Australian-owned hotels in foreign countries welcome back guests

After six years' development, Australians Mick and Robin Boyle opened their four-star Killeavy Castle Hotel and Spa in Northern Ireland at Easter, 2019. By the end of March 2020, Northern Ireland, like a lot of the world, was locked down, beginning an on-again, off-again shutdown of the business, amounting to nine months of its first two years of operation. Neither of the Sydney-based couple have physically seen their 45-room, Grade A-listed property since November 2019.

And yet thanks to a strong on-the-ground team and virtual meeting technology, the County Armagh hotel has just won the All Ireland Castle Hotel of the Year at the Irish Hotel Awards for the second year running.

That's no mean feat in a land awash with castles and even more extraordinary considering the world's hotel industry has been one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic.

"We've been very busy any time we've been open," says Boyle, who with his wife runs civil engineering firm Abergeldie Complex Infrastructure as well as the philanthropic Jaramas Foundation.

"It usually takes a new hotel two to three years to find its feet, but people are looking to escape the city and where we are out in the countryside, with lots of fresh air and with a spacious, spread-out hotel with big rooms, it's ideal." So idea, the hotel which is at the base of Slieve Gullion in the Ring of Gullion Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is running at more than 85 per cent occupancy.

But Boyle and Craig aren't alone. A number of entrepreneurial Australians who own boutique hotels abroad are back to welcoming guests.

Rob Potter-Sanders, who opened his luxury converted farmhouse hotel, Masseria Trapana in Puglia, Italy in 2015 and closed it for all of 2020 says the property is seeing "our biggest August in seven years" with 100 per cent occupancy, only patronage has gone from being mostly English and Australian to pan-European and American.

And he remains cautious. "We will have a high occupancy for the rest of August and are holding many bookings for September, however if we have learned one thing during this period, it can change overnight."

The story is different for Dubai-based Australian, Paul Harding who broke ground in late 2018 in Ahangama, Sri Lanka and opened his architecturally-designed Harding Hotel in January this year.

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"The beginning of 2021 was wonderful," says Harding. "Sri Lanka had done a great job in containing the spread of COVID. We were at 100 per cent occupancy the very first weekend."

However a whole country lockdown in May saw the property close indefinitely. "We will not reopen until we know for sure we won't have to close again," says Harding, who adds he's hoping to welcome guests from November on.

"I am very hopeful 2022 will be one of the best years ever," he says. "People are keen to travel and Sri Lanka pre-COVID was just taking off in a very big way."

Victorian Paul Salmon helms the famed Rockhouse Hotel in Negril, Jamaica with fellow-Australian business partner Fab Ippoliti. They opened a sister property, the Skylark Negril Beach Resort in 2018, and run the Rockhouse Foundation, a charity supporting local communities.

"In our over-25-year history at Rockhouse we have been affected by three hurricanes, the Jamaican financial crisis, 9/11, the global financial crisis, mosquito-borne diseases like zika, dengue and CHIKV, but we have never been confronted with a challenge like COVID-19, and were definitely overwhelmed by it," says Salmon.

Now, a strategy of local-market focus and heavily discounted rates sees the business running at 90 per cent occupancy. However, he says global uncertainty has resulted in few long-lead bookings.

"It creates a lot of anxiety because you can't operate with any certainty and it leaves us quite vulnerable if things turn quickly, says Salmon. "But we stay optimistic and are grateful we have been able to rebuild the business and all our team are healthy and now as the vaccine is starting to become available, they are getting vaccinated."

Australia's Baillie Lodges took over Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge on Canada's Vancouver Island in 2020, with owners Hayley and James Baillie taking the opportunity to refurbish the lodge during lockdown conditions.

"We're currently operating at a limited capacity of around 50 per cent of our 25 guest tents," says Hayley Baillie. "We've made that decision to best cater to Canada's domestic market which has been the only market permitted to travel to the lodge so far this season. But that's all changing now, as Canada's borders reopened on August 9 this year to vaccinated, eligible travellers from the US.

"We've got US guests in-house at the moment, which is indicative of the market's enthusiasm to start travelling as quickly as possible, and this development is a real boon for the property. "

Meanwhile, all going well, Mick Boyle will soon step foot on Killeavy Estate again. He's been given permission to travel to Northern Ireland from Australia, with outbound flights booked for September 1.

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