The newly appointed general manager of Lough Erne Resort, Joanne Walsh, is optimistic that Northern Ireland's hotels could open in line with the Republic's on June 29.
he mother of five, who has just begun her new role at one of the most challenging times for hoteliers, is unreservedly optimistic about business.
The doors of the resort are set to re-open on July 20. But an even earlier opening could be possible after the Republic moved forward its opening date for hotels to June 29 from July 20.
"The phones haven't stopped and I'm delighted. It's been so positive. I've taken bookings from all over Ireland, three yesterday were from Cork for a week each and I do believe that this is going to be the year of the staycation."
Joanne says the resort's rural setting will play to its advantage in a post-lockdown world, adding: "I think we are ideally positioned for that perfect break in this environment. We have the 600 acres of land surrounded by water and beautiful scenery and I think people just want to come out of lockdown and get a big lungful of fresh air.
"We're also getting calls from our very loyal customers who are keen to get back to the spa and the restaurants, and a lot more families who want to get that break in before school starts back."
Lough Erne has three dining options as well as an award-winning spa facility and, while Stormont has yet to release an opening date for restaurants, bars and beauty facilities, Joanne and her team are taking bookings.
"We have not limited our offering because we are very confident that the politicians will make right decisions for the market and under the pressure they're facing."
And she says the old job of Fermanagh-based First Minister Arlene Foster will also help. "Arlene Foster was Tourism Minister and she knows how important it is to allow hoteliers to provide a full offering and that's what we are planning on doing.
"Obviously restaurant capacity will be reduced with social distancing but we also think, by then, a one-metre rule could be introduced."
The Executive has made it clear that its chosen date for hotel openings could be subject to change given scientific advice.
Joanne has concerns that the Republic's opening date of June 29 could put Lough Erne and others at an unfair disadvantage. It's her hope that "Stormont will bring us in line with them".
"If they don't, it won't be an even playing field and it means, for us, we could lose guests to hotels in Cavan and Donegal."
Although born and raised in Manchester, Joanne says her true home is Northern Ireland. Her father, a former pathologist, is English and her mother, a former nurse, is from Belcoo. They met in England in what Joanne describes as a "real hospital romance".
"My sisters and I grew up in Manchester but every single holiday we went on was in Northern Ireland, in Belcoo, so this is where my family is, where my home is. My mum told me that I took my first steps here," she continues.
At the age of 20 Joanne got married and went on to have five children who are now between the ages of 20 and 29 and living all over the world, from Dubai to Melbourne.
When her eldest daughter reached secondary school age, Joanne moved the family to NI. "One of the main reasons was how good the education system is here," she continues.
"I then decided once the children were older that I wanted to work and I saw a job at the Slieve Russell (hotel) for a conference and banqueting manager."
The rest is history and word soon got about that Joanne Walsh had a unique talent for sales.
Even during the past 11 weeks of lockdown, she has successfully secured eight weddings at Lough Erne for 2021. "Sales is just in my blood. I love it," she adds.
Joanne's first job at Lough Erne was a few months after the resort launched in 2007. "I watched the walls go up, the windows go in and the roof go on. I was selling rooms from images and off-plan. I helped choose the furnishings and had a role in naming all 25 lodges so Lough Erne is home to me and I'm very protective of it." But the venue later went into administration and was then sold to American investors led by Vine Avenue Advisors and TRU Hotels.
A four-year break from hospitality saw Joanne work in dental practices before getting a call from the new Lough Erne owners.
"It was an American accent saying that they'd really like to meet me and so I went back.
"I returned to a business development post and then deputy general manager.
"They've done a great job," she says of the new owners who invested heavily in the resort's wedding offering back in 2017.
Looking towards reopening, Joanne adds: "I've missed my management team so much. I thrive on them being around me and it has been a bit lonesome without them here. I can't wait to work with them again and welcome our new guests. The feedback is great and I'm just delighted to be in this role."
'It's time to support tourism in Ireland'
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. Always give 100% — whether in business or personal life, do the very best you can do. Give your all to even the smallest tasks — you will stand out if you do.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A My family has a very strong medical background — therefore I would have definitely gone down the medical route.
Q. What was your last holiday, and where next, restrictions permitting?
A Dubai was my last holiday as I have a daughter living out there. For the foreseeable future my holidays will be in Ireland, I feel it is very important to support the hospitality industry across Ireland. When the time is right I would like to travel to Thailand, it is next on my bucket list.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. Walking with my new puppy, we love going to nearby beaches. I’m also a real foodie.
Q. How do you sum up working in the hotel business?
A. No day will be the same in our customer-focused industry. Teamwork is key and you have to be prepared to go the extra mile in order to deliver stand out experiences. It is extremely challenging but tremendously rewarding.