Creating a splash in Mayo, the Midlands, and the Med

Ray Byrne, proprietor, Wineport Lodge, and founder of Splash Hotels

Ray Byrne.

Ray Byrne.

Deciding where to chill out has become something of a national pastime in Ireland. Long days at work and even longer spells of rain have led us to seek our solace in the arms of the hospitality industry.

Waiting with open arms to welcome us is Ray Byrne, proprietor of Wineport Lodge and founder of Splash Hotels, a hotel management company that operates small, personality-driven, hotels.

Ray’s hotels span not only the two counties of Westmeath and Mayo, but also the Mediterranean island of Malta.

Two years ago a group of hotel investors employed Ray’s expertise to manage the business interests of their two Mayo hotels, The Ice House (www.icehousehotel.ie ) in Ballina and Lisloughrey Lodge (www.lisloughreylodgehotel.com ) in Cong, both of which opened in 2007. Splash Hotels’ most recent addition is The Phoenicia in Valletta, Malta, which Ray oversees and is a co-investor in.

“I see myself more as a mentor to the general managers of the three hotels, and to ensure that they are developing the hotels in line with our credo of creating a ‘traditional hospitality’ feel. My own business ethos is to look at everything through the customers’ eyes — see what they see, and then translate that into a mechanism that staff can work with,” explains Ray.

“I aim to establish the same excitement about the three Splash Hotels as I enjoy at my own establishment, Wineport Lodge.”

Cheese and wine

Rather unconventionally, Ray arrived at Wineport Lodge via cheese. Marketing Irish farmhouse cheese for the Traditional Cheese Company over five years spurred his interest in the hospitality industry and led him and his wife in 1991 to set up The Castle Pantry in Tyrrellspass, Co Westmeath.

“Located in a castle setting on the main Dublin-Galway road made the restaurant very popular, and gave us our first real taste of the leisure business, before opening Wineport Lodge in 1993.

“Wineport acquired a gourmet dining reputation from the start, thanks to a great team of people. My wife Jane and I are the proprietors, Norma Wilson is our manager, and Cathal Moran is our head chef. We enjoy a close affinity with nearby Glasson Golf Club, as we share similar clientele.”

A distinct location means that guests arrive at Glasson’s Wineport Lodge (www.wineport.ie ) by water or by road. Tucked into the shoreline of Killinure Lake on the Shannon, the hotel/restaurant has become synonymous with gourmet dining and attracts business and leisure guests from all Midlands counties and beyond.

Wineport Lodge is venue for RTE’s The Restaurant

Most recently it has acquired a new fan club of television viewers by providing the venue for RTE’s popular lifestyle cookery show, The Restaurant, which is about to broadcast its third series in October direct from Wineport Lodge. Resident food critics include Tom Doorley of The Irish Times and the Irish Independent’s Paolo Tullio.

“We thoroughly enjoy hosting RTE at Wineport as it highlights the lodge’s unique location and developments. Our restaurant has doubled in size since 1996, and over the last six years we have built on an additional 30 guest rooms.”

How complex is it, overseeing four hotels?

“It’s challenging, as my role with Splash Hotels is quite different from that with Wineport Lodge.

“Nevertheless, we benchmark each hotel against others in the same sector and analytically examine what the market is up to, and what we can do differently or better than others. One proven model for achieving excellent customer focus is to have a couple manage each hotel and live in-house, as Jane and I do.”

To this end, Marc MacCloskey and Hilde Stuiver manage Lisloughrey Lodge, along with chef Wade Murphy, and Dara Cruise and Claire O’Sullivan take care of The Ice House, along with chef Gavin O’Rourke.

“Feargal O’Donnell is Splash Hotels’ executive chef and a partner in the business, and like me, goes around the three hotels, ensuring a commonality of standard is maintained. Feargal was the Wineport Lodge chef for 10 years and is well placed to keep our reputation for gourmet food out front in all three hotels. He’s a member of Eurochef, a European organisation for chefs of note, whose mantra is ‘seasonality and regionality’. Therefore, each hotel prides itself in delivering local produce, in season, and this leads to the best cuisine possible.”

Award-winning restaurant at Lisloughrey Lodge

“Lisloughrey Lodge has just won an award for the Best Restaurant in Connaught from Food & Wine magazine, and the hotel also received a very positive review from The Irish Times’ food critic, which is great recognition.”

Economies of scale can be gained by pooling the joint resources of Splash Hotels in areas such as finance, purchasing, and marketing, but each hotel is run autonomously.

