Brave New World for Irish B&Bs…

Irish B&Bs











“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.


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Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile is an award-winning travel and food writer based in Ireland.

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  • Joy Harron

    Irish B&B’s have seen a lot of changes over the years such as the recent classification and categorisation schemes. Classification incorporates a 3*, 4* and 5* rating which endeavours to meet and exceed expectations and offer a quality service to visitors. B&B Ireland has recently launched a new Free iPhone Application allowing guests to search and book B&B’s by geographic proximity to their location. B&B’s have something for everyone to suit all budgets and requirements.

  • Norma Brock

    Every visit to Ireland leaves me more enchanted than ever with the Irish people. The scenery is grand, but the folks are what makes Ireland really special. B&Bs are the very heart of that connection and it breaks my heart to know that so few are surviving. Cheers to the brave souls that carry on – theirs will be the reward when the turnaround happens!

  • Corey T

    It’s hard to believe there was a time when the biggest classification for B&Bs was whether their rooms were en suite or not. Big changes since then. As a regular overseas visitor, I’m pleased so many B&Bs maintain that personal connection. Nothing can replace that.

    Thanks for posting.

  • Pól Ó Conghaile

    Thanks for the comments guys. There’s clearly a lot of affection out there for B&Bs – the trick is converting that into business in an accommodation market that has come to be dominated by (often bankrupt) hotels. I do hope B&Bs can reinvent themselves, as the overseas support shows, the personal touch has a real place in 21st century Ireland.

  • http://none John Kinsella

    What a load of rubbish. B&B Ireland is Town & Country Homes under a different name and those who make up B&B Irl. received [substantial] grant aid since 1999 – why didnt they use that to raise B&;B profile. I took part in the first two meetings in 2008 to supposedly help the B&B sector and all town & Country Homes wanted was GRADING & Grant aid… It is marketing the B&B sector requires urgently not stars.

  • Abby Nolan

    Even though there are many less than there used to be, I was surprised to see a B & B in what seemed like every little town. In the states, B & B’s seem reserved for the outskirts of touristy areas and romantic getaways. I’ve stayed in many B & B’s in Ireland and each was a real treat. I learned things I would not have/could not have at a hotel, met really great people, not to mention was fed a breakfast that lasted me until dinner. I hope the B & B in Ireland has a renaissance and flourishes.

  • Ellen Breen

    We’ve been to Ireland 3 X, and will only stay at a B & B. You are spot on when you say how the people make it special. We don’t drive in Ireland, and we’ve had B & B hosts arrange special deals for us to get around, hooked us up with people we wouldn’t have known about, and made us feel so welcome. And I so agree about the wonderful full Irish keeping me full till dinner time. I like the smaller more intimate feeling at a B & B, while a purpose built B & B is up to date, it is again the people working there who make it special

  • Ann Crosbie

    Yes I have now been in the b&b business since 1990- 21 years and its really hard work …… but I discovered that its that most enjoyable way to get to know different nationalities – I love the english, germans, french, italians- all europeans – they are such easy guests – I wish I could get more of them but for some reason the B&B dont seem to go after them……