Ireland hotels see green in threes

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ROSSNOWLAGH, Ireland -- A trio of historical, family-owned and -operated Irish properties have banded together to form the Emerald Triangle, a small vacation group that offers commissionable, customized holidays combining stays at all three hotels with add-on touring experiences.

The founding members of the Emerald Triangle, which debuted last month, are the 263-year-old, 138-acre Glenlo Abbey near Galway; the seaside Sandhouse Hotel at Rossnowlagh on Donegal Bay in the northwest; and Rathsallagh House, which is set on 530 acres of parkland in scenic County Wicklow, located south of Dublin.

The three hotels are owned by the Bourke, Britton and O'Flynn families, respectively.

According to Brian Britton, owner and manager of the 60-room Sandhouse Hotel (see room key, below), the genesis of the Emerald Triangle idea was threefold.

First, the three hotels -- all heavily dependent on U.S. business -- found that they were cross-selling each other independently and that pooling resources might be a good idea.

Second, they discovered that most U.S. vacationers were concentrating on the very south of Ireland, flying into Shannon Airport and departing from Dublin after visits to the Ring of Kerry and to Cork.

"Comparatively few [visit] Ireland's west and the northwest," Britton said, meaning that the hotels were leaving most of the incoming U.S. market untapped.

Third, Britton and his colleagues identified a serious market gap among group travel segments such as family reunion planners.

"People were telling us they wanted to bring a group together to Ireland, but no suppliers would use their imaginations and provide them with the facilities, services and add-on experiences they needed," he said.

To meet those needs, Emerald Triangle properties will arrange, for example, children's boating and storytelling excursions, men's golf outings or fashion shows for women featuring Irish knitwear and woolens, said Britton.

"We're here when agents need a customized service," he said. "The essence of Emerald Triangle is that we can create customized product that combines the hospitality of our three families with the comforts and dining experiences of the individual properties.

"Therefore, an Emerald Triangle vacation becomes a very personal experience for people touring Ireland, as opposed to taking part in just a standard tour package," Britton added.

For instance, any type of personal spin can be put on a three-property tour of Ireland.

"It could be the Emerald Golf Triangle, the Emerald Romantic Triangle or Emerald Family Triangle -- and it's these concepts that we find the most exciting," said Britton.

The concept is appealing to several U.S. tour operators to Ireland, as well. According to Britton, the Emerald Triangle has been approached by a number of companies interested in marketing the group's customized stays. No further details were available at press time.

Online, in line with agents

The group plans to begin U.S. marketing efforts with a Nov. 11 trade event in Los Angeles for travel agents and operators.

The Emerald Triangle also launched a "brochureware" Web site at www.emerald3.com, with detailed information on and links to each property.

The site should offer online booking for travel agents -- with commission-paying functionality -- by year's end, once it is linked to the Ireland-based Resmac Online Reservations system.

Until then, room reservations and add-on tour planning must be booked through one of the three individual properties.

The group said it will not charge extra fees for planning consumer vacation itineraries but will not "attempt to cut out the role of the travel agent."

In fact, the Emerald Triangle properties have standardized commissions at a base of 10%.

According to Britton, travel agents account for 50% of bookings at the Sandhouse Hotel.

U.S. clients account for 42% of guests at Sandhouse, down from the previous 50%, now that bookings from Ireland, the U.K. and continental Europe are soaring.

But reservations from the U.S. have been on the mend, said Britton, following brisk business from August through October.

"And the feedback from the agents and operators we work with in the U.S. is quite optimistic for 2004," he said. "They're predicting that the U.S. should go back to 2000 levels, which would be positive, barring any more calamities."

That's an improvement from the spring, when the Emerald Triangle concept was proposed.

"That season was an absolute disaster, as a result of the Iraq war and SARS; it was the worst spring and early summer Ireland's ever had for U.S. visitors," said Britton.

For more information on the Emerald Triangle and links to the individual member-hotel properties, visit www.emerald3.com.

Room key: SANDHOUSE HOTEL
Address: Rossnowlagh, Donegal Bay, Ireland
Phone: (011) 353-71 985-1777
Fax: (011) 353-71 985-2100
E-mail:[email protected]
Web:www.sandhouse-hotel.ie
Owner/Manager: Brian Britton
Rates: $87.50, low season, $99, high season; plus oceanview supplements ($29, standard; $58, superior; $70, deluxe). Or, $800 per week. All rates include breakfast.
Commission: 10%
Rooms: 60
Facilities: Seashell restaurant, pub, Marine Spa, meetings rooms, rooftop garden, beach.
Review: This venerable grande dame of a seaside resort recently got a $4 million face-lift, adding a spa, meetings rooms and a new, nonsmoking third floor of deluxe rooms with four-poster beds and ocean views. All ensuite guest rooms feature antique furnishings. Try to book a room on the third floor, as at least one older room on the first floor, with parking lot view, seemed a bit shabby compared with newer quarters. The Marine Spa offers body and facial treatments plus a whirlpool and steambath. The hotel's Atlantic Conservatory is recommended as a cozy hideaway for reading or afternoon tea.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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