Go Explore Hostel & Sailor’s Bar / Restaurant is an award-winning business and one of Ireland’s most unique hostels and bars on beautiful Clare Island near Westport, Co Mayo.
A finalist in the recent Small Firms Association (SFA) National Small Business Awards 2014, we spoke with owner Carl O’Grady about setting up and running a tourism business in the West of Ireland.
1. Tell us about your business
“Go Explore Hostel & Sailor’s Bar / Restaurant” is an award winning business with a 42 bed hostel, full bar and restaurant specialising in seafood. We target the activity market through our joint venture with Clare Island Ferry Co and Adventure West called Clare Island Adventures, where we sell bundle offers to the corporate market, Hens & Stags, Schools & Universities and Sports Teams training camps.
We also have packages for the education market providing base camp facilities to Universities who come to the island to continue or indeed just study the work of the Royal Irish Academy in the Clare Island Survey.
We are also looking to build on the Islands list of events which now include the Clare Island 10K charity run, the Festival of the Pirate Queen which includes the Women’s Wellness weekend and Adventure Race, the Snas ar do Bhlas Festival (Irish Festival), Sailing Race, Walking Festival, adventure based Singles Weekend, the Regatta, the Lobster Festival, Feile Cheoil, Robert Llyod Praeger Festival, Film Festival and more. Growth forecasts are very positive for the sector with such initiatives as the Wild Atlantic Way.
2. What were you doing (careerwise) when you decided to create your own business?
I was a Quantity Surveyor for Davis Langdon (AECOM) working in Dublin.
3. When did you start your business and what inspired you to do this?
Clare Island was my inspiration for my new venture. One of the country’s truly most beautiful and unique hidden gems, it has so much to offer from a tourism perspective. From its stunning beauty of dramatic mega cliffs to the north to rolling hills to the south. It has a thriving community working together to build a future for the island.
With all of this in mind I believed that I could build a business on the island that could sell the very best of what the island had to offer and also make a sustainable living.
I left my job in Dublin in October 2011 and began construction work in January 2012 to develop it into the now Go Explore Hostel & Sailor’s Bar / Restaurant. We opened for business in June 2012.
4. What were your start-up costs? How did you get the money, and what did you use it for?
Start up costs was circa €500,000. I applied for and was granted Leader Funding of €150,000. I applied for and was granted an AIB loan under their new business start up facility. We invested a certain amount ourselves.
5. What was the biggest obstacle?
The initial business plan was a very stressful process as I was working in Dublin while doing it. Sentiment at the time (2009 / 2010) said that no bank would give me the money to do this project.
With this in mind my business plan needed to be bullet proof. I worked countless hours on a marketing strategy to identify realistic projected revenues which indicated a sustainable level of expenditure for the project.
From here it was a very long and challenging process dealing with banks, LEADER, procurement, construction, logistics, planning and marketing to bring the project to life. With that said I believe my biggest obstacle is still in front of me. Building a business is not about brick and mortar. It’s about profitability which is driven through systems built on experience. It’s about customer satisfaction, sales and marketing. I am in the middle of this process.
6. Who supported you?
My family supported me every step of the way, good times and bad. Enterprise Ireland supported me in developing the initial Marketing Strategy. The Leader program through Comhar na nOileán Teo supported me with funding. AIB Westport supported me with funding.
7. How long did it take you to get everything your business off the ground?
I developed the concept in 2009. I started the business plan in October 2010 and applied for funding in February 2011. I received funding and planning approval in November 2011. I started construction in January 2012 and opened for business June 2012.
8. What do you love most about being your own boss? What are the drawbacks?
I love building things from inception to completion. I love the challenge of making things work. I look forward to making this project work and then moving onto the next one.
It gets me up early every morning and sends me to bed late at night. One of the main drawbacks is that it can be a lonely process when you are doing it alone.
9. Where do you work from and do you have employees?
In the off-season I work from my office at my home in Doughmakeon with my wife who is a school teacher in Kiellen National School. During the busy season I work on Clare Island at Go Explore Hostel & Sailor’s Bar / Restaurant.
During the busy season we employee anything from 8 to 12 people. We have 2 employees year round.
10. Do you have entrepreneurial role models?
- Richard Branson (Virgin)
- Bobby Kerr (Insomnia)
11. How did you learn and acquire the skills you use to make your business successful? How do you continue to grow and learn?
From a young age I worked for my parents in the old Bay View Hotel and with the Clare Island Ferry Company. I learned how to work with people to get the best out of any given situation and I learned many parts of the tourism trade.
I traveled the world and learned new ways of looking at life. I worked for Davislangdon (AECOM) QS Firm in Dublin where I learned the QS trade and most importantly I learned how to manage money.
I received a diploma in Hotel & Catering Management from GMIT. I received a First Class Honors Degree in Quantity Surveying from LIT. I continue to grow and learn by attaching myself to other people that are driven to succeed. I attend as many courses in marketing, social media etc as possible.
12. If you had it to do over again, what, if anything, would you do differently?
I never look back. Every single experience both good and bad has made me into the person that I now am.
13. What is your best selling item/service?
At the moment our best selling item / service is food and beverage.
14. Are you a LookWester (previously living outside the Western Region) and if so why did you decide to move home or relocate to the West?
I lived in Dublin and moved home to Mayo in 2011. I moved home to be close to my family & roots and for a better life experience.
15. What advice would you give to anybody Looking West?