Long read: Irish hotels – what to expect when they reopen

On June 29, domestic tourism will re-emerge, with hotels, B&Bs, hostels, caravan parks and campsites clamouring for our hard-earned freedom. But with social distancing, PPE and many restaurants and pubs forced to close around them, what can we expect from ‘the new normal’ staycations?


Holiday… celebrate… But when a holiday includes plexiglass, personal protective equipment and social distancing, is it really a break? 

This will be the million dollar question next week, when hotels, guesthouses and caravan parks reopen to the public after more than four months of lockdown. Given our collective cabin fever, it stands to reason many of us are itching to leave our counties behind and explore four walls than aren’t our own. 

We’ve cooked and washed up more times than we’ve had, well, hot dinners, and done more DIY in four months than we have in four years. Enough is enough. We want someone else to feed and mollycoddle us, and in a place we don’t know like the back of our sanitised hands. 

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A hotel is not just a place in which to sleep, but a place of sanctuary and conviviality

With each reopening phase announcement, hotels, B&Bs, self-catering lodgings and campsites have segued from total devastation to decisive action, unpicking their businesses to see how they can, not just make it viable with up to 60 per cent occupancy, but also keep their guests safe and sanguine. For a hotel is not just a place in which to sleep, but a place of sanctuary and conviviality.

“There is definitely pent-up demand,” says Brian Bowler, general manager of Cork’s four-star Montenotte hotel. “People want to get away and I think that the majority will not be overly apprehensive once guidelines are being adhered to and that their accommodation provider is seen to be taking it seriously across their facilities.”

The original Montenotte house dates back to the 1820s but it wasn’t until the 1940s that it began redevelopment as a hotel, its most recent renovation being a €6 million refurbishment in 2016 across its six-acre site, resplendent with finely manicured gardens and rambling woodland. 

 

Executive room at the Montenotte Hotel, Co Cork
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That it also has 26 one- and two-bed self-catering apartments – and ample, scenic outdoor space, among them a rooftop terrace and a sunken Victorian Garden – will be reassuring to those cautious holidaymakers preferring to hunker down with loved ones. “They are great if you want your own space whilst still having full use of all of the hotel's facilities,” admits Bowler. “Having options such as this will give consumers greater variety and control of their staycation.” 

But whether it’s a hotel room or a self-contained apartment, the aim remains the same. “While health and safety measures are obviously important, we cannot lose sight of the fact that our guests are coming to stay with us to enjoy a relaxing break away, now more than ever, so we want to be able to provide our guests with a really warm welcome and a comfortable, enjoyable environment to be in,” he says.

Bucolic backdrops

The four-star Heritage hotel in Killenard, Co Laois isn’t short of space either, which will make two-metre social distancing easy to encourage. Set on bucolic grounds that includes a 225-acre Seve Ballesteros designed golf course, it’s also within an easy day-tripper’s distance of the Rock of Dunamase and Heywood Garden for copious fresh-air rambles. 

“We’re lucky that our hotel offers such large spaces,” agrees general manager, Ger Alley, “meaning that despite having 98 bedrooms on site, our outlets have the capacity to hold our guests at the required distance of two metres.”

As with the Montenette, safety measures will include plentiful hand sanitiser stations, plexiglass screens at reception/concierge desks and F&B counters, and one-way systems. Bowler adds that spare pillows and blankets will now be available on request only, then already stashed away in wardrobes, while books and magazines will, sadly, be removed due to hygiene implications. 

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Inevitably, Dublin will be the hardest hit by the covid downturn: it’s where more than 28 per cent of Ireland’s total population live, and there are 427 tourists for every 100 locals

Alley says fogging machines will help disinfect bedrooms, public areas and offices, while Dublin’s Stauntons on the Green boutique B&B is introducing longer turnover periods. “As we are only forecasting 35 per cent occupancy, we’ll be able to leave 24 hours between a guest checking out and a new guest checking into a room, giving plenty of time for the room to be deep cleaned,” says Ray Hingston, director of operations for NHance Management, which looks after the property. 

Inevitably, Dublin will be the hardest hit by the covid downturn: it’s where more than 28 per cent of Ireland’s total population live, and there are 427 tourists for every 100 locals. While city and town folk will be flocking to the likes of the Montenotte and Heritage, rural Ireland may not be in a rush to visit Dublin city, since its principle USP – the social scene – will remain largely shuttered for some time, in addition to the perceived risk of increased of infection when high density businesses do reopen.

“It is my belief that the hotel sector will be slow to recover for the remainder of 2020 in Dublin compared to the rest of the country,” says Hingston. “All our efforts are fully concentrated on 2021, which is when I believe we will start to see the return of the overseas business, especially the American market.”

 

Private garden at Stauntons on the Green, Dublin
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Stauntons on the Green unveiled its multi-million euro refurbishment only nine months before the lockdown, and to glowing reviews. Did the closure feel like a double blow? “It was a big blow,” he says, “as we were expecting our strongest year since the hotel was purchased in 2016. We were predicting an occupancy of 95 per cent over the 12 months of 2020 – and are now forecasting an occupancy of 35 per cent for the second half of the year, as we do not believe there’ll be any overseas demand for rooms until March 2021.”

