Why it's sunny side up for our B&Bs
The unexpected heatwave this summer has meant boom time for some in the Northern Ireland holiday market. By Kerry McKittrick
For years they were – literally – the butt of many a seaside joke. Saucy seaside postcards poked fun at the bed and breakfast battleaxe landlady, whose sole mission seemed to be to stop anyone on holiday having a good time ... with the use of a rolling pin, if necessary. And then, with the rise of hotels and cheaper foreign holidays, it seemed the glory days of the guest houses, as they used to be called, were well and truly in the past.
Many of them still stood in coastal resorts like Portrush or Newcastle, tall imposing buildings of faded grandeur looking out to sea, evocative of an era when families took the train every summer to stay for a longed-for week.
For those old enough to have spent holidays there, they'd prompt memories of sun-filled days on beaches, at amusements and seeing the sights. And also of scuttling down the corridor at night to queue for a shared bathroom, smuggling food into your bedroom and having to be in by 11pm sharp. And now?
Well, in 2013 it seems the B&B is on its way back, bolstered this year by a winning combination of the recent heatwave, the G8 summit and the staycation factor.
Moreso, the inside of today's B&Bs bear no resemblance to the guest houses of yesterday. Expect en suite bathrooms, a TV in your room, extravagant gourmet breakfast menus and, in many cases, a wide range of other facilities, including horse-riding.
As we find out, the owners who invested their savings in a dream plan to run their own B&B are finally enjoying their time in the sun indeed.
'I like to meet new people ...'
Pauline Mendez (60s) runs Hargreaves House in Bangor and has two grown-up children, Timothy and Jamie. She says:
I was cabin crew with British Airways and then came home to Bangor with my children. When my parents died the house was too big for the three of us and I knew people were always looking for beds so we set it up.
This year, since the end of March, we've been steady. April was all family weddings, then the tourist trade came in. The most notable thing was that people were staying two or three nights when they normally stayed for just one. So far this year we've had Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and even people from Iran, Iraq and Fiji. I have just had a German team in staying for the World Police and Fire Games. They booked last September and won 30 medals while they were here. I was mostly fully booked for the summer anyway – I have three bedrooms – but now the Americans have gone home to tell everyone how good the weather is in Northern Ireland.
I like meeting the people who stay. I think the job is like flying, only the house stays still! I got annoyed recently, though, when someone took all of the shower gels, shampoos and face cloths from the bathroom. They're not mini-bottles so it's quite obvious that they shouldn't be taken away. That was a one-off, though."
'Business has been steady, and the G8 was very positive'
Joan Foster (62) runs Willowbank House outside Enniskillen with her husband, Tom. They have three son, Greg (34), Stewart (33) and Brian (30). She says:
Tom and I were both civil servants and after we retired in 2001 we started looking for a house to buy in Fermanagh – there was no notion whatsoever of starting a B&B.
We looked at a few properties but nothing ever seemed to suit. One day we had looked at a house then gone down to the loughshore to chat about what we had seen. I looked across the water and saw this house on the other side up on a hill and I said to Tom: 'Whoever owns that house has got it made.'
We went to visit Tom's brother and told them all about this house. We didn't know anything about it, if it was for sale, if it was a private house, not even really where it was. We all jumped in the car to go and look for it and Tom's brother said he would show us this other house along the way. It turned out that that house was in fact the house I had seen. We didn't know it was actually a purpose-built bed and breakfast that was constructed in 1994 but it needed to be updated.
Tom and I had never even talked about running a B&B. I had always liked the idea deep down but it had never even come up. We looked around the house and then got back in the car. Neither of us said anything for ages – I was too scared because I didn't want him to say no to the idea. Eventually Tom just stopped the car in the middle of the road, turned to me and said: 'It looks like we're buying a bed and breakfast.' Six months later, we did.
We had to have a five-year plan. We'd never run a business before but we knew that you needed to give it five years to get established. It was a big investment but we also knew that we were happy enough to walk away and go back to retirement if it didn't work out. We didn't regret it for a second, though. It's been a wonderful place with astonishing views of the lough. It can be very hard work but you do get to meet people from all over the world. During the G8 summit we had Reuters (news agency) staying here and one of the German guys said to me he had no idea there was such beautiful countryside in this part of the world.
It's been a lovely summer. Easter was quiet but the summer has been busy. I wouldn't say we're booked out but business has been very steady. I think the G8 summit was a positive thing although time will tell just how much of a positive impact it has on the area."
'Some people have been visiting for 20 years'
Karen White (47) runs Maddybenny bed and breakfast and equestrian centre in Portrush with her husband Fred. They have two children, Brendon (23) and Anna (21). She says:
We don't tend to get last minute bookings or walk-ins – we're slightly outside of town so the ones on the seafront will get those.
If the weather is nice like it has been this summer then more people will come and stay longer. It also depends on what's happening. The pipe band championships are coming up and if I had 20 rooms I could have them all away for something like that.
This Easter was terrible for us – we had lots of cancellations because there were snow warnings which never came about. The summer has been good, though, we've been busy. Not solidly booked but busy. Most people have booked a month or a couple of days in advance. We get lots of families from down south or around the UK as they come for the equestrian centre. Otherwise this summer we've only had a couple of Americans over for a family wedding.
