Killarney businesses pull together to restore €410m tourist industry

The worst day of Patrick O’Donoghue’s career was March 16.
Killarney businesses pull together to restore €410m tourist industry
Patrick O'Donoghue, Managing Director, The Gleneagle Hotel & INEC Arena Killarney.
Patrick O'Donoghue, Managing Director, The Gleneagle Hotel & INEC Arena Killarney.

The worst day of Patrick O’Donoghue’s career was March 16.

As the CEO of the Gleneagle Hotel and Apartments, the neighbouring Inec event centre, and the Brehon Hotel puts it, it’s the day someone “pressed pause on life in Killarney”.

It is also the day he temporarily laid off almost all his staff.

“We were very upset when the Covid-19 restrictions came in because one of the worst days of my career was temporarily laying off the 500 staff that we have,” said Patrick.

“That was very traumatic for everybody.

“Ultimately, the immediate effect is that for four months the businesses are effectively shut and all the staff have been furloughed.

“Everybody is in the same boat. We didn’t do anything wrong. It was just one of those things that has happened and we are no different to any tourism business around the country and there is nothing we can do about it.

“We have to be philosophical about it, I suppose.”

Gap of Dunloe Boatman Dermot O'Donoghue with his traditional wooden Gap boat in his shed in Killarney at the weekend.
Gap of Dunloe Boatman Dermot O'Donoghue with his traditional wooden Gap boat in his shed in Killarney at the weekend.

While it was traumatic for Patrick and his staff, the temporary closure of the Gleneagle Group is bad for the entire town.

It is said that when the Gleneagle Hotel is busy, the town is busy, and when it’s quiet, so is the town.

The annual Bike Fest,  one of the biggest events in the town, was cancelled, and other events - including concerts in the Inec - have either been cancelled or deferred.

Although this year’s Rally of the Lakes was cancelled, last year’s event has at least provided the town with a timely Hollywood endorsement.

Actor Michael Fassbender, who took part in last year’s rally and who grew up in the town, has just released a three-part documentary of the rally.

The fact that, as a Killarney Tourism Economic Impact Review report noted, “tourism is the economic lifeblood of Killarney” makes the impact from Covid-19 on the town all the more poignant.

Indeed, while the recent Three Regional Assemblies’ 'Covid-19 Regional Economic Analysis' report puts Kerry as the county most likely to be negatively impacted by Covid-19, it rates Killarney as one of the worst-hit towns in the county.

Empty streets which would normally be full of American Tourists and motorbikers at this time of year in Killarney, County Kerry during the COVID-19 crisis.
Empty streets which would normally be full of American Tourists and motorbikers at this time of year in Killarney, County Kerry during the COVID-19 crisis.

That may change if the government bows to pressure to open up the country sooner.

The 1.1m-plus people who visit the town annually generate more than €410m; American and Canadian tourists  spend 80% more than domestic tourists.

And they have all but gone, leaving the jobs of more than 3,120 people employed in tourism under threat.

“This year was looking like one of the best ever," said Patrick. "It was about 5%-10% up on last year.

“Covid-19 has meant that any business we had in March, April, May, June and early parts of July is non-existent.”

Laura Tangney, whose family run Tangney’s of Killarney Jaunting Cars, says the company has also been badly hit.

Laura Tangney, Killarney Jaunting Cars pictured in Killarney at the weekend.
Laura Tangney, Killarney Jaunting Cars pictured in Killarney at the weekend.

The jaunting car has been in her family for more than 220 years. The company relies heavily on corporate business and is generally booked out for tours more than a year in advance. By this time in any given year they would be more than 80% booked up. However, they shut on March 17 and since the business has been dead.

“Business is gone,”  said Laura.

“It all just happened so bloody quick. On the Thursday before St Patrick’s Day, we were like a human shooting ground in the office. It was just cancellation, cancellation, cancellation, and it was all big groups cancelling. And it really continued from then.

I am still getting cancellations. It's a worrying time for us. It’s a family business and we don’t have any other type of revenue. We know nothing else. It is in our veins and we are all invested in it, which is a worrying thing for us.

“We have 40 horses to feed and those are ongoing costs that are there, even when the tourist isn’t there. We breed a lot of our own horses, and we know them as babies. So they are our siblings, as we say, and that is our company policy: our horses come first. They are our priority now to make sure they stay safe and they stay fit. When they are not working they become very unfit very quickly. So come July 20, if I don’t keep my horses fit, we don’t work.”