Corporate travel travails

And it’s not just a lack of holidaymakers to the bright lights of the bigger cities: business travel has plummeted. Says Bowler: “From September onwards we’re normally very busy midweek with corporate guests and events, but we just don’t know how many will be travelling and how frequently. Certainly the world of meetings and events will be non-existent due to social distancing, so there are a number of factors that will impact the industry. 

“Will the guideline still be two metres apart and, if so, for how long? Will there be a resurgence in the virus in the autumn and – the biggest question of all – when will there be a vaccine, as it is only at that point that things can truly return to normal. The hospitality industry in 2020 is about survival and planning the recovery in 2021/22, as it will take two years to build the business levels back up again.”

Peter MacCann, general manager of Dublin’s Merrion hotel is equally pragmatic. “There is no doubt our occupancy will be lower due to the lack of access into the country and the quarantine measures that will be in place. All hotels will be hoping to get their share from the domestic market, as no other market is readily available to us at the moment. In terms of viability, everyone in the industry is appreciative of the government’s efforts to support us in the form of the wage payments scheme, and hopefully that level of support continues as businesses re-emerge.”

The Merrion has remained “open behind closed doors” for its permanent residents, with essential maintenance and compliance being implemented ahead of the grand reopening on June 29. 

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Merrion Hotel, Dublin

Galway re-emerging

Over in Galway, Russell Hart and Emer Fitzpatrick are categorically excited to be throwing open the doors of their bijou B&B, The Stop, on July 2. Their design-forward lodging has been closed since March 19, when their American guests were finally able to fly home. 

“We renovated The Stop in January and February, including a new water system and new bathrooms,” says Emer, “and we finished the work in March, just in time to open for the season, and obviously had to close pretty quickly… at least the house is in tip-top condition and ready for reopening in July!” 

Although The Stop only has ten rooms, shared spaces are large enough for two-metre distancing, which will allow it to function at full capacity. Guests will have a choice of either self check-in or socially distanced check-ins, and staff will wear masks when appropriate.

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The Stop B&B, Galway

 

“We’re conscious of the fact that our business is built on personal interaction between ourselves, staff and guests, so will be going the extra distance to offer this care and attention while being responsible with regard to heath and safety,” says Russell, when asked about how to balance craic-cramping PPE with trademark Galwegian hospitality (and their delectable breakfasts).

While hotels are busy adapting their F&B services to comply with health guidelines, B&Bs are relying squarely on enough offsite restaurants being open to entice staycationers in the first place

“As we only have ten rooms it will be super simple to maintain social distancing through two breakfast sittings. Our buffet will now become a breakfast counter so that we can still serve all our treats (homemade granola, breads, cakes, local honey, homemade jams and so on), as well as a cooked breakfast prepared in the kitchen.”

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While hotels are busy adapting their F&B services to comply with health guidelines, B&Bs are relying squarely on enough offsite restaurants being open to entice staycationers in the first place. How confident are you that Galway – the most unlucky European Capital of Culture in 2020 if ever there was – will have enough eateries to feed overnight guests?

“Well, the great news is that all our favourite restaurants, Kai, The Universal and Ard Bia, to name just a few, are opening during the first week of July,” says Emer. “Sheridan’s and McCambridges have the best of Irish artisan products for picnics to take to Connemara and the Burren, and all the great little independent cafés are open and ready. Now is the time for people to support these small creative business. 

“There’s no doubt that we’ve been very lucky to be living in Galway during lockdown. We’ve been swimming in the sea, enjoying great local produce and honing our baking skills and now we can't wait to share it with everyone again.”

Package deals

There’s less confidence around hotel spas reopening, with many more official guidelines to navigate and implement first (“we’re awaiting greater clarity around what treatments we can offer, and looking at introducing time slots for the use of our health club pool and gym, in order to ensure that numbers are closely controlled, to give a greater level of comfort to our guests,” says Bowler, with similar feedback from the Merrion and The Heritage). But expect around a month from now the nation’s hydro suites and treatment rooms to be soothing the long-frazzled chakras of staycationers.

Other things to look forward to are great deals. Contrary to making up considerable losses during the first half of 2020 with inflated prices, every hotel, hostel, B&B, guesthouse and inn across the land will be clamouring for our hard-won presence via way of attractive promotions and packages. Says the Merrion’s MacCann: “What we will find is hotels will offer greater value – packages, in order to attract guests.”

Whatever your next staycation looks like, it will undoubtedly feel exotic, exciting and relaxing, simply by virtue of it not being your own home

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Bowler agrees. “I think that initially, we will see some really good offers in the reopening phase, and hotels will have to come up with innovative packages to entice consumers,” he says, “not necessarily at greatly reduced prices but by adding value and experiences for their guests to enjoy. The majority of hotels will be selling at slightly reduced rates for the time of year, and that consumers will get value and service standards to match. But I don’t expect there to be massive price drops.”

With that in mind, be prepared to shop around for the best value best suited to your needs, whether that involves room upgrades, dinners included or add-on activities. Whatever your next staycation looks like, for all the omnipresent motifs of C-19 – the face masks, the gloves, the plexiglass – it will undoubtedly feel exotic, exciting and relaxing, simply by virtue of it not being your own home. That in itself will make it a holiday worth celebrating.


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