Road To Recovery
An interview with Rachel Gaffney by Rosaleen McMeel
Travel industry expert, Rachel Gaffney tells Rosaleen McMeel how Ireland’s hotels can prepare for the return of American visitors and amidst the current challenges, still find opportunities to thrive.
While the Irish hospitality industry is facing some of its greatest challenges due to the pandemic and forced lockdowns, for those that can weather the storm there are opportunities to be found. Taking the time to reassess exactly what makes a property special and marketing that to the right audiences could prove crucial. There’s also much work to be done in terms of enticing US visitors back when it’s safe to do so and reinstating Ireland as the land of a hundred thousand welcomes. A title that is in danger of becoming irrevocably tarnished.
Rachel Gaffney is a Cork-born, Texas-based travel industry expert and lifestyle brand entrepreneur having founded Rachel Gaffney’s Real Ireland. She’s been curating bespoke trips to Ireland for high net worth individuals and groups from America for the past decade. Before Covid hit, Gaffney had booked approximately €250,000 worth of business in Ireland, including accommodation and chauffeur services, between 1st January and 10th February. Like everyone else, she was forced to cancel everything in the diary, refund and reschedule, and start planning ahead for 2021 and beyond.
One thing that did go ahead, however, albeit with a lot of additional safety planning, was the filming of a pilot for a new TV show, produced by Bob Altman. The award-winning producer who has worked extensively with Martha Stewart is working with Gaffney on a new series, which will showcase a “real Ireland” to Americans hungry for an authentic and rich Irish experience. Having undergone strict Covid procedures in advance of her visit, as well as a two-week self-isolation period upon her arrival, Gaffney spent several weeks touring around the country to uncover some unique experiences Ireland has to offer.
Alongside the innovation and resilience among many hoteliers, she was surprised and disappointed by the wave of anti-American sentiment among the public she experienced throughout her trip. “Even the airline crew I flew with were afraid to open their mouths when they landed because they knew about this anti-American sentiment. Like everyone else, they read Facebook and Twitter. It filters down through social media. I think people are confusing their opinion on politics with a nation.” Having stopped to take in a view in Kerry, she met a man and his son, locals talking in the vantage point. “The elderly man turned to me and said, ‘Isn't it lovely up here, so peaceful. And what makes it even more special is there aren’t any Americans here.’ They weren't even joking,” she recalls. “America is my home. My kids are American, and my friends are American. And Americans don't speak about Irish people the same way I've heard Irish people speak about Americans and it's sad. To me, it’s indicative of how people, in general, process information and how they read. I don't think people are reading editorials or articles anymore. They read a tweet or a headline instead. Clickbait is how people get their information. That's very damaging. I don't know how you address it, but I would like to see it being addressed.”
Regardless or the negativity, Gaffney remains passionate about sharing the positive aspects of her homeland with her fellow Americans, particularly those with spending power and a passion for travel. “There are 330 million people in the United States. And, unfortunately the message of everything that Ireland has to offer is not there yet. And that's the bad news. The really good news is, there's an opportunity. It means that more people need to be coming over. They need to be coming over because it's a great destination, there are great products and great places to stay. Not because they have any affiliation or affinity to Ireland at all; not because they have a great grandmother from Ireland. Just because it's a destination. People go to Rome because they want to go to Rome. They don't go to Rome because their great grandmother is from Rome. So I'm selling to all the people who just want to travel. If you're going because you're Irish, or because you have some sort of grá or an affinity, that's great. But that's not what I'm selling on. I'm selling to people who just want to travel.”
This year has also seen Gaffney team up with Indagare, a membership-based luxury travel company and believes strongly in their tag line, which is how you travel matters. “I love that. It sums up exactly what I’ve been saying to my clients for years.” Her mission is to encourage visitors to Ireland to experience the country through action, which she tailors based on their interests. Anything from boating on the River Shannon to meeting Irish fashion designers is an option. Anything with the potential to excite and delight goes into her bespoke itineraries and she’s always on the look out for new experiences for her clients.
In addition, Gaffney believes Ireland has a lot to offer in terms of accommodation, but feels some can miss the mark. “There’s something about how a hotel makes you feel. In a lot of places, I felt like I was putting people out. And I don't like that feeling. And that’s not because of Covid restrictions. There are places that always make me feel really great. We all know Neven Maguire’s MacNean House is wonderful. Neven is great, but even putting him to one side, from soup to nuts, his staff always make you feel good. You never feel like you’re putting them out. I can’t bear it when I hear people saying ‘Do you mind if I get some… ? I know that's kind of Irish. But it's also because we are human beings. We have gut instinct. We've had an interaction with that member of staff, and you have taken in their demeanour. And it’s a response to their demeanour. A really good hotel will teach the staff not to do that. You can spend all the money on putting in new carpets and curtains. It doesn't matter if your staff are rude, because people will remember. And trust me, my clients tell me all the time.”
The Merrion Hotel gets the thumbs up. “They always get it right and make you feel good. Yes, it’s a beautiful hotel, but it’s not the most decadent hotel in the world, but it’s about how the staff make you feel.” Dunmore House Hotel in West Cork proved another highlight on Gaffney’s most recent trip. “They anticipate what you need before you need it. Barrow House stood out for me too. It’s a Georgian property - the attention to detail is exquisite. There was a beautiful picnic hamper in your room which you could send downstairs to be filled to take with you on a walk. It was so lovely. You felt it was no problem for them to do that for you. Some people do that very well. I’ve had to ask for things in places; a knife, salt and pepper and I understand there’s Covid, but if you’re doing it in packets, give it to me. Check on me, make me feel like I’m not putting you out. I think people are very forgiving if your staff are nice. You can have a rip down the middle of your carpet but it’ll be forgiven if your staff are nice. But if your carpet is hand-woven by fairies the night before, they won’t give a damn if your staff are rude. It’s a very simple thing to fix, it’s training and about who you recruit and how you hire.”
Gaffney also highlights the importance of differentiating between hospitality and service. “If you check into reception and someone gives you your key in a timely manner and sends you to your room, that’s a service performed. But if you check into reception and someone notices your passport or your driver’s licence or something you’re wearing and asks you where you’re from, and they make you feel welcome that’s hospitality. When hotels become purely perfunctory, they lose their heart and soul.”
As for the future of travel to Ireland post-Covid, Gaffney remains positive. “I’m already getting queries for the latter part of summer next year. I’m starting curated trips for 2022. I’m focusing on regions. I’m trying to get people to stop speed dating with Ireland. I think they’re not getting the full experience and suffering from pure exhaustion. I noticed even pre-Covid, people are travelling differently, in multi-generational groups, often three generations of one family in a group, so I’m trying to give them individual experiences. I’m doing one that’ll incorporate Dublin, Louth and Down. And another one that incorporates Dublin, Cavan and Fermanagh. So you’re only going so far and coming back again. Maybe three counties at a time.”