‘Brexit is a positive and I want to turn the Lough Erne resort into a global brand that is on everyone’s lips’
We speak to Lough Erne general manager William Kirby about taking over at the helm of a business after administration, the benefits of Brexit and growing the brand globally
He’s the Yorkshire man who has been tasked with turning around the fortunes of one of Northern Ireland’s luxury five-star resorts — which he said was “a little downtrodden” when he took over just eight months ago.
William Kirby (46) is now general manager of Co Fermanagh’s Lough Erne.
And he’s realistic about the 120-room resort, saying it has a lot of work to do to grow its customer base and improve its brand.
He also says he sees Brexit as a good thing — something which is largely at odds with the hotel and hospitality sector.
A decade ago, Lough Erne was the province’s latest luxury top end five-star resort.
But just four years later, the business entered administration. Two years later, it then hosted the G8 — bringing world leaders such as US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin to Northern Ireland.
“I think the brand of Lough Erne, if I’m brutally honest, was never all that strong. I think Lough Erne as an international destination needs to work harder, domestically, we are still on the cusp of being on everyone’s lips,” William said. And he’s taken on a new sales team and is investing millions in revamping the resort in an attempt to boost business and occupancy.
He’s investing in a new conference facility, with plans to buy new golf machinery and a longer-term goal of revamping the hotel rooms, which could take place in 2018.
He joined the business in May last year, appointed by the new American owners of the business.
It’s now owned by Vine Avenue Advisors and TRU Hotels and Resorts.
“I sort of knew what to expect. The staff and the business levels had taken a bit of a beating.
“Anyone going through administration, maybe the attractiveness of a resort isn’t always as high.
“(It was) a little bit downtrodden when we arrived. My owners were very frank about my coming into it ... the business levels had dropped.
“The first thing was stabilising the amount of staff, and giving them confidence that things would improve and move on very quickly.
“I recruited a sales and marketing team, and set about some management practices that might not have been as stringent.
“The business needed to take off. I was going into a busy summer season, so I had to work quickly.
“Business improved — I wouldn’t say it went off the chart, but it was a lot stronger than I expected.”
William, who is also a keen golfer with an 11 handicap, said he sees Brexit as a positive for Lough Erne.
“Demand was high and Brexit was looming in June and none of us knew quite what to except.
“I look at Brexit as a positive thing. As a business, the pound fluctuation and devaluation meant the Republic saw the Northern counties as attractive destinations.” And while he wouldn’t divulge exact numbers in terms of sales, he said: “Commercially we are being successful and we would like to be driving that even further.”
William is a stalwart of the luxury country hotel, including a long stint at Mount Juliet in Kilkenny.
“The proposition for Lough Erne is good value, and the service has to be right up there,” he said. “If it’s worth it, people will pay, or they will go elsewhere.
“It’s good value currently and (prices have) slightly gone back a bit with the pound ... five-star prices sometimes aren’t out of people’s reach.”
Lough Erne has 120 rooms, split across the main building and lodge accommodation. It boasts several bars and restaurants, spas and treatment rooms, as well as two 18-hole golf courses, one of which was designed by Nick Faldo.
It employs up to 200 staff, dependant on the time of the year.
While it was initially put on the market for £10m, just a third of its initial worth, it was reported it had been bought for between £5m and £6m.
William said Lough Erne needs “silver bullet” events, and can’t rest on its laurels following the G8 summit in 2013.
“The G8 was almost four years ago. Our wedding business rocketed in 2014 and we still have that, and promote it, that we hosted the best in the world ... but you have to keep going.”
William is realistic about where Lough Erne stands among the five-star resorts here, and with the top-end hotels he’s worked with before.
“We have to really be working, with billboards and digital marketing,” he said.
He says he’s “envious” of the huge brand success of resorts such as the K Club, Carton House in Co Kildare and Galgorm Resort and Spa, located just outside Ballymena. And he heaps praise on the resort’s top chef, Noel McMeel, and says Lough Erne is on the “cusp of trying to explode as a food destination”.
“I’ve never worked with someone like Noel in my career. He’s very down-to-earth, and as an executive chef running a kitchen with guys who are very young, the motivation is very good. The food speaks when it’s on the plate.”
Lough Erne has picked up a number of awards in the last year, including Tourism Northern Ireland’s gong for ‘food hero’.
“The key thing was making sure we had a sales and marketing team — there is nothing more important than that.”
That also included a new website and booking facility.
“My weddings here were impacted, and we needed a team to go out and sell our wedding product,” he said.
“We have seen growth year-on-year ... I’m not saying last year was particularly successful, but on prior years.
“We have seen a healthy up-turn each month. All trends are pointing north. Visitor numbers are up. The upturn of wedding business is good, and we are about to open a new wedding suite in January.
“The confidence in our parent company is good and they were here in November.”
William grew up in York, and started out studying hotel management in the 1980s. His first job took him to one of the homes of the Open — the Old Course in St Andrews. The Leeds United fan, who’s also a keen runner, went on to work at the luxury five-star Balmoral in Edinburgh, before moving to Ireland and working at Mount Juliet, and then Lyrath Estate in Kilkenny.
And he still commutes from his Kilkenny home, where he lives with wife Jacqueline, and children Sam (16) and Grace (14).
“I commute, maybe once or twice a week. It’s tough going, but I’m not shy of the work and the travel, it’s part and parcel of the job.
“I try to have a balance. My family have been supporting me for the last 16 years I guess, so they are in it for the long-haul.”
William says with a downturn in UK visitors across the market, Lough Erne will be focused on attracting guests from Europe and North America in the next few months and years.