When Deirdre McGlone took a summer job as a receptionist at Harvey’s Point Hotel in 1989, little did she realise she would be running the show over 25 years later.
“I ended up not wanting the summer to be over – and it isn’t over yet,” laughs the lively Donegal woman whose nickname is Cyclone due to her infectious energy.
Nor did she predict that Harvey’s Point was where she would fall in love, raise a family and build a career as one of the best in the business, with accolades including Hotel Manager of the Year 2012 and the TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice award for number one hotel in Ireland in 2013 and 2014.
Harvey’s Point, on the shores of Lough Eske, is a Donegal success story – albeit one that began in Zurich in the early ’80s.
Deirdre’s brother-in-law, Jody Gysling, always wanted a lakeside home, but with prices in his native Switzerland too prohibitive, he bought an old cottage on Lough Eske with 20 acres of land for £27,600 – though “marsh” is probably a more appropriate description.
Undeterred, he bought a truck and started reclaiming the land, making the 22-mile round trip to the quarry in Laghey up to six or seven times a day. After four years, Jody had reclaimed enough land to build a holiday home, but when friends from Switzerland raved about the location, he saw the opportunity to convert it into a hotel.
“He just had this vision because the location was magical,” explains Deirdre. “There’s the Blue Stack Mountains behind and the lake in front – it’s kind of like a mini Switzerland.”
Deirdre, who was raised in Ballintra, had just completed her European studies degree when Jody approached her to work as a receptionist for the summer of 1989. Her arrival coincided with that of Jody’s younger brother Marc, who started off scrubbing pots in the kitchen.
“He didn’t have much English,” she says, “so I hitched up a deal with him: ‘I’ll teach you English if you buy me pints of Guinness.’”
The deal obviously worked in both their favour – Deirdre’s mother always told her that she would have to marry a chef as she couldn’t cook. They tied the knot on Valentine’s Day in 1996.
From the beginning, Harvey’s Point faced many challenges.
“There was no passing trade and no population,” explains Deirdre, “but we had to attract people to come down the narrow road, where there was grass in the middle.”
Gourmet food and genuine hospitality would prove the lynchpins of Harvey’s Point’s growth – but so did risk-taking. Having built a ballroom but with no real idea how to fill it, one of the chefs suggested running an all-you-can-eat Sunday buffet. Today, up to 600 people can travel especially for lunch at the height of the summer season.
Similarly, in 2000, they ran their first summer cabaret, with performers over the years including Mary Byrne, Mike Denver, Crystal Swing and Simon Casey. The show now runs from June to the end of October and attracts an average of 200 people every Wednesday, many of whom will plan a midweek break around it.
“It’s a real model that works, and at the time not a lot of people would have thought it would, even ourselves,” admits Deirdre.
Perhaps the biggest risk was in 2005 when Deirdre and Marc – who had purchased the hotel from Jody – invested €5 million in adding over 50 new luxury rooms, based on the Four Seasons’ suites benchmark.
“That was a big undertaking,” acknowledges Deirdre, “because we were ticking along nicely and we could have stayed as we were comfortably – but we wouldn’t have gone further.”
It was a hectic time, not least because Deirdre and Marc had their first child Karl in 2002, followed by James and Kristina, having almost given up hope on having a family.
“Seven years had passed (since getting married) and we just thought, ‘maybe it’s not meant to be’ because Mark was flat out in the kitchen and I was flat out, so we just thought nature is not going to bring us some and that’s unfortunate, but we’ll just have to live with it,” says Deirdre. “And then we had three in a row. We were amazed that could happen.”
A hidden gem
While Harvey’s Point had built a reputation in Donegal and in Northern Ireland at that stage, it was still very much a hidden gem. With pressure to fill the extra rooms, Marc stepped back from the kitchen to stay at home with the children and also work on developing the IT side of the business, while Deirdre took on sales and marketing. It’s a role she was made for. As well as promoting Harvey’s Point, she also beats the drum for Donegal, which she feels is finally being recognised by both domestic and overseas travellers.
Ask for tips on what to do in the region and she responds in the manner of a Mastermind contestant, name-checking the Slieve League cliffs, Glenveagh National Park, a visit to the iconic Magee Tweed, a hike up Mount Errigal, surfing at Rossnowlagh Beach or just enjoying a bowl of seafood chowder at Nancy’s in Ardara.
She believes that the Wild Atlantic Way is a huge opportunity for rural Ireland and not just for luxury hotels like Harvey’s Point.
“It’s about the bed and breakfasts, it’s about the fishing boats, it’s about the artisan suppliers, it’s about creating experiences,” she stresses.
“(Tourists) are looking to meet real Irish people. They’re not looking for big brand names. They might do a castle one night, they’ll do a hotel like Harvey’s Point and they’ll definitely do a B&B because they want to know how the soda bread is made and they want to feel part of the family for a while. It’s not all five-star castles, even for the people who have that budget.”
Creating a homely feel is central to the Harvey’s Point’s philosophy, even though the suites –with enough room to swing a baby elephant – may feel bigger than your own humble abode. While the hotel might lack the luxury spa, leisure centre or golf course of other resorts, the focus is their food and their people, at peak season employing 100 to 120 staff.
Attention to detail is also key for Deirdre – she laughs that she spends a lot of time inspecting the bathrooms – and personally replies to TripAdvisor reviews.
“A few years ago I decided it was my job that I was going to reply to everyone, whether they were good, bad or indifferent,” she says. “And if I get it wrong, I put my hands up.
“My job and my enjoyment is to turn that (negative) into a positive. I don’t mind at all if we get a bad TripAdvisor review because it proves we’re human and it proves we’re not perfect and it proves that we can always do better.”
And with three would-be future hoteliers at home, the future of Harvey’s Point looks secure.
“Karl wants to be the chef, James wants to be the entertainer and Kristina is definitely after my job,” laughs Deirdre. “She’s more or less told me she can do better than me.”
Midweek activity breaks at Harvey’s Point, including cooking demonstrations, wine appreciation, self-guided walks and evening entertainment with two nights accommodation and complimentary dinner on one evening, start from €79 pps per night every Wednesday and Thursday until March.
Harvey’s Point, Lough Eske, Donegal town, Co Donegal.