Ashford Castle: Beyond Former Glory
As Ashford Castle reopens following a major make-over, and now part of the Red Carnation Group, Emily Hourican talks to general manager Niall Rochford about what is better than a dream come true.
In the kitchen, the proof of the pudding may well be in the eating, but as far as hotels are concerned, TripAdvisor is often the final analysis. Yes, it is entirely possible to sway rankings with bogus reviews – but this, in as much as it happens, tends to have an effect on comparisons at a reasonably humble level. When you get to the really high-ranked TripAdvisor properties, it is fair to assume their inclusion is a genuine badge of honour, predicated on quality and customer experience alone.
TripAdvisor’s Certificates of Excellence Awards, for example, recognises businesses that have earned a Certificate of Excellence for five consecutive years. As such, there are few honours more substantial. Which is why celebrations at Red Carnation Hotels have been so enthusiastic: 12 out of the group’s 17 hotels were recently announced to have received the Hall of Fame accolade, which consists of only two percent of businesses on TripAdvisor.
Commenting on the achievement, Jonathan Raggett, MD of Red Carnation Hotels said: “Red Carnation Hotels [is] thrilled to have so many of our properties welcomed into TripAdvisor’s inaugural Hall of Fame... We are firm believers in the transparency of online guest reviews, which challenges us every day to deliver exceptional service and incredible guest experiences. These awards are a great source of pride for the entire team at Red Carnation Hotels and we would like to thank all of our guests who have taken the time to complete a review on TripAdvisor.”
The hotels so honoured were: The Milestone Hotel; Summer Lodge Country House Hotel, Restaurant and Spa; Hotel d’Angleterre; The Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa; The Oyster Box Hotel and Spa; Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat; The Montague on the Gardens; The Rubens at the Palace; The Duke of Richmond; The Chesterfield Palm Beach; The Acorn Inn, and Ashford Castle.
Ashford Castle was bought just over two years ago, in what has turned out to be a remarkable stroke of good fortune for the historic 800-year-old, 350-acre property. Since then, €55 million has been spent on the castle.
“We’re back open,” says general manager Niall Rochford cheerily. “The hotel was fully closed for three months in 2014, then reopened once the back of house work was complete, and some bedrooms. We had a soft opening at the end of March, with 28 rooms, and are fully open again since April 10th. There is still work to be done – the spa to be completed for example – but these will be done by August, and the property has been restored in a remarkable way. Often, when work such as this is being undertaken, people talk about refurbishment, restoration, enhancement. In fact, here, what has been done is that the very fabric of the building has been restored for the next three generations. Eight hundred windows have been taken out, restored and put back in again. The roof has been done, the woodwork, the electricals and plumbing, new data cables have been laid. This is beyond anything I could have imagined when Ashford Castle was purchased in 2013.”
Rochford’s pride and delight at being associated with such a project, located in a place that means so much to him, is apparent. “Even if someone had asked, ‘what would be your dream for this place?’ I could never have imagined the extent of this,” he says. “When we went into the process of being bought, we met with 32 potential owners, there were a lot of possible outcomes, many of them very interesting, but this is the best possible.”
Pre-Tollman, Ashford has had a fairly lively history. Although probably no more so than most castles. Parts of it were built in the 1220s and it became home to the Guinness family in 1852. It was once a 25,000-acre estate and home to Lord Ardilaun, who entertained King George V and writer Oscar Wilde (who was less than complementary about the gardens, declaring them “dull.” But then, most things were probably pretty dull to a man like Wilde). In 1939 Ashford became a hotel, and has hosted John Lennon, Ronald Reagan, Princess Grace and Brad Pitt since. A consortium of Irish-Americans and the family of Tony O’Reilly bought it in 1985, and the castle was sold to Gerry Barrett, with 365 acres, in 2007 for €50 million. A plan to develop 13 penthouse bedrooms, 30 lodges and expand the 9-hole golf course to 18 holes was drawn up but never completed. In November 2011, Lloyds Bank’s Bank of Scotland (Ireland) unit appointed a receiver to Ashford Castle Properties Ltd and Ashford Castle Estate Ltd. Since then, the good times have rolled.
Red Carnation, Rochford points out, have a track record of purchasing “wonderful but distressed” properties, “and going in and making them better than ever.” This, he adds, “is beyond even that.”
It is an emotional response. But then, it’s an emotional story. The connection between Ashford Castle and Red Carnation goes back a long way, to the youth of Brett Tollman, son of Red Carnation founders Beatrice and Stanley. As a family, the Tollmans stayed in Ashford Castle years ago, and Brett caught his first fish there. Although none of the family has set foot in the hotel since then, when it came up for sale, those memories were there to be accessed, and inclined the Tollmans towards a reconnaissance visit.
