Barberstown Castle – Kildare’s Hidden Gem is Sparkling
Maynooth born Ted Robinson, the new Managing Director of renowned the Kildare landmark, has set his sights on rejuvenating the stunning property and introducing it to a new generation.
Born only a couple of miles down the road from Barberstown, Ted discovered a grá for the hotel industry at a young age. His mother came from the Atlanta Hotel in Dominick Street in Galway, and he spent much of his childhood summer holidays in Galway, working in his grandfather’s hotel in the centre of the city. It served as his introduction to the hotel industry in his formative years, and he discovered a passion for the industry that has stayed with him all his life.
Ted’s first job was working in the K Club when he was 16, followed by the Merrion Hotel at the age of 19. He studied at the Shannon College of Hotel Management, and as part of his training went to Paris to work in Le Parc Trocadero Hotel under the chef Alain Ducasse (a 3-star Michelin at the time). His stint there was followed by a spell at the Cape Grace Hotel in South Africa.
He was also a talented sportsman, and after graduating from Shannon, Ted secured a professional rugby contract with Connacht at the age of 22 while also working in the Corrib Great Southern Hotel in Galway. “Working there helped with the rugby transition”, he says. “I was able to do a bit of both”. He played for Connacht for seven years.
When he left rugby in 2008, he returned back to the hotel industry and moved to Dublin where he worked in the Grange in Stillorgan; a 24-hour concierge development built by Ray Grehan. He then returned to his roots, taking up the position of General Manager of the Glenroyal Hotel in Maynooth, where he stayed for 11 years. “It was a great opportunity, I loved it”, he says. Ted had a hugely successful time at the helm of the Glenroyal. When he took over the position, he focused on building the local business. “We connected with local people, the local GAA club, Maynooth Tidy Towns, and really built the loyalty”, he says. “I think I’ve left it in good shape for the next manager, and hopefully it will continue to grow”.
Last October, at the age of 44, Ted felt he needed the challenge of a new project, and he found a new opportunity even closer to home, becoming the new Managing Director of Barberstown Castle.
Ted’s passion for this new project is clear, and he wants to make Barberstown a destination that is fully embraced by the local community. “There’s loads of potential here in Barberstown Castle”, he enthuses. “We want it to be a home away from home. It’s such a beautiful property, and my goal is to open it up and make it more accessible for everyone.”
Barberstown has operated as a hotel for around 50 years, but before that had about 60 owners dating back to 1288. Nicholas Barber, who the castle is named after, built it as a castle keep. The musician Eric Clapton owned the castle between 1983 and 1993, and operated it as a part B&B, part hotel as well as living there. During that period the castle played host to some of the most iconic musicians in the world, including the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. For the last 25 years, it was owned by Ken Healy, who developed it from a 25-bed to a 60-bed hotel. It also was the home of a well-renowned restaurant.
Ted is keen to build relationships with the local community in Kildare. “I lived 2 miles down the road, but I had only been there once at a wedding” he says; something he has identified as a typical local experience of Barberstown. “There’s a perception locally that it was more of a venue for a wedding, open on Friday – Sunday, and closed in the winter months. We will be open seven days a week, 24-7, and we have been engaging with the local communities in Leixlip, Celbridge and Maynooth. It’s an approach that’s really bearing fruit for us, and the locals have really embraced us.”
Ted also sees the appeal of Barberstown Castle to the south County Dublin market. “It feels like the country, but it’s only 40 minutes away from their home. You don’t have to travel to Galway or the West of Ireland to have the castle experience. You can stay in a castle, enjoy a five-course meal in a really relaxed atmosphere, and really feel like you’ve had a break.”
He continues: “The food here has always been renowned, and we have an amazing head chef in Bertie Malabhat, who has been here for the last 25 years. We want to let people know about it and develop it in the future.”
Ted is focused on making their guests feel welcome and at ease. “We are focused on providing a ‘welcome home’ to our guests. And with 60 bedrooms, you really like you get to know everyone. It’s a really homely place.”
Indeed, from the moment you walk through the door of Barberstown Castle, you feel like you’re at home. It has a large and inviting reception area, and Ted is going to adopt a less formal approach in this area, introducing two reception desks rather than one.
