I’VE BEEN IN the hospitality trade for over three decades now running my family’s business in Mallow. We’re rural, which means there’s no time to rest on our laurels.

Our family has been running Springfort Hall for about 35 years now and doing weddings for 28 years of those – that’s about 2,400 weddings.

We opened the venue after my father bought the old manor house as a business opportunity, and it has become our family’s legacy.

At the time he made the purchase, it was a typical Irish recession – no one had any money. Something had to be done to pay the mortgage, so we opened a bed and breakfast and a small restaurant in it. Over the years, almost accidentally, it grew.

I was there from the very beginning. We were trying to do a B&B with eight bedrooms, but at the start we were just waiting for people to call – it was very hit and miss.

So we opened the restaurant, and that’s when it started to pick up. It did take four or five months, but people started to eat out a bit more around that time. It has gone well ever since.

I was in my 20s when it all started, and I ended up in the kitchen because the job needed to be done. There was roaring and shouting, but it was just people showing their passion.

My mother was the one running the operation really – my father had been retired for a number of years and slowly stepped back as it got busier. It was difficult initially to get it going, but once it did, we were able to expand it a bit.

Over the years, we’ve built the banqueting hall in the courtyard and the restaurant has given us the money to develop more bedrooms. Becoming that wedding destination has been the backbone of the business.

On top of that, tapping into the conference scene has allowed us to invest more in the business again and grow the whole thing gradually.

Paul Walsh

Source: Sean Jefferies

The memories

My family has made good money out of the business over the years, and we’ve won awards for food like our AA rosette. But we’ve been so busy, we haven’t had a chance to take our wins. We were too busy watching out for new moves we could make to grow the business.

But the last eight or nine years have all been about survival in the hotel trade. We were all over-borrowed a bit in this business. The prices reduced, which caused more problems.

We were competing with hotels in receivership, which wasn’t ideal. They were being run by the financial institutions that didn’t have to pay the mortgage, so you found the prices went down – even in Dublin.

What happened was the people who weren’t in receivership were actually under more pressure than the hotels in receivership. Us small guys were caught in the middle, and it was tough.

We had to cut costs where we could. We were always busy, but it was the margins that were the problems in those years. You could not make a good margin, so at the end of the year you were going to be short. And that catches up on you.

It’s very difficult times to be in our trade because there was no real positivity for several years. No matter what you did, you were down. The banks wouldn’t lend, so there was no easy way out of it.

I was drained for a while, and you do take a knock to the confidence because no matter what you try during a recession it usually doesn’t work as you expected.

But we got through that. That’s kind of changed now, and things are looking a bit more positive outside of Dublin.

During those recessions, a lot of good people in our position said “feck this” and left the trade. I didn’t, because I knew it would come right. The hospitality business is about persevering until the good times come again. Eventually you do get there.

I think some people give up too easily. You see big companies going into liquidation because they are afraid of being under pressure. Everyone is under pressure in business, you just have to get on with it sometimes.

Rolling the clock back

I think you make decisions at a time and there’s no point in asking ‘what if’ afterwards. You might have done something different, made a different mistake, and you would be worse off.

We were enjoying maybe 10% or 15% growth every year, and then a year came up where our turnover was down 30%. Not only have you not grown, but it takes about six months to take action to reverse that trend.

And then when you’ve made your changes and you’re €40,000 or €50,000 behind, and you’re continuously playing catch up.

That’s the thing with the last recession, it went on too long. I would say it started in 2006 really and lasted for 10 years. If it was two or three years, anyone could have ridden it out. But 10 years of that takes its toll.

And during tough times, you’ll find rumours spread. I’ve had problem where people would say that Springfort Hall was in receivership. That rumour has come up about once every few years.

It came up again last year out of nowhere. At one stage there were so many hotels going into receivership, it was very easy to get linked in by word of mouth. Everyone dealt with that during the recession, we weren’t alone.

I would have brides ringing me and say, “Paul, I hear you’re in receivership. My wedding is booked next month.” And I have to say, “No, we’re not.”

Those are the ones that are booked, now think of the ones who were thinking of booking that are going off that false information. It’s damaging because if the wedding bookers hear this, people mightn’t save a date with us for 12 months time.