In search of hotel excellence: Ashford Castle

If you’re up for the excursion, Ashford Castle in County Mayo, Ireland is well worth it. Situated near the western coast of the island, the property is about a three-hour drive along the highway from Dublin Airport. My advice is to take the journey through the illustrious countryside to visit this simply spectacular National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World.

In total, there are some 83 guest rooms, numerous restaurants and lounges, not including a multitude of facilities spread over 365 manicured acres. It is a complete sense of awe that this was once the private estate of the Guinness Family. Going through several subsequent ownerships, the current proud owner is Red Carnation Hotels. The founder, Mrs. Beatrice Tollman, has taken a special interest in the property by undertaking a substantial renovation. The result is a property ranking among the finest in all of Europe.

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I was delighted to meet Andrew Phelan, Director of Operations, a hotelier with a record of luxury experiences in the Irish hotel field. After a private tour of the extensive wine cellar (formerly the coal storage area), and a friendly greeting from the property’s two Irish Wolfhounds of truly mystical size lounging in the lobby, we sat down in the formal Drawing Room for some tea and a discussion on how this property continues to impress its guests.

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Andrew Phelan

Tell us how you have designed your product to make an indelible impression.

It starts with delivering the ultimate sense of arrival. The high stone walls and gatehouse are just the start. Here, a member of our team checks you in. You drive through a forest on a curving roadway. For what seems like forever (actually about four minutes), your anticipation builds as finally our incredible castle building comes into view in the distance. Then you need to be checked in by a guard and go over a short bridge (moat below!) to enter the guest drop-off area. More greeters and porters take your luggage. Passing by magnificent Irish Wolfhound statues, and you’re escorted into the reception hall. There is no check-in desk or counter. Rather, you’re greeted by a friendly staffer who serves you a custom-made beverage. That’s just the set up to the guest’s stay.

There guest rooms are spectacular. Mine was a Lakeview Stateroom in one of the older parts of the Castle.

We have 11 different room types, including a separate very unique Hideaway Cottage. But within each category, there are really no two rooms that are identical. Many of our repeat guests opt for the same guestroom each year. Our team understands the importance of maintaining a detailed guest history so we can help plan subsequent visits to continually improve the guest experience. In fact, our guest experience department is crucial to our 60%+ return guest rate.

I was taken aback by the number of onsite activities offered the guest, ranging from clay shooting to falconry.

When you stop thinking of a hotel as a guestroom, a restaurant, a spa and other facilities, and start considering the total guest experience, then you’re mastering hospitality at Ashford Castle. Our guestrooms are superbly comfortable, and we have many guests that are perfectly happy to curl up in front of their fireplaces and read a novel or visit one of the many sitting areas within the Castle. Yet others want to explore the outdoors. Most of our guests have traveled quite a distance to get here. Our length of stay generally approaches a week. Moreover, the Castle is a preferred destination for multi-generational gatherings. Thus, our goal is no boredom and no need to do something twice – that is, unless the guest wants to.

With room rates that are typically well above 1,000 Euros nightly, I wonder what would constitute your competitive set.

Indeed, there are competitors, in a way that our guests could seek alternate destinations for their precious leisure time. Recently, Adare Manor opened about two hours’ drive south and an hour further away you’ll find the Mount Juliet Estate. These are all fine properties which have their own unique benefits and customers. If I had to differentiate between them and Ashford Castle, I would say that we offer more variety, but all of them are worthy of a visit. My advice for hoteliers is to understand your capabilities and focus on your guest’s happiness rather than looking over your shoulder at other properties.

Meeting you over tea then for breakfast the next morning, I am a bit surprised to see you directly supporting staff in the dining room.

The role as Operations Director does not mean sitting in an office pouring over statistics and financial data. The role really means operations, as in making things happen. Thus, when there is a need, I’m pitching in. In this case, I noticed that our team was backed up and an extra set of hands clearing dishware and serving would improve the sequencing of our meal service. Having a senior title is much less important than ensuring superb guest service delivery.

To close off, what other points of differentiation can you touch on to inspire other hoteliers?

Oh, my goodness, there are so many. Starting with legend chocolates commemorating 80 years of hospitality in the Castle made in concert with Valrhona Chocolatiers. How about our own Ashford Castle Monopoly™ board game? Then there are the unique Voya spa treatments. Did I mention the movie The Quiet Man from 1952 with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara filmed here in Cong Village? We have that available in every guestroom, not to mention that we have our own movie theatre, live music in the drawing room, a billiards room and a cigar lounge.

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