From milking cows to managing one of the best hotels in NI ... the busy mum-of-five who became a big hitter in Belfast hospitality
Fermanagh farmer's daughter and working mother Roisin O'Donnell tells Una Brankin about making the Tara Lodge, which she runs with her husband, such a big success
As Jenny Bristow will testify, it's hard to beat the work ethic of a farmer's daughter. And in Roisin O'Donnell's case, a childhood helping out on her parents' farm has, she believes, helped her and her husband, Conor, create an establishment voted Belfast's number one hotel on TripAdvisor for 10 consecutive years.
Tara Lodge has beaten all the 44 big players, from the Europa to the Merchant, in the annual vote on the highly influential hospitality guide, despite having no fancy spa or bar, and offering breakfast only.
But, by all accounts, it's a sumptuous morning feast in luxurious surroundings, and the location, off Botanic Avenue in the Queen's Quarter, means it has a plethora of good restaurants and bars on its doorstep.
"We've always referred to Tara Lodge as 'guest accommodation', but we're known as a hotel on TripAdvisor and our guests always refer to us as a hotel," says Roisin.
"I think we make up for what we lack in facilities, in warmth and guest services. We try to stay away from labels."
The success of Tara Lodge, includes several industry awards, is all the more impressive given the fact that Roisin is a mother of five, to Aoife (12), twins Olivia and Claire (nine), Aodhan (seven) and toddler Oran, who's 18 months old.
But, as one of eight children growing up on a dairy farm in Roslea, Co Fermanagh, Roisin learned all about balancing family and work from her mother, Anne, and her father Patsy.
"It's not the same with kids nowadays," she says. "They don't know what hard work is as they don't get that opportunity, but my boy, Aodhan, helps out on his grandparents' farm. It's good for him.
"We were always busy; there was the daily commitment of the milking every morning and every evening.
"We helped with everything, like lifting the stones in the fields before the ploughing, and on Saturday mornings you got up and were out all day on the farm.
"Growing up, I watched dad's commitment to his family and his exceptional work ethic.
He and my mother - she helped on the farm, too - raised children and taught us the twin values of hard work and respect for others. They're values which I live by and run Tara Lodge by."
A former pupil of St Eugene's secondary school in Rosslea, Roisin studied a Level III NVQ in business administration at Fermanagh College. She developed a keen interest in design and interiors during her time working in a Belfast architectural practice in the 1990s, through which she met her husband, Conor, a builder who had opened Tara Lodge on Cromwell Road in 1998.
"Conor had initially planned to build apartments on the site, but it wasn't big enough, Roisin explains.
"But the demand for guest accommodation was beginning to grow in Belfast then, so Conor decided to give it a go.
"He's a builder by trade and having a maintenance man on call 24/7 is a big bonus. He is meticulous. I think this is one of the advantages we have over our competitors and something which sets us apart from the competition.
"When we met, I already had an interest in interiors, so we made a good team.
"Working closely with TripAdvisor over the years has meant we are always fully aware of our own performance thanks to guest feedback. That puts us in a position to constantly improve what we offer to our guests and allows us to maintain our number one position that we have held for 10 years."
Among Conor's first guests in Tara Lodge were journalists from Reuters, who had travelled to Belfast to report on the Good Friday Agreement.
Since then, the internet has transformed the way the hotel does business, making reservations more accessible and amendable, while TripAdvisor has provided an indispensable international marketing tool.
Nowadays, guests can check themselves in, make payment and even choose their own room before setting foot in many hotels. At Tara Lodge, recent upgrades to smart TVs in guest bedrooms mean that guests could soon be able to interact with staff through the TVs.
The technological advances, along with "excellent" manager Sinead, and staff, have allowed Roisin to effectively run Tara Lodge from home in Fermanagh. As Conor's work is based in Belfast, he is always at hand and Roisin spends one day a week at the premises.
The flexible working arrangements were a huge bonus for the couple when their daughter, Aoife, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in April this year.
"She had no real symptoms and no weight loss at all, so it was a big shock," says Roisin. "I did notice she was bit pale and drinking pints of water, but we always have pint glasses of water on the go. I thought it was just her age, her body changing.
"Then I brought her to the doctors with a yeast infection and, after a urine and blood test, he sent her straight to the Ulster Hospital. Her blood sugar levels were over 33 - they're supposed to be between four and eight.
"But it could have been worse. She could have gone into a coma. I had a big guilt trip over it, but she always had a good diet. The doctors just put it down to environmental factors.
"She injects four or five times a day now and she's managing very well. We're getting back to normal now and I'll be able to give more of my attention to Tara Lodge in the new year."
Roisin has adorned the 34 four-star rooms at Tara Lodge with earthy-toned soft furnishings and the mandatory crisp white linen on the sumptuous King Koil beds. But prices are reasonable - the overnight Fire & Ice package, which includes a Game of Thrones tour, costs from £72pps, and the Titanic and Nomadic SS deal is from £52pps.
Fans of the huge NI-filmed dramas such as Game of Thrones keep Tara Lodge busy all year round, and Roisin is full of praise for the promotional work carried out by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
"Belfast is becoming one of the most popular city breaks in the UK," she says.
"Our guests range from young to old, local to international.
"Being number one on TripAdvisor for the past 10 years is something that we are extremely proud of.
"It has been achieved through hard work, attention to detail and dedication of staff members. Our team treat all our guests as an individual, and I think that personal touch has kept us as a firm favourite with our guests.
"TripAdvisor have given us an indispensable opportunity to expand our marketing reach with visibility all over the world.
"For a modest Belfast property to be put on the map and attract such a large client base is so rewarding and would definitely not have been possible 20 years ago.
"What TripAdvisor clearly demonstrates is that there are two main elements to what we offer - the physical surroundings and the service. It is so important to get both right, and the reviews on TripAdvisor show that we are doing a pretty good job."
Visit www.taralodge.com for more details
Roisin's top tips for budding hoteliers ...
• Focus on perfecting your product before you begin to compare to anyone else around you. Pay attention to the small details - the smallest are the most important. You cannot better yourself amongst competitors without perfecting what you have to offer first.
• Don't be afraid to give opportunities to young people who are interested in positions of responsibility. While they may not have a wealth of experience, this does not mean they don't have the ability to succeed as a valued member of your team. Young people in the industry can bring new ideas that can continue to further your business. We have a very young management team and have a lot of faith in what they can do for Tara Lodge.
• Maintaining your product is so invaluable. I am very lucky that my husband is a building contractor, which means that we can have any maintenance issues repaired very easily. Guests can be very critical if your product looks tired because maintenance issues haven't been addressed. We have an ongoing maintenance programme to avoid issues and staff are vigilant and trained well to help us address maintenance issues as soon as they arise.