Situated on 350 acres of farmland and woodland which reaches as far as Slieve Gullion, Killeavy Castle Estate is about as prime a location as you can ask for if you’re looking to a picturesque retreat.
The hotel, which features a 19th century castle, a spa, and a restaurant, opened its doors just under 18 months ago, following a £12million investment over the course of a decade.
Since then, it has been boasted as a brilliant location for weddings, corporation functions and events, as well as gaining plaudits for its dining experience – winning Hotel Restaurant of the Year at the NI Hotel Awards.
Despite this, like all hotels in Northern Ireland, Killeavy Estate had to close its doors during the start of March for the first lockdown.
As was the case for many industries, lockdown threw the hotel sector into a state of uncertainty, with concerns about when these institutions would reopen and whether customers would feel comfortable returning to them.
This was exacerbated during mid-October when, following three months of being allowed to reopen, there was uncertainty about whether hotels would have to close as part of Northern Ireland’s four-week lockdown.
It was eventually announced that hotels would have to close, in line with rules for other hospitality businesses such as pubs and restaurants, but the delay and confusion had left many hoteliers feeling that they had been forgotten about.
Seven months on from the first lockdown, we chatted to Killeavy Castle Estate’s general manager, Jason Foody, about what it’s been like running a hotel during this difficult time.
“The first lockdown was tough for us,” Jason says, “because we’re a new hotel. We’d just opened in April 2019 and had to close in March 2020. It was hard for the owners who’d obviously invested heavily in the property, but equally for the team we have here. But it was inevitable and it was what was needed at the time.
“Then with things like reopening, there was uncertainty because the dates changed. We always had a plan in our head for opening at the end of July, but then when that date was brought forward, we readjusted and we acted fast.
“July was a difficult enough month, but when people built up the confidence to go back to hotels or go out for food, that’s when we started seeing more business. By the end of the month, business was going well, then August, September and October became healthy after that.
“I suppose that comes down to the fact that we’re well positioned to look after that ‘staycation’ market here in Ireland. Equally, because of the fact that we have 350 acres of wide-open space, people feel safe and open, as well as being in a place of good service and hospitality.”
Jason says that, despite the challenges, Killeavy has been growing during this period and looking towards the future.
“We kept all our staff from the first lockdown and, even since we’ve reopened, we took on a further 34 members of staff. For us, it was never about looking at the negative, we were looking forward to the future and planning ahead.”
Like many customer-facing businesses, Killeavy Castle has had to adjust their business model to factor in Covid safety and protection for staff and customers.
“In April and May time, we began looking at the customer journey and the staff journey and how to make every interaction as safe as possible.
“So that involved doing all the risk assessments and making sure we had PPE, sanitised menus, and track and trace. That was all to make sure the staff and customers felt safe.
“We had all the systems in place, just trying to make it as pleasant as possible. And we had good feedback, with 99% of our customers coming in and telling us how safe and how comfortable they felt.”
Jason says that, while people were initially hesitant about returning to hotels, they began to relax once they saw how good the systems in place were.
“You definitely noticed the change,” he says. “And that was across the board, even with people from different professions coming into the hotel. There was people coming in who’d worked in the NHS – doctors and nurses – and it was nice actually hearing from these people that, yeah, we were doing this well.”
The last few months have seen major difficulties for the hospitality industry, both financially and in terms of communication about the future. Does Jason think the support from the government has been adequate?
“The support through the Job Retention Scheme has been a live-saver. It has helped us maintain the body of staff here, so that has been extremely great for us. It’s fair to say a lot of businesses wouldn’t have reopened without that. We wanted to keep a team around us that we recruited and invested heavily in.
“And look, everyone’s dealing with unprecedented times, but I feel that getting information a little bit quicker would have been nice. Even for the reopening, we were only given a few days time. And when you consider that you have to promote your reopening, plan your reopening, give notice to staff – that was lacking in the strategy.
“But I think we’d be foolish to say that anyone has a magic globe to tell them what’s right and what’s wrong. I think when Arlene and Michelle are up on the podium, we’re all having to learn and adapt in that moment. That can be hard for our staff and customers.”
Is there further support which is needed?
“We all appreciated the VAT reduction, and the support scheme, but the main thing from a business point of view is the not knowing. If there’s going to be many lockdowns or circuit breakers, no business can stop/start that way. That term that’s sometimes thrown around, ‘living with Covid’, I think that’s how we’re going to have to adapt. As businesses we’re going to have to live with Covid and learn to do that in a safe and secure way. Economies can’t keep turning on and off, or we’ll be paying for that for years to come. Having a roadmap is necessary and information is key.”
One thing that has hit a personal note for many in Northern Ireland is the reality that weddings (and other important gatherings) will have to change in the new era. Does Jason have a message for those planning their wedding or those who have had to delay their weddings?
“Well we’ve actually had lots of weddings, smaller weddings, since we opened again. Most couples are happy because they want to do it. They don’t want to postpone because they might not know when they’ll have that, what you might call, ‘traditional’ wedding again. There’s been weddings here and they’ve been incredible, poignant affairs, and we really take care to make sure they have the most enjoyable time possible.
“But equally, it has of course been hard for couples who have families or relatives abroad, who ultimately want a bigger wedding and haven’t been able to.
“We were meant to have two weddings every week, up until we were mandated to close. There’s a lot of uncertainty for couples. We even had a couple who were meant to get married in the George Best Hotel last year. That obviously wasn’t built, so they’d switched it to our hotel, then it had to be postponed twice, before eventually they were told that their party had to be cut down from 60 to 25. That’s very hard for couples. Cutting down from your friends and families. But I think people have been making the most and we’ve been doing our absolute best to ensure these are special occasions.”
Jason stresses that, despite the uncertainty, Killeavy Estate will keep planning for the future and remain strong during this time.
“Hotels are a resilient industry, bringing millions into the economy and providing jobs. We’re quite lucky I suppose, in that we’re rural and have these open spaces. But we have other difficulties too, and it’s going to be a mixed bag. As an industry, we’ve always been through difficult periods in the global economy, and we’ve always come through in the end.”
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