After two years closed for major refurbishment, the magnificent Fairmont Carton House recently re-opened. We talk to general manager Martin Mangan about what's new.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of Hospitality Ireland Magazine, in March of 2023.
Carton House, acquired by the Mullen family, has gone through a spectacular transformation after being closed for two years. The new incarnation has cleverly flipped around the previous design, with the focus now on the original Manor House as the beating heart of the resort. It secured five-star status shortly after it reopened in 2021 and became the first and only hotel on the island to come under the luxury Fairmont brand. Here, Martin Mangan, general manager of the conrad for 13 years and former president of the Irish Hospitality Institute, describes the changes.
Martin, tell us about the refurbishment of Carton House. What was done, and why?
Get a FREE Digital Subscription!Enjoy full access to Hospitality Ireland, our weekly email news digest, all website and app content, and every digital issue.
The refurbishment of carton House – now operating under the Fairmont brand, alongside hotels such as the Plaza in new York and the Savoy in London – was to restore this magnificent Palladian mansion, dating from 1739, and reposition it as a truly luxurious resort. This painstaking task took place over three years, until it was finally unveiled and reopened on 2 June 2021, following 18 months of closure.
Significant investment was made in the restoration of the 300-year-old Manor House, the grounds, and the beautiful carriage House. This level of detail has been carried throughout the entire resort, overseen carefully by our architects, MdO [Mccauley daye O’connell], who have done a magnificent job. One of the most visually stunning and noticeable enhancements has been the lighting of the building, which we have just won an international award for.
Three new food-and-beverage destinations were created and are overseen by our fantastic team. The goal was to create three distinctive, different venues for our guests to enjoy. These are all located within the Manor House, which has become a hotel within a hotel, offering an elevated level of service. This allows all our guests an opportunity to dine in and enjoy the spectacular reception rooms, which are now home to the award-winning fine-dining Morrison [Room] restaurant, Kathleen’s Kitchen, located in the original kitchen of the house, the new courtyard Bar, which has a lovely outdoor area, too, and the stunningly beautiful Gold Salon, where guests can enjoy afternoon tea.
What is the ethos of the new Carton House?
The ethos is simple: to be the very best, and to achieve this though intuitive, friendly and professional service in an unrivalled setting.
How does it differ from the former Carton House?
There is no comparison between the old carton House and the new, even externally. Significant investment has been made to improve the overall guest experience and sense of arrival, including a new entrance, framed by a bronze archway, and breathtaking new landscaping flanking the entrance and exterior of the magnificent Manor House. The biggest change is that our guests’ daily rituals, such as breakfast and dining, take place in the restored, beautiful rooms of the Manor House, which is really at the heart of every guest’s experience here now.
What was it like doing this work after being closed for so long?
It was a joy to reopen after being closed for so long, some of this enforced by covid. You really understand when standing in an empty, closed hotel that these buildings need people – you want to feel the buzz of a busy foyer, and guests and staff enjoying themselves. Over the centuries, carton House has been home to and welcomed people from all around the world, and it is only fitting that it is now a luxury resort welcoming guests from around the world.
How has reopening been?
Exciting, challenging, fun, but, above all, it has been an amazing experience to bring the iconic property back to where it belongs – centre stage in hosting and welcoming guests from every corner of Ireland and the world.
We are just custodians of this iconic property, and, like our predecessors before us, it’s easy to fall in love with this estate, with its beautiful landscape, meandering paths and river, surrounded by jawdropping scenery around every corner.
What, for you, are the best things about the refurbishment?
Seeing the look on our guests’ faces, and also opening up parts of the resort not previously seen or experienced by our guests.
It is fantastic testament to the investment made in carton House that it is now truly recognised as a five-star luxury resort, in every aspect, by Fáilte Ireland. Most recently, we were welcomed into Virtuoso, the leading global network of agencies specialising in luxury and experiential travel. Putting carton House on the international stage and bringing this incredible estate, which has long been recognised as one of the few truly great estates to survive intact, to an international audience is very exciting, as it is truly one of a kind.
How has the reaction of guests been?
Overwhelmingly positive, surprised and delighted. For those guests who visited previously, they cannot believe the changes, but they are very happy to see that the Manor House, at its centre, has been painstakingly and lovingly restored to its original splendour.
Our guests are enjoying the experience of spending time and dining in the Manor House, in the sumptuous formal rooms, like the Morrison Room, the Gold Salon and the drawing Room. Previously, these spaces were used exclusively for events, but now every guest has the opportunity to enjoy breakfast in the magnificent Morrison Room.
This ethos has been carried throughout the estate, where respect has been paid to the history and heritage of Carton House, and opening up areas that were previously underutilised, like the library, which has been converted into our whiskey library. For me, the feedback from our guests about the physical building is wonderful, but, as a hotelier, I am delighted to hear about the service, warm welcome, and professionalism of our team. This is as important, if not more, as it will sustain us, long term. We know we have been given a wonderful product, but, at the end of the day, we will be judged by our service and the experience we provide for our guests. We are very focused on quality across every part of the resort, and we are committed to improving and learning all the time.
What are the major challenges at the moment?
As with everything, the unknown and what the future will bring. One thing is for sure: whatever happens, we will overcome it, like we have with covid and all that came before it.
The hospitality industry in Ireland is very resilient, and we are determined to succeed at carton House.
We face a number of challenges right now in this industry, such as the soaring cost of energy, double-digit inflation, and the very real cost of living for our team, which is a real concern for us. I wish we made the super-profits of the tech sector or Big Pharma, but the reality is, the margins in hospitality are small, and we operate in a very seasonal business outside of the large urban areas. I know that hotels come in for a lot of criticism from time to time, and I personally find this unfair – airlines do not get criticised in the same way.
There is a significant cost of doing business, and prices have to reflect that. We want to maintain our team through the quiet periods as much as we want to retain them through the busy times. This is a hands-on industry that is very labour intensive. Each team member does not generate millions in revenue a day, in the same way a tech company does – it’s a very simple business at heart. One thing is for sure: we look forward to helping to write the next chapter in carton House’s storied history.
What are the opportunities?
Too many to say, but we are excited to continue to develop new experiences for our guests and hone and improve every aspect of what we do in creating memorable experiences. To elaborate on this point, the opportunities for everyone here at carton House are endless. We have an 1100-acre playground, where, if you can dream it up, we will do our best to deliver it.
This year we extended our guest activities to include falconry, shooting, canoeing, fly-fishing and archery. We developed our new garden terrace rooms, which open out onto our beautiful landscaped gardens, offering views of the sunrise and sunset over carton House.
We are looking at lots of potential opportunities to continue to innovate and involve, and take full advantage of our amazing surroundings. Our ultimate goal is to be the very best, and whilst this is a bold statement, nothing happens overnight, and there is nothing wrong with dreaming big, but we have a passionate team, a wonderful brand, and great owners, who believe in what we are trying to achieve here.
Any plans for the near future?
We have a lot of ambitious plans, but our priority is to continue to establish our brand and reputation, both here and overseas – equally, being recognised as a great employer with a wonderful story to tell and a compelling employer brand. We want to be seen as an employer of choice – not just in the hospitality sector, but cross-sectorally. We want to be recognised for providing best-in-class service that is professional, but friendly and welcoming.
FAIRMONT CARTON HOUSE AT A GLANCE:
Number of bedrooms: 169
Number of staff members: 300+
Number of restaurants: 6
Read More: Hospitality Ireland Spring 2023: Read The Latest Issue Online!