They have retained original features of the castle, such as keeping the original keys to the bedroom doors, rather than having keycards. Ted says that 40 of the bedrooms are in good shape, and they are in the process of upgrading these. “The original house has 20-25 rooms and we’re getting them done up starting in September”, he says. “They’re all a bit quirky and bespoke, and you really feel you’re in a castle.”
Other areas of the hotel have been updated. The Old Bar, which was being used as a restaurant, has now been turned back into a bar. Ted also plans to revamp the lounge and conservatory areas. While they are currently attractively decorated with a Moroccan style interior, Robinson sees the opportunity to develop it even further. Renovating the hotel will be done in phases. Phase 1 will focus on the bedrooms and restaurant area this year. Then early next year they plan to update the Garden Bar, focusing on updating the interior elements, while retaining the character of the venue.
The main castle is a listed property, which does offer some challenges, though Robinson feels that it provides more opportunities than challenges. “You offer a real castle experience on the ground floor in the restaurant. The goal is to develop the first and second floors into a Presidential Suite, but changes will be purely cosmetic and the castle walls won’t be touched.”
One area of the hotel that was an immediate challenge was the vast gardens of Barberstown. The first thing that Ted and his business partner Amanda Torrens did, was to employ a full-time gardener, Terry Healy. “He’s excellent, the gardens always look great when you drive in”.
They’ve also been focused on paying attention to the small things, such as the hotel signage. “Signage has a high impact. We’ve been working on the signage so that when people drive by, they really notice it and they know that we’re open and operating. We want everyone to know that we’re open all the time. We also leave the front and back gates open every day, again so that people know we’re open and ready to welcome everyone.
“Our vision is to be a beautiful home that people can pop in and pop out, whether it’s for a meeting or just for a cup of tea. We want to be so welcoming.”
The hotel has quirky little places for guests to enjoy, including an old abbey which is used for civil wedding ceremonies. And the wedding market is something that’s important to Robinson. “We see Irish and American groups coming here for 3–4-day wedding gatherings. You can have a wedding for 150 people, with everything happening in-house. Groups can have dinner the night before in the old castle which is over 800-years old. A pre-drinks reception in the old stables area, followed by the civil ceremony in the abbey, and of course drinks and a fine dining dinner afterwards. The following day, a less formal barbeque can be hosted in Haggard Pub, an old traditional pub located in another of the former stables. In addition, Barberstown’s stunning gardens provide the perfect backdrops for wedding photographs. There are so many aspects and innovative things to offer.”
The wedding market is an important area for Ted, and the goal for the hotel will be to host one wedding a day (currently the hotel caters to 100 weddings a year).
“One of the beauties of Barberstown is that you can have three or four things happening in different parts of the hotel, at the same time and still enjoy a coffee in the relaxed setting of the lobby”, Ted enthuses.
One quirky part of the hotel’s history is the castle’s resident ghost, and Ted confirms that there are anecdotes and stories about a lady ghost within the castle. “There’s a story behind it that we’ll get into in the future”, he confirms. “When you stay here, you’ll find our more!”
Ted is passionate about flying, holding a helicopter pilots’ licence. He has been able to marry his passion, by offering luxury packages for the likes of Punchestown, flying people from Barberstown to Punchestown for the races. Guest were able to enjoy lunch at the hotel, then fly to Punchestown and back for a competitively priced package for a luxury day out. They will be offering a similar package for the Derby this year. “Very few hotels can offer that kind of service”, he says.
The helicopter offering will also allow Robinson to cater to guests arriving at Dublin airport from the US for instance. They can be collected from the airport and also can fly on and do golf trips. The hotel also partners with Dynamic Events to offer additional activities, ranging from orienteering to corporate event packages.
Another passion that the team at Barberstown have tapped into is horses. Ted’s partner at the hotel, Amanda Torrens is very involved with horses. When Ted and Amanda joined forces, along with her partner Austin O’Callaghan became involved in Barberstown last October, they started to build relationships with their local racecourses, Punchestown and the Curragh immediately.
The target audience for Barberstown is primarily the tourism sector, particularly the US markets, targeting high end tour groups. Barberstown’s position at the closest castle to Dublin airport allows it to be used as either the starting point for tours going around the country, or visiting it at the end of the trip. The US is also an important audience for bespoke wedding experiences.
