from north America, but there is a significant repeat business from the domestic market, particularly in the off season. In common with Vaughan in Lahinch, he is hopeful that already-established guest loyalty to the hotel will prove to be an important element in recovery.
He and some other managers of the country’s luxury hotels, including Ashford Castle in Mayo, the Merrion in Dublin, and Adare Manor in Limerick, are brainstorming to find ways to adapt to a changed market.
“One of the things we are looking at is chartering planes from north America to bring in guests,” he says. “Normally, we would be in competition with each other, but we all have very different hotel offerings, and this is a time to support each other and think differently.”
For Nolan, as for all hotel managers, the challenge of reopening is that of balancing safety of both guests and staff, without compromising the guest experience to the extent that staying at home is preferable.
“Being a resort, if I asked my customer to wear a mask and have breakfast in their room, I’d have to think why would that guest want to leave their own home for that?” he says. “The dilemma will be making guests feel safe.”
At present, it is looking like reopening will mean that when vacated, rooms won’t be cleaned until the following day, with new occupancy the day after that. “We will definitely be encouraging people to stay longer, and we will be focusing on the Irish market.”
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In Lahinch, Vaughan sees hotel prices “going back to what they were 10 years ago”.
At Dromoland, Nolan says: “Our price point will be completely different to what it would have been originally.” Double rooms with breakfast in high season, which started on May Day, begin at €650 a night.
“We will be looking at half that price,” he says. “We will not be conducting our business in a conventional manner for some time to come after reopening.”