Colin White asks hotel owner Eithne Fitzpatrick how she and her family transformed a derelict building on Dublin’s south coast into a bastion of heritage and comfort.
The tourism and hospitality sector has undergone a massive transformation over the last 10 years in Ireland. The boom years brought a mass influx of visitors from abroad, the likes of which had never been seen in this country. The good times looked like they’d never end for the hotel sector; as we know, they did, famously.
Many of the global giants of the hotel sector have now established a presence in Ireland. Most offer a fine service, but visitors can be forgiven for sometimes feeling underwhelmed by an experience at a hotel that doesn’t attempt to absorb its surroundings.
One hotel that doesn’t fit this model is Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel. Under the stewardship of custodian Eithne Fitzpatrick, staff at the family-owned hotel have worked hard to regain its position as a prominent south Dublin establishment.
Dating back to the 1700s, Killiney Castle – on which Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel stands – has a rich and colourful history, including its use by the Black and Tans and the IRA during the Irish Civil War, before being torched by Free State troops.
The castle was later requisitioned by the Government during the early 1940s and used as lodgings for the army.
In 1970 it came on the market after years of neglect. The premises were in a state of disrepair, but for Eithne’s father Paddy, the chance to purchase the castle was an opportunity of a lifetime, one not to be passed up.
“When the castle came on the market, my father was immediately grabbed by the idea,” she says. “The place was derelict and none of the rooms were habitable – we took over a veritable wreck.”
Paddy and Eithne’s mother (also named Eithne) mortgaged practically everything they had and took a gamble on the castle.
The financial challenges of purchasing a property in a state of disrepair were great, Eithne says. “I can remember physically making the curtains with my mum. We had a sewing room going full throttle at our house down the road on Vico Road in Dalkey. We kept as many jobs as possible in-house at the beginning because we had such little money. Any capital we did have was poured into the renovation.”
Eithne Jnr’s late parents worked hard on growing the business, particularly in the US. Her dad Peter worked closely with Bord Fáilte, as it was then known, and other agencies to promote the Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel brand overseas.
“He was a true entrepreneur,” Eithne stresses. “He also understood the importance of the airlines and we formed a very strong alliance with Trans World Airlines (TWA), the one airline with sales offices in every city in the US. In the early part of my career, my dad and myself forged many partnerships. We’d head out on the road maybe twice a year hosting receptions for top-producing travel agents in conjunction with TWA, together with Bord Fáilte helping the company promote Ireland.”
BAPTISM OF FIRE
Eithne Jnr took over the running of the hotel in 2002. This was a baptism of fire for a relatively young sales and marketing expert with no experience of the day-to-day management of a hotel. “Having been primarily involved in sales and marketing, I hadn’t been involved in the operational side of the business. Getting stuck into an operation such as this was a very difficult and daunting task.”
There have been ups and downs during her stewardship; most-notably the recent global financial crisis. “When the recession hit in 2008, a fire in my belly was lit and I thought to myself: ‘This is not going to beat me; I’m going to fight this every inch of the way.”
Fitzpatrick recalls: “We were hit hard. As we are hugely dependent on local corporate business in the area, income dried up very quickly. It was like someone had turned off a tap. The public’s fears were inflated by media reports and overnight our business had dropped into the sewers. It was very scary time, and it took five solid years before the hotel started to move on an upward trend. With a strong team and some great financial advice, we managed to overcome the crisis. However, it certainly was a very stressful period, with a lot of sleepless nights.”
At the moment, this upward trend seems to be sustaining itself and some stability is returning to an industry that has struggled to keep its head above water over recent years. There are many factors influencing this growth: currency exchange rates are favourable for US visitors and there has been a constant flow of independent American travellers, keen to visit.
When the recession hit in 2008, a fire in my belly was lit
Fitzpatrick sees herself as very much a hands-on and proactive hotel owner and, from the evidence on show during my visit to the hotel, this is indisputable.
She says: “No two days are ever the same in the hotel business. As the owner, the business rests on my shoulders. I need to ensure that our management team are controlling all the various margins, and to also ensure managers are happy and leading their teams in an effective, innovative way.”
Fitzpatrick clearly takes enjoyment from her substantial involvement within all aspects of the daily running of the business and expresses her pride and satisfaction with the interior design of the hotel, which aims to be “identifiable by being different”.
“I’m hugely involved in our ongoing refurbishment programme. If a hotel is running on high occupancies, as we have been, the rooms get quite a battering. This year we have plans to refurbish one of our bigger function rooms, our public areas and another 25 bedrooms,” she says.
When asked about the how the hotel industry has changed since she first took full ownership of the hotel in 2005, Fitzpatrick points to both changing business models and technological advancements as key factors.
“How the industry works has changed. During the 1970s and ‘80s it was dependent on personal contacts – one-on-one, face-to-face business. I pounded many pavements and banged on countless doors in the early part of my career. Also, the internet has been a massive influence, as the industry has grown younger.”
SENSE OF BELONGING
The future looks bright for the hotel. Its focus on offering superb service standards and the general care and attention of its staff set it apart from its contemporaries.
“We’ve got unbelievably loyal, enthusiastic return customers, which has kept us going through the good and bad times,” says Fitzpatrick. “I’m proud to say we employ 125 staff at the moment. This number had dropped back to 45 during the recession, but we’re building that back up, thankfully. We all work very closely together. Decisions are made collectively here. It’s very much a team effort, but I’m the one who calls the shots. We are continuing to work hard at building our conference and corporate business. We also have a very active fitness centre right now, which acts as a huge kicker for our revenue, and we are also continuing to drive growth through our wedding packages.”
SLOW TO REACT
Fitzpatrick is forthright in her belief that Irish governments have not attached enough importance to the amount of revenue that tourism can bring to the country. “We have been slow to react,” she says. “There should be more assistance for home-grown, Irish-based independent hoteliers. We are self-supported, we create many jobs and we generating a huge amount of money for the country.”
The busy hotel owner is also the current chair of Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company, a position she has held for two years. With exciting plans afoot to create a cruise berth and urban beach for the seaside town, she believes that much can be gained through these developments – not just for Dún Laoghaire, but also for Ireland in general.
Eithne Fitzpatrick continues to guide Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel on its path to continued success, while respecting the original charm of the castle and the Irish welcome long associated with the establishment.
The family legacy is also enduring: Eithne’s son Mark became the third generation of the family to be involved with the hotel when he was appointed general manager in 2000. Another son, Joseph, has also joined the business on a management trainee programme.
“We have a strong sense of family here. And by family, I don’t mean just the Fitzpatricks – every member of staff is part of the family. It’s the personalised family welcome that visitors react to,” she says.