However, that is not an option for Laura. The company will be taking fewer customers on the various sized jaunting cars they operate and see-through plastic screens are being erected to separate the driver from passengers.

“We have to adapt to succeed and that is what we are at at the moment,” she said. “People have asked us if Covid-19 will kill the jaunting car. No, it won’t. We are strong enough, we have pride in what we do and we are ready to take on the challenge of the Covid and work through it. Of course, we are doing it in worrying times but you can’t lie down either.”

Tourists take in the magnificient view at Aghadoe Killarney in glorious May sunshine. The scene is one of the most photographed views in Ireland and the setting for many films. Pictures: Don MacMonagle
Tourists take in the magnificient view at Aghadoe Killarney in glorious May sunshine. The scene is one of the most photographed views in Ireland and the setting for many films. Pictures: Don MacMonagle

Patrick and his colleagues at the Gleneagle Group aren't for lying down either.

Currently working on plans for a July 20 reopening, he has introduced intensive cleaning regimes, deployed more hand sanitizers, and introduced an advanced check-in, check-out, and digital billing system.

Rooms will have fewer “paper amenities” such as notepads and guest directories and there will be “enhanced staff safety with personal protective equipment”.

Whether or not this means you’ll be greeted by staff wearing N95 face masks remains to be seen.

“At the moment it is hard to see beyond that because that is what we are used to seeing in our supermarkets and anywhere else where there is customer interaction,” said Patrick.

However, despite all that has happened over the past few months, Patrick is seeing signs of hope in his business and in the town. The hotel group has noticed an increase in the number of people from Ireland who are making reservations to stay. In normal circumstances, the hotel group would expect August to be 50% booked up, but bookings are creeping past the 25% mark.

“We’re reasonably optimistic now that we have dates to get going again from July 20,” Patrick said.

We are already seeing some green shoots in the context of people booking for their summer holidays.

“There is potential there in August that people who would traditionally travel abroad who are already committing to staying at home this year. We are seeing bookings coming in from July 20 onwards.

“So we hope to be reasonably busy for August which would be our busiest month of the year anyway. We are delighted. It’s showing signs of life.”

Killarney mayor Michael Gleeson said there isn’t one single thing that will get the town out of its current crisis - it is will be a combination of things.

Michael Gleeson, Mayor of Killarney pictured on a very quiet Main Street at the weekend.
Michael Gleeson, Mayor of Killarney pictured on a very quiet Main Street at the weekend.

“It will be the continued co-operation of all the interests in the town, combined with the health advice we are currently getting,”  said Mr Gleeson. “And while we put a value on the people who come to stay here, this isn’t just a monetary value and we need to continue to emphasize the warmth of the welcome we are famous for.”

Laura speaks for many in the town when she says: “Killarney is tourism.

If you ring any number, we all have the same story. I don’t just go to trade shows and sell my tours, I sell Killarney, and I think that will stand to us. As a destination as a whole, all the businesses in the town work well together.

“Now, more than ever, it’s all about getting together now and selling Killarney as a destination rather than just trying to fill your hotel bedroom or your jaunting car.”

The town getting together to get through Covid-19 is very much on the mind of Pat Falvey, whose adventure business in Ireland and around the world has ground to a halt.

Mountaineer Pat Falvey who organises many mountain and walking trips to Killarney as well as all over the world pictured in The Gap of Dunloe Killarney.
Mountaineer Pat Falvey who organises many mountain and walking trips to Killarney as well as all over the world pictured in The Gap of Dunloe Killarney.

There’s an apocryphal tale his mother once told him that sums up his hopes for Killarney. It’s about the 1976 Seattle Special Olympics when - according to the story - moments after the 100-yard dash started, one of the contestants fell. Others stopped, turned back, picked him up, and then they linked arms and walked over the finishing line together.

“My hope is that we all cross the finishing line together,” the veteran explorer said.

And both he and other businesses in the town are hoping they can all get back in the race sooner rather than later.

“Tourism is effectively on hold at the moment,” said Patrick.

The pause button has been pressed on life, on the industry, and everything that happens in Killarney.

“And we are just waiting for the play button to be pressed again, so that we can get going and see our staff back working again and we are back looking after our guests.”

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