On that trip, the story goes, Stanley Tollman looked around and said, “Isn’t this an incredible place,” to which his wife Beatrice replied, “yes, but it’s the people who make it so.”
As Rochford says, “the understand the business and the industry intimately. They have been involved for 60 years now. And their understanding is based on Beatrice’s philosophy of genuine and generous hospitality, towards guests and staff. Everything else flows from that. This is what has made the company second on the Sunday Times list of Best Places to work in the UK, as well as owning three of the top five TripAdvisor rated hotels. It’s not just saying it, it’s not clichés, it’s a question of follow-through, and that’s there. The integration of Ashford Castle into that has been seamless, because staff here have always instinctively believes in genuine and generous hospitality, even when the background and physical setting was getting shabbier and more worn, the staff still maintained that ethos.”
Now, Ashford has 300 employees, up from 225, many of whom have been in place for decades, and some of whom are second and even third-generation Ashford workers, including 18-year-old waiter Mark Gibbons, whose great-grandfather worked on the 1905 Ashford shoot for the Prince of Wales. “We have had a significant boost in numbers, and a significant employer in South Mayo,” as Rochford points out. The new staff have been deployed throughout the hotel, and as a result attention to detail has improved. “Staff now might clean fewer rooms in a day, six say, down from nine, but that is because they are doing the work with more attention to detail.”
So have prices and visitor profiles changed much? “We have had a 20% rate increase, to reflect the improvements” – meaning high season rates are now €490-€2500 –¬ "The US market was always our most important market, and continues to be. That said, we have had a lot of good PR in the UK also since the reopening. people are hearing positive things, and that is translating into numbers. But, we are not forgetting the domestic market. We are very appreciative of the support from that source in the days before the sale, and we will continue to be. In promoting Ashford castle, things haven’t changed fundamentally. We still speak about the history and heritage, the uniqueness, but now we can go out and sell that with confidence. We didn’t have that for a few years, the product didn’t quite match the heritage, but now it does. And more. We can now say with perfect justification, ‘if you want a castle experience, this is the best castle experience in the world.’”
With half a million invested into the golf course – mainly the drainage – a new equestrian centre, boating, the falconry centre, tennis courts, the only Orvis- endorsed fishing property in Ireland and zip cording, the castle is also firmly positioning itself to compete in the lucrative corporate and family markets. “Yes, we are aiming towards the domestic and international corporate markets,” Rochford says, “team building, away days, strategising, these are all big. And there is a lot more multi- generational travel now. We are very conscious of that, and cater to it with our outdoor activities, but also the 32-seater cinema where we show classic movies, the billiards room, boutique wine cellars and children’s game room. We will continue to develop our on-property activities, things that we can do within the castle and outside, and that are possible in both winter and summer. For example, at Halloween, we will have a School of Wizardry, based around the Harry Potter books, because we understand the increase in family travel.”
So how does the day-to-day management of the hotel work? “The Tollmans have 17 hotels within Red Carnation. Every day, Mrs Tollman gets a report from each of the general managers, which would be about seven pages long. One of those pages would be financial information, and the rest is taken up with the guest experience. What are we doing to improve their stay? Make it more interesting, genuine, memorable? She might call to comment on that aspect, because that is what matters to her. Also, Mrs Tollman was a chef, she worked in kitchens for 15 years, she published a cookery book, A Life In Food, so she is very interested in that aspect of things. However, the actual day-to-day running is left to the individual general managers. Red Carnation is a collection, not a group. These are individual properties, so although there is fantastic support there, particularly in terms of sales and marketing which are centralised in the UK, as long as the good work we do continues, we are left to get on with it.”
In terms of the food and beverage offering, what has changed? “We have a new executive head chef, Philippe Farineau, who was formerly at Mount Falcon and the Radisson Blu Farnham Estate. Stefan Matz has decided to make a change, after many wonderful years here. We have a new food and beverage manager. The George V is still our signature dining room, and we also have Cullen’s at the Dungeon, which is predominantly Irish recipes, old and new, and Cullen’s at the Cottage, where the menu is inspired by Mrs Tollman’s favourite recipes from around the world,” — these include chicken noodle soup (€9.50), smoked haddock and corn chowder (€9.50), parmesan chicken schnitzel (€16.50), and a fish curry with tomatoes (€21.50), based on a recipe by Kevin Joseph of the Oyster Box, South Africa. Wilde’s at the Lodge, meanwhile, under Jonathan Keane, is
more contemporary. Despite the major changes and renovations, Rochford is quick to point out that Ashford “hasn’t lost a jot of character. It is still all about people here. We will know we are a success when guests are leaving the property and still talking about our staff, despite all the improvements.”
Given how well this process has gone, there must be other historic hotels across Ireland keen to come in under the Red Carnation wing. So are the Tollmans looking for any more properties? “They are always actively looking for opportunities, here and elsewhere,” is the response. Well, that is encouraging.