“The only common thread connecting all three Splash Hotels is their proximity to water, which was a conscious choice. My role in Splash Hotels is to develop individual hotels of design and character, which very much epitomises Lisloughrey Lodge and The Ice House.

“The key to success in ‘boutique’ hotels is individuality — each hotel must display its own personality. Every detail is considered carefully, from food to fabrics. Appointing and mentoring the right management team contributes to the hotels’ reputations for outstanding cuisine and professional service.”

Although Ray’s Westmeath and Mayo properties are marketed abroad, it’s the domestic market that provides the main demand.

“The Blue Book is a prestigious international marketing tool, and as a past president I recognise how highly it is regarded. Wineport Lodge has been a member since 1999 and The Ice House has been invited to join from 2009, which is a great vote of confidence.”

Stunning architecture of Ballina’s Ice House Hotel

This premier Ballina hotel is so-called as it was the location of an ice-house. Entering at street level, the vaulted ceiling restaurant has been almost carved into the banks of the River Moy two floors below. Wrap-around glass frontage directly onto the river, accompanied by an outside dining terrace, means that diners and residents can literally watch the salmon swim by.

“Ballina’s Ice House has also made it onto Condé Nast’s hot list for 2008, commending its contemporary architecture and spa.

Ray is relatively unworried about any domestic economic downturn.

“There is a great body of people out there who prefer to holiday more often and for shorter periods, but want real quality, and this is where we score. Most of our guests in all three Irish hotels have no problem driving from anywhere in Ireland to stay, as it’s preferable to negotiating the hassle that can come with foreign travel.

“Our small, luxury hotels are complete ‘chill-out’ zones that combine classical comfort with all the coolest features, which makes them as popular with ‘twenty-somethings as with octogenarians.”

Lisloughrey Lodge is proving particularly popular as a wedding destination, boasting 50 guest rooms, half of which are suites, and a newly designed ballroom. It also offers a civil wedding service.

“Lisloughrey is a lovely location, on an elevated site overlooking the Quay. Its classic façade sits well with its flamboyant interior, which particularly appeals to young couples.”

Target markets for all four hotels span leisure and corporate sectors. Companies looking to get out of the office for staff training or board meetings are availing of the corporate meeting facilities offered by all three Irish hotels. Top technology marries neatly with the hotels’ quiet surroundings, ensuring good work practice.

Malta’s oldest hotel being restored to former glory

Splash Hotels’ most recent acquisition in 2007, The Phoenicia (www.phoeniciamalta.com ) in Malta’s capital Valletta, is the oldest hotel on the island. Built in 1939, it oozes colonial charm and grandeur within its seven-acre garden site, housing 136 guest rooms.

The Phoenicia was formerly part of the Meridian Hotel Group and although managed locally, enjoys an Irish input from Dubliner Philip Murray, who, Ray emphasises, extends a genuine Irish welcome to all.

“We’re planning to invest around €5 million into The Phoenicia’s refurbishment to restore it to its glory days when it was used by royalty. Sited on the edge of the capital, the hotel stretches to the harbour, and all sorts of remnants of days gone by can be found on the grounds, such as stables and Victorian baths.

“Year-round sun and the old-fashioned UNESCO Heritage Site charm of Valletta is an alluring combination. With easy access from eight European airports, including Dublin, demand for The Phoenicia has really taken off. It’s a real pleasure to stay there when I visit for work once a month.”

Apart than Wineport Lodge, the other hotels are quite new and Ray recognises that these are tougher times.

“It normally takes two-three years to break even in new ventures, but we are well on target with all of ours. Fuel and labour costs are rising, but I’m still pleased with the way things are progressing.”

“I believe you have to be actively involved in this industry in order to stay ahead. As a former president I’m still on the committee of the Blue Book. I’m a past president also of The Restaurants Association of Ireland, and I am a board member of the east coast and midlands region of Fáilte Ireland.”

To switch off, Ray plays golf, mainly in Glasson and Enniscrone. “There’s also a lovely nine-hole course on the grounds of Ashford Castle Hotel, next door to Lisloughrey Lodge, which is hugely relaxing, and of course I love spending time with my two young sons, Glen and Robbie.”

“There’s no room for complacency in the hospitality industry; it moves quickly and we have to be ahead of the posse in order to deliver a great customer experience every time.

“All four of our hotels really need to be experienced to get a real flavour of what they offer. We’re particularly keen on attracting in locals to stay overnight. I ask people to step out of their lives for 24 hours and experience a touch of luxury on their doorstep.”

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