“I got up this morning and I had Spanish, German, Italians and Americans in my dining room,” says Bernadette Freyne (pictured).
“It’s like having the United Nations inside in your own home.”
Freyne, who runs Ardfield Farmhouse B&B in Ballinhassig, Co. Cork, has been living and working in B&Bs for much of her life. Her experience began in 1969, when her father died, and her mother opened their Blarney household to guests to help support her six children.
“B&B guests like to interact,” she says. “They want that experience, and they go away thinking about the people they have met. The scenery and heritage might have brought them to Ireland in the first place, but their fondest memories are often of the people.”
But in recent years, those memories have come increasingly under threat. In their heyday, the cosy sitting rooms, hearty breakfasts and ceád mile fáiltes of around 4,500 Irish B&Bs lay at the heart of the Irish tourist experience.
Today, numbers have plummeted to just 1,850.
“Hotel rates have come down to B&B rates,” says Helena Healy, chief executive of B&B Ireland, the marketing body for some 1,000 town, country and farmhouse homes in Ireland. It simply isn’t possible for a family home to compete with the pools, golf courses and restaurants of a three or four-star hotel, she says.
“The B&B isn’t an attractive proposition any longer.”
The traditional Irish B&B was born in the 1960s, when government called on the women of Ireland to open their houses to guests. Hotel rooms were in short supply, and refurbishment grants, together with a marriage bar compelling women to give up Civil Service jobs once they got married, incentivised the use of homes for a second income. The 1970s were something of a golden age.
“In those days we got £1 for our bed and breakfast,” Bernadette Freyne recalls. “The Innisfallen ferry was coming into Cork. We had a lot of English visitors in Blarney, and they came year after year. You could turn away up to 30 people from your door in a day. It was just constant.”
Recession was a feature of the 1980s, and it made business unpredictable, but most B&B owners would still have been earning more than the €7,000 to €35,000-a-year they earn today.
“We’ve never had the likes of what we have experienced in the last couple of years,” Freyne says. “We had an explosion of hotels, and not by hoteliers, I might add. Developers of various types and creeds took advantage of these tax breaks. B&Bs never had anything like that.”
All of a sudden, mushrooming hotels, holiday homes and self-catering left B&Bs reeling. And they couldn’t compete on price – what change would service, time, laundry, administration and cooked breakfasts eke out of €35pp per night? The sums just didn’t add up.
In a game of survival, B&B Ireland and Fáilte Ireland are betting the house on added value, on strategies pushing the concept beyond a simple ‘bed’ and ‘breakfast’.
Guests arriving at B&Bs today, for example, are offered home-baked treats. B&B owners chat, get the maps out, and offer clued-in intelligence on local restaurants, walks and activities.
“You bring life to their guide book, if you like,” as Freyne puts it.
“There is no charge for that,” Healy adds. “In a hotel, you will pay for that. In a B&B, the welcoming cup of tea is seen as a time for interaction, for sharing ideas.”
Furthermore, a new classification system devised with Fáilte Ireland now approves B&Bs as three, four or five star properties. The system, benchmarked against similar schemes in the UK, is designed to give customers an idea of what to expect for their money.
In addition, B&Bs can sign up for voluntary categorisation as farm-stays, Gaeltacht experiences, pet-friendly, or as particularly welcoming to groups like walkers, anglers or golfers. The idea is to brand the family homes as experiences rather than just accommodation.
In order to be categorised as walker-friendly, for instance, a B&B must provide space for drying and storing gear, be able to prepare packed lunches on request, have a good knowledge of walks and walking guides in the area, and even keep OS maps and spare walking sticks.
For the Irish market, such changes could already be too late. Astonishingly, B&B Ireland says some 80% of its members’ business now comes from overseas.
“If you are a French or German couple, the prospect of staying in an Irish home is very attractive,” Healy says. Clearly, Irish holidaymakers clearly aren’t so keen.
Another concern is the rising age profile in the sector. Many of the original bean an tís, now in their 60s and 70s, are approaching the end of their B&B careers. In the main, their children have not carried the torch, balking at the unsocial hours and unpredictable income.
But what about the contributions that B&Bs have made to Irish family finances? Many sons and daughters were sent to college on the back of B&B revenues. In an era of negative equity, could Irish homes once again host guests to help pay mortgages and university fees?
B&B Ireland recently met with Tourism Minister Leo Varadkar, lobbying for a grant or loan scheme that could incentivise unemployed homeowners, or homeowners with large houses, to become a new generation of B&B owners. Concrete steps have yet to be taken, however.
One person who has taken the plunge is Miriam Sadlier-Barry, 33, who runs The Old Bank in Bruff, Co. Limerick. She opened her B&B in 2008, just as the economy tanked.
“It was scary,” she says. “I could be the youngest B&B owner in the country!”
Sadlier-Barry, with a background in retail management, made the change after having three young children, one of whom – three-year-old Muireann – has a heart condition.
“She had nine-and-a-half hour’s open heart surgery, eight hip surgeries and was meant to be deaf in her left ear so, needless to say, when they offered me redundancy at work, I took it.”
She sees the B&B as “a business within our home”.
“The benefits are that I am at home rearing my kids. I need constant help doing that – there’s no point saying I don’t… but I also have a very large mortgage.”
Since she opened, midweek rates at The Old Bank have dropped from €90 to €70 per room.
“The hardest thing is that our prices are constantly being compared to NAMA hotels. When people come to my home, they get personality. A hotel is not living. A B&B is a living entity. You feel that you are part of a family. There are no hidden extras.”
Sadlier-Barry loves the social aspect, and has become friends on Facebook with several guests.
“It is a micro-business,” Bernadette Freyne adds. “It isn’t pin money. You are investing an awful lot of your time into this. But you are at home with your children. You put them on the bus. You are there for that 10 minutes when they have everything to tell you when they come in.”
Today’s B&B owner can’t just be a hobbyist. He or she must be a businessperson, a marketer, a good cook and a sociable soul, both women say. And (s)he must be Internet-savvy.
“If you can’t sell your home within 26 seconds [of someone visiting your website], you don’t sell it,” Sadlier-Barry says. “It is a completely different booking environment to the 1970s and 1980s. Nobody would come to Shannon or Dublin Airport in this day and age and not have their accommodation booked all the way through. I would get very few walk-ins. But I’m already taking bookings for 2012.”
The new classification system hasn’t yet affected the bottom line, Freyne says, but she expects them to. She believes Irish star ratings are of a higher standard than those on the continent.
“The last two years, I have worked harder than I have ever worked. And I have always worked hard! Your money is far less. But I believe in this product. These are the years where we need to stick with it. We need to develop it, to be poised for when the turnaround comes…
“Because the turnaround will come.”
This feature originally ran in The Irish Examiner.