This past week, I travelled the length and breadth of our beautiful country not as a journalist (which would make up the majority of my previous travel experiences in Ireland), but as a mere tourist. Travelling with my two Canadian aunties (and my extremely North American accent) meant that I was treated as a new visitor to Ireland along with my tourists.

The experience, in many ways, was pure and wonderful – wandering through walled gardens of historic homes, taking the necessary jaunting cart ride through Killarney National Park, eating my favourite Murphy’s ice cream (a scoop of sea salt and a scoop of chocolate does it for me every time) as we took in the sights and sunshine in Dingle. When you’re on a press trip, your trip is curated to provide the best possible angle of a business, restaurant or hotel. Travelling on our own (and on our own dime) ensured a truly authentic experience.

That said, the authentic experience wasn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. While we had a really great week taking in the sights and were blessed with beautiful weather, we also had some bad experiences in hospitality – both in Northern Ireland and the Republic – which made us feel less than welcome and made me feel a bit sad. I mean, I was showing off my adopted home country – a country I love so very much – to people who really mean a lot to me, who were here for the first time and who I hope will now be enticed to make their visits more of a regular occurrence.

Hospitality is tricky. If you’re not experienced in it, you might think it’s an easy or convenient job to take up. Like so many careers, though, it is a calling and a passion. These past years – first with the closures associated with the pandemic, then the post-pandemic shortage of hospitality professionals (many of whom took the opportunity to upskill and change careers during the COVID lockdowns) followed by the increases in VAT and overheads like electricity and gas have left many rural hospitality businesses in a crippling situation.

While we had a really great week taking in the sights and were blessed with beautiful weather, we also had some bad experiences in hospitality

Unfortunately, when your business is on the front lines of Irish hospitality and you are under these pressures, guest experiences can suffer. It’s a vicious cycle. Making a profit is necessary, but if you can’t provide the right kind of hospitality to your guests, they won’t return or see the value in your offering.

Before working full-time with Irish Country Living, hospitality was very much my career and my passion, so it breaks my heart to see things from both sides – from the side of a small business owner trying to make a living, and from the perspective of a guest who is visiting Ireland for the first time and feel they’re not getting quality service or value for money. Let’s face it – we are among the more expensive countries to visit in Europe, so value for money spent is paramount to visitors. They will pay, but they want to walk away feeling the experience was worth it.

Several months ago, I wrote a series on how small businesses in rural hospitality are making things work for them. The three main things I took away from that series were: the importance of cost control, creating authentic experiences (while understanding the limitations of your business) and, above all, loving what you do and persevering when the going gets tough. My biggest takeaway from my week travelling incognito? Rural hospitality businesses should be recognised for the important role they play in tourism and given the right support to deliver the guest experiences they are capable of providing.

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