We certainly get repeat business. Some people have been coming to the B&B for more than 20 years and I've just said goodbye to a family who have been coming every summer for four years. Maddybenny was actually Fred's family home and his mum started it as a bed and breakfast 29 years ago.
She passed away very suddenly in 2006 with guests in the house. I had been helping her at the time so we closed the place for two weeks. The bed and breakfast had bookings in the summer so Fred and I said we'd run it to honour those and we just haven't closed.
As well as the bed and breakfast there's also an equestrian centre and self-catering holiday cottages. We started a campsite a few years ago with my brother-in-law. In the bed and breakfast we have three bedrooms, all en suite with tea and coffee-making facilities. We do all sorts of breakfasts – waffles with bacon or strawberries, kippers and poached eggs, trout with bacon or scrambled eggs with smoked salmon are just a few.
We've had good luck in that we haven't had many bad events, such as people trashing rooms.
The worst thing that happened was the Aga going out because I hadn't ordered oil for it. It doesn't sound like a bad thing but when you have to cook breakfast for 12 people over the North West 200 weekend it can be.
You need to enjoy what you do in this business because you certainly don't do it for the money. Getting away can be impossible; I don't mean getting away on holiday, sometimes getting an hour to go to the bank or the shops can be very difficult."
'Bookings go up and down with weather'
Marie Maguire (46) runs the Cul Erg B&B in Portstewart with her husband JJ. They have two children, James (16) and Catherine (14). She says:
This has been one of the best years for us – even in the early season we were very busy. I honestly think people like to come here because of where we're situated. We're in a quiet cul-de-sac but very close to the sea front so it takes about two minutes to get to the beach. We have private parking and some rooms on the ground floor for people with mobility problems. There's even a bus stop across the street in case people don't want to walk.
The summer has had a big effect on bookings and they've gone up and down with the weather forecast. During the very hot weeks people were asking could they come earlier and stay longer. People who were already here wanted to stay on too. Then when that week of heavy rain came we weren't quite as busy.
We don't get anywhere near the amount of walk-ins we used to as everyone checks the availability online with their smart phones. The first thing we get asked most of the time is if we have wi-fi.
In June, July, August and September we get people from Northern Ireland and the UK coming for their holidays, although we don't get that many from down south.
In early and late season we get people from America, Canada and Europe. There are Germans that come here every year as well as people from France and Switzerland.
This is our 20th year here. I originally trained as a nurse and then later on as a chef. JJ and I spent two years out in Australia and another in London before we moved back here. We're both from around Omagh and it wasn't until we came to Portstewart for a wedding that we realised how wonderful it is up here. We let ourselves get talked into the idea of a B&B by a cousin and we haven't had any regrets since.
JJ and I work as a team; he's very good at front of house while I deal with the kitchen and rooms. It's great to be your own boss and not have to answer to anyone. Because we live and work in the same house it means we've always been here for the children.
It can be hard to make time for ourselves as one of us always has to be here. In the summer it can actually be more relaxing. We often have week-long bookings so once people are in all we need to do is give them breakfast.
The beach is a big pull but there's so much to do. People come up just to go walking for the day and we've just finished the Red Sails Festival."
'Families still like coming to B&Bs'
Colm Smith (63) is married to Colleen and has one grown-up son, Gary. They run Coolgreeney House bed and breakfast in Newcastle, Co Down:
Easter for us was an utter disaster this year. I'd say we had about £2,000 worth of cancellations due to weather – people were simply advised not to come.
Easter can be a crucial time for a bed and breakfast because the profits from those couple of weeks can go towards a lick of paint here or to mend this or replace that.
It means when the summer rolls around the place is fresh and updated. The problem was we didn't have the money to do very much because Easter had been so quiet for us.
With the good weather we've had recently, though, we're certainly up on the July we had last year and I've been fully booked for about a week ahead of time which has been great news. It's been very reassuring.
I think we might be one of the last generations of bed and breakfast owners as we can't compete with the offers that hotels put on these days.
They have better facilities with restaurants and bars and do all sorts of deals such as dinner and two nights bed and breakfast for £90 – we can't offer that kind of price.
I think families still like coming to B&Bs, though. I always think they're a safer environment for children as there are less people around.
I also don't allow stag or hen parties to party in the house unless they book the place out, because then I'm the only person they'll be disturbing, which doesn't matter.
There are seven bedrooms here so we can sleep 22. I think we're one of the biggest in Newcastle.
Everyone who comes to stay gets a key for their room and one for the front door.
"If they lose their key and come back up to 2am then they can ring the doorbell – after that they can find themselves a nice bench on the seafront.
"I've worked in the hospitality industry my whole life, hotels and bars. After I retired a friend offered me the B&B to look after as he was a farmer and just didn't have the time for it anymore.
"It can be hard in the summer because it's a seven day a week job but then things die down and you get to have days off later in the year.
"We get a lot of businesses from weddings at the Slieve Donard (hotel) because we're very close to it so guests can walk."