FAMOUS FACES Niall Rochford (right), General Manager of Ashford Castle pictured with American film and TV star Chris O’Donnell, Minister Michael Ring and Paula Carroll, Director of Sales and Marketing at Ashford Castle. Minister Ring presented Chris O’Donnell with a certificate of Irish heritage during his visit.
THURSDAY, July 2 is the most important date in Niall Rochford’s diary right now.
That is D-Day for the re-opening of the five-star Ashford Castle for business, a little over three months after Covid-19 public health restrictions meant its world-famous doors had to close.
The Lodge at Ashford Castle, its neighbouring sister hotel, will re-open two weeks later.
“Our focus right now is on re-opening, and making sure our staff and guests are safe,” says Rochford, who is the General Manager of the renowned Cong hotel.
“We cannot wait to re-open.”
That will be music to the ears of the 420 members of staff who are employed between the castle and The Lodge, all of whom have been kept on the books during the enforced closure.
“Nobody’s been laid off and our intention is to keep it that way,” explained Rochford, who sums up 2019 as ‘the best year the castle ever experienced’.
However, he also explains that ‘80 per cent of the business is international and we have around 65 weddings a year in The Lodge’ — two areas that will be impacted hugely by the pandemic. “We’ll be starting back from a very low base,” he admitted.
But after 18 years working at the 800-year old castle, the Limerick-born GM knows that there are two main ingredients behind the hotel’s success: its ‘brilliant staff, they are what make the hotel’ and its ‘loyal guests’.
Those two groups of people will also drive the recovery in the months ahead.
And as for his approach to implementing the Covid-19 protocols and meeting public health guidelines, Niall Rochford is determined to keep it simple.
“We’re owned by the Tollman family, who are extremely supportive. We are part of the Red Carnation group, which has 17 hotels around the globe. The group has a ‘Director of Hygiene’ who is drawing up policies and procedures for all the hotels,” he explained.
“I sometimes think we need a ’Director of Simplicity’. It’s not complicated and, for us in the castle and in ‘The Lodge’, it will come down to three basic principles: basic cleanliness and sanitation; social distancing, and hand-washing.
“What we’ll be doing is following the guidelines and making sure that it doesn’t interfere with the hospitality.
“I did a video presentation for the staff last week and told them, ‘We’re in the hospitality industry, not the hospital industry’. This is just about common sense, employing common sense. We don’t want it to feel too clinical.”
Part of Ashford Castle’s enduring charm is its commitment to history and local traditions, including the way the staff welcome their guests and make them feel at home.
As with most ways of life, Covid-19 restrictions are going to force Niall Rochford and his staff to think outside the box as they deal with the challenges of delivering five-star hospitality in this new world.
“The biggest challenge is probably getting used to wearing masks, we’re actually looking at a combination of masks and visors,” he said.
“No handshake is going to be a big change for us too. A handshake has always been the way we welcome people to the castle. That inter-action and engagement is unique to the west of Ireland. We love engaging with and speaking to people.
“And we’re going to make sure that our guests feel safe and at home.”
A Covid ‘Task Force’ has been established for both the castle and The Lodge, around 60 percent of the rooms will be open in both hotels, and there is a ‘residents only’ policy in both until the end of August.
“Part of the reason for that is we want to make sure that our protocols and procedures are all working smoothly, and that both the guests and staff are comfortable,” explained Rochford.
“We’re ready, willing and able to open again!”