HOME TRUTHS Darren Madden, pictured with his wife Maria Ruddy in The Clew Bay Hotel, feels Westport’s hospitality sector needs a cocktails of different clients to survive all year round. Pic: Conor McKeown
Hotelier highlights ‘serious problem’ of dereliction and Airbnb on rental market, while rejoicing in boom summer
AS Westport winds down from one of the busiest summers it has experienced, thanks to a constant influx of staycationers, The Mayo News sat down with hotelier Darren Madden for a wide-ranging chat about the season.
As Co Mayo’s chairman of the Irish Hotel’s Federation, Madden is well attuned to the local and national trends in the sector.
Overall, he argues that whilst the second summer of pandemic restrictions provided a most welcome boom for Westport’s hospitality sector, it also exposed significant weaknesses in the tourism town’s ability to cope.
In particular, the perennial problem of accommodation for the staff servicing this industry reared its head again. Madden, and his wife, Maria Ruddy, had to allocate some of their rooms at the Clew Bay Hotel for staff due to the shortage of places to stay locally.
He is now calling on the county council to introduce a dereliction tax. As it happens, his call was his final comment to The Mayo News during our wide-ranging interview. He was rushing off to serve customers eating lunch in the al fresco space they have developed at the entrance to the Leisure Park car park. But, in so many ways, the dereliction situation is a primary and fundamental issue that must be resolved.
“STAFFING has been a huge issue. It is double the problem in Westport as we cannot find accommodation for them,” Madden said. “Between the dereliction of properties being left empty in the town and the impact of Airbnbs leading to a lack of longterm lets, it is a serious problem.”
“I am calling on the county council and the Government to introduce a dereliction tax for those owners of such properties to force them to either rent them out or sell them,” he said.
Whilst Madden didn’t quite go as far as economist David McWilliams, who dubbed dereliction ‘legalised vandalism’ in one of his Irish Times columns on the subject, his raising of this reality is an issue that surely needs to be addressed.
But back to the good news.
IRONICALLY, Westport’s brilliant year was partly due to the fact that staycationers not only spend more than international guests. But the accommodation provider also does not have to do a deal with a ‘middle man’ or contractor – a tour company in most cases.
But was that enough to offset the economic challenges inflicted by the repeated lockdowns of the pandemic?
“Basically, we were dealing with Irish holiday-makers, and they spend more. Whilst staycationers were more tentative last year, they were naturally more confident this summer as they had adapted their habits and they knew what to expect,,” Madden explained.
“Since the whole outdoor dining experience was more established too and businesses were embracing it with county council support, it definitely paid dividends with customers enjoying more options. Of course, it helped that the weather was great.”
Of course, one swallow does not make a summer, and overheads must be paid across the entire year.
“Westport has always been a popular destination for staycationers but over recent years – before the pandemic – we’ve had more international visitors stretched over the 12-month period. Basically, Americans come from Paddy’s Day until the end of October. We need them back too,” he continued.
In other words, Westport’s hospitality sector needs a cocktail of clients.
“We would love if those numbers of staycationers returned next summer but that won’t happen. That’s because many people will want to go abroad again and we also have to make room for our contractors: our tour companies, whose groups create an important part of our basic revenue. They are a key part of our bread and butter,” Madden said.
That client mix of homegrown family holidays, weekend breaks and longer stays as well as the tour buses is ‘key to a successful business model’.
You can never put all your eggs in one basket, Madden believes.
“The reality is that the international market will not come back to 2019 levels until 2024 or 2025. This is the expert analysis of Fáilte Ireland.
“The reasons are complex: the access issue, availability of flights, people’s changed behaviour and the existence of new markets. At the moment, for example, we’ve lost around seven direct flights from Canada and the US. That has a big impact.”
Public realm and pedestrianisation
WHAT then about such issues as the pedestrianisatoin and enhanced use of the outdoor realm? The Mayo News put the question to the affable hotelier.
“The whole debate about pedestrianisation and the upgrading of the outdoor realm as places for socialising in Westport is important, but there are downsides and problems that must be addressed too,” he responded, while acknowledging how proactive Mayo County Council has been in supporting businesses to optimise the use of their outdoor spaces.
The downside turns out to be a familiar sight when he is on breakfast duty in the hotel.
“I witness the negatives when I’m coming into work at 7am and see all the leftovers and litter on the Octagon, for example. That is made worse by the lack of public toilets and bins,” he said.
Alarmingly, he has had residents telling him about their discomfort whilst walking across crowded areas such as the Octagon late at night over the summer.
Certainly not an image Westport would wish to portray.
Madden is more circumspect about the pedestrianisation debate.
“We need to filter traffic away from the town … I’m prepared to wait until the N5 is finished and see what happens.
“Why hasn’t the county council developed park ’n’ ride facilities for people working in the town who are leaving their cars in the carparks all day? There is definitely space at The Quay for a park ’n’ ride facility for people coming from that side of the town,” he suggested, adding: “There should be an incentive offered for free parking for workers in such spaces and a disincentive for them to park in the town centre.”
Clearly, now is the time for Westport’s hospitality sector to organise a root-and-branch analysis of how the town is performing.
With Waterford City just crowned The Best Place to Live in Ireland in The Irish Times competition, it may be timely for the west Mayo heritage town, which was awarded this prize in 2012, to go back to the drawing board.
Time to take stock?
IT is almost a decade since Westport was awarded the Irish Times competition accolade of Best Place to Live in Ireland (2012). It is 13 years since it won the overall award in the Tidy Towns competition (2008). It is almost a decade too since it was awarded €5.3 million as a Smarter Travel hub (2012).
Perhaps it is time now for Westport to reflect and go back to the drawing board and examine how the town has fared in the interim since it was awarded all these accolades.
Is the level of volunteerism still as vibrant?
Did the dissolution of the very proactive Westport Town Council have an impact on the levels of progressive policies?
Have all the new residents of the town been embraced and, indeed, invited to participate equally in a vision for its future?
Will the completion of the northern bypass of the N5 be the silver bullet for chronic traffic congestion?
There is no doubt that Westport is a wonderful place in which to live. The melding of its planned heritage and architecture with its colourful continental vibe this summer showed it at its best. (Well, other than the aforementioned traffic congestion.)
It is a wonderful town in which to bring up children, with its clubs and parks, greenways and green realms. The proximity to some of the best beaches and coastal walks in the country is an added bonus.
However, it is never any harm to take stock, to undertake an honest and rigorous analysis of how to go forward and improve on the many dividends this tourism honey-pot provides not only visitors and the county as a whole, but the locals. After all they are the backbone of its economy.