Donegal hotel thriving despite major challenges

Niall Coffey.

SET in the idyllic surroundings of Lough Eske outside Donegal Town, Harvey’s Point is one of Donegal’s most luxurious hotels.
Niall Coffey has been in charge at the 101 bedroom four-star hotel for the past two years and he is looking forward to a busy Christmas holiday season.
The general manager arrived from Aghadoe Heights in Kerry to start his new role in February 2020, taking over the reins from Deirdre McGlone and her husband. Just weeks later he was forced to close the hotel due to Covid-19.
Now almost two years later, alongside the challenges and roller-coaster that the hospitality industry has been on, Niall is managing a growing business as well as balancing staff wellness, retention and recruitment.
Earlier this year, he played a key role in a successful pilot scheme to support hospitality recruitment in association with LYIT and Fáilte Ireland – a scheme which is now being rolled out in Dublin and Kerry.
The hotel has also been undergoing a lot of refurbishment and investment, and at the end of the summer added 20 new rooms to the top floor, with more changes to come.
With 134 weddings already booked in 2022  promises to be another busy year for the general manager and his 173 staff.
“The new owner spent €3.2 million on the property in the last eighteen months. He recognises the beauty of Harvey’s Point and the beauty of Donegal, a combination which continues to bring more and more visitors into the county each year,” Mr Coffey said.
The hospitality industry enjoyed an excellent summer with the ‘staycation’ market particularly buoyant and it’s that same market which will ensure that the ‘full house’ signs are in place at Harvey’s Point over Christmas and the New Year.
“Repeat business remains a massive part of our business. People who used to stay with us for one or two nights came back for three, four or five nights in the summer and we have enjoyed a really high occupancy rate. A lot of people from across the country have discovered what Donegal has to offer this year – Slieve League, the Blue Flag beaches, golf courses and the many wonderful walks,” he said.

Retaining staff
With hotels forced to close  for the first half of 2021, retaining and attracting staff has been a major problem within the sector, but not at Harvey’s Point.
“We worked closely with a management company to keep the lines of communication open with staff during the different lockdowns. We were constantly in contact making sure that they were okay and organising things like online yoga classes. It was a difficult time and many of them were under serious pressures but we were always at the end of the phone and, thankfully, it really paid dividends as ninety per cent of our staff came back when we reopened,” Mr Coffey said.
Working with the Irish Hotels’ Federation, Fáilte Ireland and LYIT, Mr Coffey also helped devise a new initiative for Transitional Year students which attracted new, young front of house staff into the hospitality sector.
“Students had nowhere to go as there were no work placements so, together with Fáilte Ireland and LYIT, we created an online module where they learned about Covid and a little bit about hospitality and service,” he explained.
As a result, Harvey’s Point took on 19 students for the summer with other hotels also recruiting students who had completed the new module.
“Eleven of those young people are still with us, working weekends, and three of them are looking at a career in hospitality. That, ultimately, is the big goal – to get people interested in the industry and create a positive feel.
“There was a certain buzz about a career in tourism when I started out. You got to travel the world, learn life skills and have a good career. That lost some of its momentum as more and more people turned to the tech sector but I believe that it’s coming round full circle again,” he said.
Harvey’s Point was also proactive when it came to paying its staff more than the minimum wage throughout the summer months.
“We paid the increase in the minimum wage across the board from the start of the year and that worked really well for us,” he admitted.
However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing and Mr Coffey has had to look further afield to ensure that all 24 chef positions were filled.
“We went down the road of visas. We have two master patisserie chefs coming in from Turkey in early January. We’ve another chef coming from Istanbul and two from Malaysia in March.
“Where possible we try to employ local people but, in reality, people from elsewhere bring with them experience, knowledge and forward thinking that will continue to give Harvey’s Point an important edge.
“We’re always looking to elevate our Sunday lunches, our cabarets and our weddings and that international experience helps with the mix. We have 24 chefs, one of who is Spanish and worked in a Michelin star restaurant.
“That can only help to improve the skill set of everyone else that he works alongside him in the kitchen. It’s about maintaining standards – the high standards that Harvey’s Point have set,” he said.
About ninety per cent of their guests come from the island of Ireland.
“That’s our bread and butter. It’s lovely to get the international market and the high-end tours but it’s our Irish business which remains our most important market,” he said.
Mr Coffey and his staff will welcome 170 residents over Christmas with as many staying over the New Year holiday period.
“We had planned a big New Year in Harvey’s Point but with restrictions they had to be shelved. Still, we’ve have 160 for dinner on New Year’s Eve and we’ll do our best to make sure that they all enjoy their stay with us.
Next year
“January is looking positive with 65 per cent occupancy. It is a bit quieter for February and March but that should pick up once things become clearer (Covid) in the New Year. Then we’re into the wedding season. We have 134 weddings next year.
“The extra rooms (101 altogether) means that we can now truly cater for weddings. This year we found that parents stayed in the hotel while their teenage children stayed in the lodge which allowed everyone their own space,” he said.
In January, the hotel has plans to expand its woodland walks.
“Noel Cunningham (TV personality and former general manager at Harvey’s Point) leads a guided walk from the hotel every Wednesday and there’s always massive interest in that.
“We’re lucky to have someone like Noel as part of the team. He always puts Donegal front and centre of everything that he does,” he said.
“Work will start on the refurbishment of thirty bedroom suites next year and we’re looking forward to 2022 being another very strong year. The Wild Atlantic Way has really stretched out the season from February to late October and that too is having a hugely positive impact on our business,” he said.

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