The past few years have seen turbulent times for many of our top hotels, between coping with the times we were in and competition in the form of rock-bottom deals in ‘tax-break’ hotels. Consequently, a number of the jewels in the crown of the Irish tourism industry have been – and continue to be – snapped up by international groups and foreign investors at what, no doubt, we will look back on as ‘a real steal’. On the one hand it is sad to see this happening, but on the other hand, it very much depends on the purchaser’s commitment to their new acquisition by way of investment in the property, the staff, and in the community in the surrounding areas.
Just over a year ago, Ashford Castle was purchased by the UK-based Red Carnation Hotel Group, which was founded in the 1950s by a South African lady called Bea Tollman and named after her husband’s favourite flower. Having married at 17 and 18 years old the pair – instead of taking a mortgage out on a home – bought a hotel, where Bea Tollman then worked in the kitchen for 15 years, so they know the business from the ground up. They now have 16 five-star and four-star boutique hotels in the UK, South Africa, Switzerland and the USA – and now Ireland.
I stayed in two of Red Carnation’s London hotels a few years ago, the Milestone in Kensington and the Chesterfield in Mayfair. There was an extraordinary level of friendliness and service in both establishments. While there, I heard of the extent of Bea Tollman’s involvement and eye for detail. “She knows what’s in every bedroom in every hotel,” I was told, which made me interested in what she might do with Ashford Castle.
Ashford is almost somewhat of a national emblem for Ireland. A former country estate of the Guinness family, it has hosted everyone from Britain’s King George V to John Wayne, Oscar Wilde to Princess Grace, not to mention countless modern personalities – but forget the celebrities, the staff at Ashford Castle are what makes it special. Each person you meet is a character, a true reflection of Irish hospitality at its best, each and every one an ambassador for Irish tourism. I needn’t have worried about whether, following three months of renovations, and an auction of some of the unwanted contents, Ashford might now be all flash, bash and cash.
Anyone who is prepared to spend a fortune on the underpinnings first of all – the stuff that is not noticed – has definitely got its welfare at heart. What they have done is subtle, suitable and sublime. New bedrooms have walls lined with exquisite embroidered silks, the George V restaurant has had incredibly clever art nouveau-style mirrored panelling fixed above the frieze, which adds lightness to the room, and the staff are gleaming in their new uniforms.
Niall Rochford has been general manager at Ashford for 12 years and he told me what the new ownership has meant to him, to the castle, the staff and to the livelihoods of people in the general area.
“‘I’ll never forget June 1, 2013, when the new owners arrived, because I suppose we had gone through a lot in the four years before that, between receiverships and being in a very difficult situation. Mr and Mrs Tollman got out of the car, and went straight to the assembled staff, to greet each member individually,” he said.
“So, there was that real sense of them being hoteliers and understanding. Mr Tollman addressed the staff saying: ‘This hotel is now debt free. What I want to do is make this hotel the best of its kind in the world – that is my vision.’ For the staff to hear that, for everybody to hear that, locals and non-locals, it was stunning. They have been really true to their word since then.”
The hotel closed last January, February and half of March and the volume of work that was done during that time was incredible. The Tollman ethos here is preservation and enhancement and not about doing anything out of time or place.
“The work done that you don’t see was even more impressive,” says Rochford. “All of the windows were changed, all of the roofs were stripped back, all the walls were repointed, the electrics stripped out, then all the public areas, bar, restaurant, lounge, the Connaught Room and 30 bedrooms renovated, including putting in air conditioning. All of that work was done in the space of 12 weeks.”
The Tollmans wanted to use local labour, local contractors, local people.
“Some 300 workmen were here on a daily basis; there wasn’t even enough car parking in the castle here, and even in Cong at times, for all the people from Galway, Clare, Roscommon, Mayo, Sligo – all local craftsmen who have done amazing work. There were two local contractors also – Edward Deasy and Paul Carey from Galway – and they have just done an incredible job.”
They are halfway through the project now and will close again in January, February and March 2015 to complete the project in the East Wing, where there are 50 bedrooms. They will be adding a spa, a billiards room, a cinema and a smoking terrace.
“Also, very interestingly, we found the old servants’ entrance, which was a coal bunker and walkway underneath the castle. The servants used to come in and from here get their coal buckets up to the rooms. It’s stunning, so that has been cleared out and we are going to put in wine caves, where we can do wine tastings and wine dinners.”
What I heard during my stay in the Milestone in London was clearly very true, for Bea Tollman has led this project herself.
“She works incredibly hard, she led the project herself,” says Rochford. “I do a seven-page report for her every single day, one page is financial and the other pages focus on what have we done for our guests today. They are investing in the hotel, but they do it with such spirit.”
It’s clear that they’re heavily focused on staff loyalty and they arrived last Christmas to stay at Ashford Castle with a gift for each staff member. So, to spell it out, there were 125 individually-chosen gifts, with each staff member getting something different. Bea Tollman also does this with her 2,000 employees worldwide. In addition, in March each year some 1,200 employees are brought to London, those who had perhaps distinguished themselves as ‘Employees of the Month’ and that sort of thing, all expenses paid, for a big celebratory event. Niall Rochford describes her as probably the most inspirational character and hotel individual he has ever met.
“It’s simple, genuine, generous hospitality, not just for the guests, but for the staff. She believes if she is treating them really well, it pays back.”
Bea Tollman has also added her own favourite foods and tweaks to the menu with the castle’s head chef, Stefan Matz, and she also has put in a vegetable tunnel for chef Jonathan Keane, who is also delivering excellent contemporary food at The Lodge at Ashford, a separate venue on the grounds of the 360-acre estate.
“I’ve been lucky in the past 12 years that I’ve been here that I’ve always had the most fantastic team, including maitre d’ Martin Gibbons, who has been here 40 years, as well as Catherine Kenny, among others. The transition has been seamless because the way we have always wanted to run hotels is the way Red Carnation run their hotels, which is from the bottom up, empowering everyone to be genuinely hospitable and give them the resources.
“We went through very difficult times.
“I think for hoteliers that are in difficulty right now and are thinking, ‘I am losing my confidence because I have been told its all about the bottom line and costs’, believe me, it’s not. Even in the darkest days, what made it successful was that constant focus on our guests. What Red Carnation are doing with this building, this business and this property, will secure Ashford for the next two generations in my opinion. That’s how fundamental it is, it’s almost ‘Guinness-esque’.
“Since the Guinness family built a lot of what you see here in the 1800s, this is the most fundamental thing that has happened. They were unbelievably benevolent. We have been very very lucky, I am not overstating what is actually happening, this is exactly how it is. They are a small group in a very big pond taking on the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carltons, but if you look at the top five hotels in London on TripAdvisor, three are Red Carnation. That doesn’t happen by chance, that happens by focusing on the guest, the guest, the guest. That is what they are allowing us to do, we are being allowed continue with that Irish hospitality in a generous sense.”