Whether for business or for pleasure it is comforting to know that when you reach your destination there is a beautiful room to rest a weary head, a cup of refreshing tea, and friendly staff to greet you, that is the ethos of the Oranmore Lodge Hotel where Ireland of the welcomes and Galway of the cead mile failte is not only an integral part of the business but a way of life.
Indeed, sitting in the comfortable newly refurbished bar of this four star hotel, sipping a cup of tea with proprietor Brian O’Higgins, the welcome that is given to all customers is clear to see, in fact there is plenty of character not only in the friendly staff who are always ready with a smile but in the building itself, which after numerous extensions and upgrades has still managed to retain the original lodge features giving the whole place the feel of a ‘home away from home’. It is no wonder that long-term customers have remained loyal throughout the years, group tours descend daily knowing that they will be catered for to a high standard, business is thrashed out in conference rooms, and families arrive to enjoy all the facilities of a hotel but with the privacy of the self catering apartment.
Looking after customers is very important to Mr O’Higgins who maintains that a “hotelier has to be all things, to be there for people through the good times and the bad”. Since taking the reins in 1985 the emphasis has been firmly placed on running a family business which provides visitors with top quality food, friendly service, at affordable prices. Visitors are not only welcomed but are made to feel like part of the family, a place where they can truly relax.
“We’ve had staff here since the day we started. It’s like a family and the people that work here are our extended family. That comes right through the organisation. When a person comes in we make them feel welcome, like they’re coming into a private house. We have 70 rooms now, but we have the same welcome, if a person comes along we offer them a cup of tea. That’s the first salute. People could have been stuck on the roads for hours, the flight delayed, and you meet them at their lowest point so the onus is on us to turn that around and make them feel welcomed, that the rooms are ready, and that any little thing you can do to make their stay enjoyable. That’s what makes our business successful, to look after everybody as if they are the only person in the place. That’s what family hotels like us do.”
It’s not just the overseas and ‘home market’ visitors who get the royal treatment at Oranmore Lodge Hotel but also people from the locality, long-term customers that would have held their weddings, Communions, confirmations, and their children’s weddings at this beautiful venue. A lot of importance is also placed on working hand-in-hand with local businesses.
“We have the corporate business, weddings, Communions, confirmations, the whole sort of spectrum of the business, from the christening to the funeral. We have a great loyalty from customers and we’re with people in their happy times and in their sad times. Another part of our ethos is if we can’t buy in the parish, we will go to the next parish, we would rarely go outside the city for anything. Everything is sourced locally. If we expect people to deal with us we have to deal with them locally, that’s what our business is about,” said Mr O’Higgins as he warmly waves to some passing participants of a business conference.
The saying ‘it’s in the blood’ is very true when it comes to this hotelier who cut his teeth in the family bar and restaurant business, Flanagans, in his native village of Lahinch in Co Clare before really paving his way in the hotel industry. Educated at St Enda’s in Galway, the young Mr O’Higgins went to Switzerland where he trained with Cunard Shipping, known for the QE2, and then at the Ritz Hotel in London as the group food and beverage manager, before coming home to Ireland to take up the position of deputy general manager of the Great Southern in Killarney. Within six months Mr O’Higgins was appointed general manager of the Great Southern in Galway in 1979, and when the opportunity came six years later to buy the Oranmore Lodge Hotel he jumped at the chance.
“It was a logical progression for me. I was young enough at the time and if it didn’t work the option would have been to go to America or somewhere else. I was in my late twenties, at that time general managers of hotels were rarely appointed at that age, I was the youngest in the group,” said Mr O’Higgins who goes on to explain how Oranmore Lodge is steeped in history and really tied to the community and to Galway.
“The building was an original Blake-Butler house, the Butler family of Kilkenny Castle, and the Blakes, the Blakes of Galway which would be Oranmore Castle. It was their family home, it was built as Thornpark House in the 1870s, and one of the Blake-Butlers was an MP and his solicitor was Daniel O’Connell. When he got into financial difficulties the family home had to be sold, and then it went on to the Conway family and then the Divilly family of Divilly Meats. It became a guest house run by a Mrs Gilligan from Galway before going to Joan and Oliver O’Shaughnessy who opened it as a 10 bedroom hotel in the 1970s. Then one of the many recessions at that time hit and it was closed for a number of years. It was bought then on a wet Friday which I remember very well by JJ Fleming of Fleming Motors who is a very good friend of mine and he operated it as a hotel for a year and a half. I was general manager of the Great Southern Hotel at the time, so JJ and I struck up a deal and I bought the place from him. From January 1985, I left the Great Southern and built on the first new part of it, the function room, which started us on the road. Then we built 33 bedrooms followed by another 33, the leisure centre, extended the conference room, built suites and then we built apartments. Then the next recession came.”
Buying a hotel in the midst of a recession was a bit of a gamble, Mr O’Higgins admits, as times were hard and there were many leaving the country in search of a brighter future, but Oranmore Lodge Hotel has weathered the storms, diversifying to keep up with the ever-changing tourist industry and to tackle the current recession. “There were times when I thought there was a road block at the end of the avenue because there were no cars coming up and at that time there were just parties for people going off to America and to England. That was very hard times, but you were competing with other hotels, you weren’t competing with banks that are running hotels. Everybody was in the same boat, there just wasn’t enough of guests. It’s amazing that 25 years on things have swung around again.
“Times are tough for every business around Galway at the moment. There used to be order in the market, you used to have families running hotel businesses, then the boom time came and it became a status symbol for developers. Hotels were built for no commercial reason. There are hotels that are charging anything to keep the door open and get people in which affects other hotels. We have to change and we are looking at new markets. We spent a week in the UK over in Manchester and Birmingham, we’ll be at the Travel Fair in Dublin. We joined Select Hotels of Ireland last year which are 25 similar type businesses spread throughout the country and we’re all grouping together to have stronger marketing. There are representatives overseas in the US and UK promoting the Select hotels. That’s a new departure for us.
“It’s wonderful to get repeat customers, you feel you’re doing a good job. We would have one group every night, that would be our base. If the city is full Oranmore will be full. When our representatives are promoting in the US, everyone knows Galway, they’ll sing a bit of ‘Galway Bay’. Galway is unique, it has the wonderful charm, it’s never lost its friendliness. The Irish hospitality and the warmth is a big plus for the city and I hope we never lose it. It is what they want, the genuine Irish hospitality. We lost sight of that for a few years but that’s all changed now. We cannot compete with the sun destinations so we have to go back out and sell the Ireland of the welcomes and the Galway of the cead mile failte. I am very positive for the future,” said Mr O’Higgins.
The Oranmore Lodge Hotel is situated in the picturesque village of Oranmore with easy access to the M6 motorway, Galway Airport, as well as Galway city centre with a bus service every 15 minutes and a local taxi company. The hotel has struck the right balance between modern convenience and old world charm. I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of the standard bedrooms and then totally blown away by the top end of the scale, the executive bedroom, which boasts large comfortable beds, contemporary furniture, and a fantastic 42” LCD screen. For a bit of privacy for the family or small group vacation there are the self catering apartments at very competitive prices. The Hunt Room restaurant is where guests can enjoy a delicious dining experience, in the Butler’s Bistro there lunch is served daily, and there is tasty food to be had in the bar while singing along to the music session.