In addition, the mid-week leisure market is an area of opportunity for Barberstown. Ted says that they are perfecting their packages for this market, focusing on increasing the offerings available, whether it be clay pigeon shooting in nearby Abbeylands, or horse riding, along with an afternoon tea experience.
The corporate market is also important, offering a range of unique meeting rooms, particularly from Monday – Wednesday. “It’s not your traditional meeting rooms; many of our groups can have their meetings outside in the afternoons for a change of scenery”, says Ted. The hotel offers all the facilities required for the corporate market, including a brand-new WiFi system and IT system.
Ted places enormous importance on the team at Barberstown. “We have a great, passionate team, and our vision is to be one of the friendliest castles in Ireland.”
Like all areas of the hospitality industry, staffing is the most challenging issue of the industry, and Ted recognises the importance of a happy and fulfilled experience for their team. “We will get the systems at the back of house to a top-class level; it makes their job so easy and enjoyable”.
He sees the trainer Aidan O’Brien as a mentor in terms of his approach to team work. “It’s about really looking after and knowing your team and having that personal touch. Aidan O’Brien knows every jockey’s name and knows their individual needs. We’re here to help them, they’re not here to help us. If we look after them, they’ll look after our guests. It’s little things like flexible hours, working from home, knowing their family backgrounds, time off for concerts and festivals – trying to give them the opportunities to enjoy their lives”, he outlines.
Barberstown currently has around 100 in the team, split between full time and part time, and his aim is to move more of the team to a full-time basis. They are looking for another 15 team members at present, ranging from bar and waiting staff to house-keeping positions. “We’re in a good place now, it’s really about looking after what we have.”
Building the relationship with guests is key in Robinson’s opinion. “We know the guest’s profile, and we know their preferences and what they like. We chat to them when they’re booking in, and we use pre and post guest emails to find out as much information as possible”. Most importantly, we want our team to give an amazing warm welcome to everyone who visits. If they greet the guests warmly, anticipate their needs and always say thank you – if they do these three things, the rest we can train of help them out with in the background.”
While there is local competition from the likes of the K Club, Carton House and indeed the Glenroyal, Ted feels that there’s enough business for everyone in the area. “We want to be a really good four-star hotel. It’s important to create your own niche in the market. We have something special with all the land we have around us, and it’s about us looking after what we want to be. Something different, something special.
“We’re providing the old world feel with a modern twist. We have all the modern technology here, but at the same time you feel like you’re moving back in time. For instance, we have a name on every door representing the names of the previous owners of the castle over the past 800 years – there’s a bit of history in every room. Our goal is that everywhere you go in the castle, there will be a plaque telling you what the history of the castle is.” Former owner musician Eric Clapton sent them his signed guitar when they took over, wishing them the best of luck. That guitar is now at home in the Garden Bar.
They are currently building a brand-new website, and the history of the castle will be featured on it. Sarah Wallace, the wedding manager at the hotel has been there for around 20 years, and is a valuable resource in terms of knowing the history of Barberstown.
Barberstown have a busy time ahead. They are hosting the Bumblebee Run in aid of Little Blue Heroes, with 100 supercars launching from there before travelling to the west of Ireland. The Rose of Tralee tour will be visiting the castle for two nights, hosting a ball for them and highlighting the best of Kildare to the group. They are also heavily involved in the racing scene, sponsoring the Sapphire Stakes at the Oaks weekend in the Curragh, as well as Ladies Day there. Ted has also been working closely with Aine Mangan of Kildare Failte to develop local relationships and opportunities.
Ted recognises the importance of the hotel industry to the economy and believes that the Government should focus on building and supporting the industry as much as possible. “It’s so important”, he says. “There are over 200,000 jobs in the sector, and support will be so important, especially when we get back to 10 million visitors a year. There’s so much work being done in the background by the IHF; it’s about keeping that pressure on to highlight how important our industry is in terms of tourism and the jobs we create.”
For the time being, Ted’s goal for Barberstown Castle is to get stronger, not bigger. “I want us to really improve what we have, not expand. In the next year, every area of the hotel will be improved by 20-30%, brining everything up to another level. Our service will become even more welcoming and friendly. We want to develop what we have and fine tune it, and then really express ourselves in terms of the next level. We want visitors to say wow, it’s special, it’s different!”