When the opportunity to purchase the Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff presented itself to Ray Byrne in 2016, it marked a return to his early career roots in a region that had long captivated his imagination.
“Buying Eccles Hotel did have a sense of something coming full circle for me, one of those life events that land on your doorstep in a way you couldn’t ignore,” he explains of the immediate impetus to make the legendary institution his own.
“My connection with West Cork goes back to the 1980s when I worked for Traditional Cheese Company.
My job was driving the refrigerated van all over Ireland, but particularly into the corners of West Cork to collect cheese from the artisan cheese makers down there. I met incredible people, and developed a love for the beauty that is West Cork.
The opportunity to buy the hotel came about from a casual conversation with the then owner back in early 2016: “He mentioned he was thinking of selling the hotel and myself and my business partner lost no time in securing the opportunity to buy it.”
Ray opened Wineport Lodge in Athlone back in 1993 with his wife Jane English, the beginning of his connection to the hospitality industry that continues to this day.
“We’ve built up a great business at Wineport Lodge, initially as a restaurant, then adding guest accommodation so people could come and stay as well as eat.
"I realised it was easier to make money when the guests were asleep, so that got me hooked on the hotel side of the business,” he adds.
His foray into the industry through Wineport Lodge eventually led on to the setting up of an associated company, Nhance Management, to work on other projects.
The properties under which Nhance variously manage and co-own include The Ice House in Ballina, The Shipquay Hotel in Derry, The Kilkenny Inn, plus Staunton’s On The Green and Number 31 in Dublin.
“We bring our experience to bear on projects in the form of expert collaborators to engineer efficient management systems designed to create more memorable customer experiences and deliver sustainable profits for all stakeholders.
"Nhance Management incorporates brand creation and reinvention to every aspect of operations to turnaround or improve overall business performance, realise full commercial potential and ultimately increase asset values.”
The company works with new developments, properties in need new vision, and hotels in receivership on behalf of insolvency practitioners, banks and institutional lenders.
His own experience during the recent recession proved a telling education in rescuing dwindling turnover and maintaining customer loyalty: “Our business at Wineport was growing steadily up until 2008, only to drop by double-digit figures within the subsequent twelve months.
“Like so many other operations around the country at the time, we owed a substantial amount to the bank.
It was a time when we learned the hard way about pulling in our horns and working across all areas to bring down costs. But through it all, our primary focus was on delivering value and quality to guests.
"Even in the darkest days, we were always encouraged by the fact that even though people had less money to spend, they still wanted to come to Wineport Lodge for those special occasions. We eventually refinanced our debts to a sustainable level and worked our way out the other side.”
Over recent years, Ray has held presidencies of a number of tourism bodies, including Ireland’s Blue Book, the Restaurants Association of Ireland and the Midlands Gateway Chamber of Commerce.
Having just undergone a €1m refurbishment, Eccles Hotel represents the latest chapter in Ray Byrne’s hospitality career, and one where the property’s long history will figure prominently in its future success.
“The Eccles Hotel is all history – nearly 300 years’ worth. It is full of stories of an illustrious past and we are determined to give it a bright future through the refurbishment programme and boutique spa that will be ready for Easter.
"We know it’s not enough to have a great property in a stunning location,” he says. “What today’s guests look for is great people and warm hospitality. To that end, we have retained all the loyal staff who have generations of experience, as well as bringing in new talent — like general manager David Manning, himself a West Cork native, and chef Edward Atwell, who has earned an enormous following after only 12 months onsite.”
While frequent trips to Eccles Hotel and West Cork have offered Ray Byrne a happy return to the scenic territory of his youth, it has also resulted in a number of other hospitality opportunities to exploit.
“Eccles has meant lots of visits to Cork, during which time we have also spotted some exciting opportunities in the city as well. We’ve created a new micro-hotel brand to cater to the millennial traveller who wants to be right in the centre of things and isn’t concerned about luxury and room size, so long as the basics are taken care of.”
To that end, the company has also earmarked sites on Cork’s business thoroughfare — the South Mall, as well as the developing Victorian Quarter on MacCurtain Street — so as to develop a sustainable hospitality business in the coming years.
The plans include a 58-bed hotel at the South Mall site of the former National Irish Bank branch, complete with its classical limestone facade and its five-bay banking hall, designed by William Caldbeck in 1855.
“Our aim is to retain and refurbish the impressive façade of the property that sits proudly on South Mall,” Ray explains.
The wonderful banking hall with its high corniced ceilings, elegant pillars and striking black and white tiled floor will form the backdrop for a buzzy café/bar, where locals and visitors can meet and experience traditional Cork hospitality.
The current surge of economic activity within the immediate area has added significantly to its attractiveness as a dining and leisure hub:
“The South Mall has undergone a real renaissance in recent times with the opening of the new Maldron Hotel and a major refurbishment of the famous Imperial Hotel. It is also home to some of the city’s best loved eateries — such as Electric and Jacobs on the Mall.”
The second property, located on MacCurtain Street, already has planning permission — with the building work expected to begin over the coming months.