"Make sure you are prepared to be in it for the long haul.” That is the advice from brother and sister Michael and Gillian Beare, who gave up promising careers in Finance and Pharmacy to return home to “re-imagine” their parents’ tourism business.
Tourism is one of Fermanagh’s main industries with over 200 registered accommodation establishments and a wide variety of facilities and attractions.
“You need to incorporate things with a slight edge into your business because we are all competing for the same thing,” says Gillian, who is keen to garner international attention. Michael points out: “Tourism Ireland want to support Fermanagh, but they are asking us: ‘What story can we feature in the international press? What do you have?’ Unless you give them something of note, they won’t do any features on Fermanagh.” Formerly ‘Fermanagh Lakeland Lodges’, the business was created by Robert and Rosaleen Beare after Robert bought the land on Muckross peninsula in 1981. Since taking over the reins at the beginning of 2013, Michael and Gillian have re-branded the business as ‘Finn Lough’ and are in the process of “putting our own stamp on it”.
They have appointed Portuguese architects Rebelo de Andrade to oversee ambitious plans for a spa and “iconic” accommodation.
It was Rebelo de Andrade’s award-winning Snake Houses in Pedras Salgadas Park, Portugal that caught the Beares’ attention. “We wanted something like that here,” Michael explains. “I tentatively emailed them and they were really keen. They had never heard of Fermanagh. They had been to Dublin and the south west of Ireland and when they came here they said: ‘It’s beautiful and way nicer, more traditional and less commercial’. Their opinion reinforced what we already believe about this place.” He continues: “We are lucky to have found these architects because they think of every last detail. They are all about the multi-sensory experience. There is the extra cost, but, if you want to get that international attention, those tourism awards, you have to put time and thought into it.” A new spa is currently under construction. “From the massage and relaxation area you will follow the forest trails to the hot tub, the seaweed baths and the lakeside sauna. The plunge pool is the lake, but that’s optional!” Michael explains.
“We want to mirror our surroundings. You’re here to enjoy nature whilst also enjoying the creature comforts that you expect while you’re on holiday, so the buildings will be humble on the outside but contemporary on the inside,” Gillian adds.
In addition, they hope to get planning permission for a tower house; a “modern and iconic” three-storey accommodation. The architects are also keen to create Maldives-style water houses on the lake “but building control could need some convincing on that,” Gillian points out.
Access to finance was “more difficult that I expected,” Michael states. However, they have managed to secure a bank loan which allowed them to invest in the construction of a new activity centre and the refurbishment of an existing building into a cafe and conference rooms. The five existing lodges on the site were refurbished, bringing them up-to-date with contemporary European interior design trends and seeing them gain a five star grading from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. Other costs in 2013-2014 included: hiring architects Rebelo de Andrade; hiring a new chef and six other staff; beginning construction of the new spa; creating a new mountain bike trail; hosting the Curadmir Ulster Cycle 2014 to celebrate the Giro Start in Ireland and purchasing Hobie Kayaks and paintball air soft to update the activity offering at the resort.
The pair believe that because “Fermanagh is such a small county, the more you can do together, the more you can all benefit”.To this end, they are seeking to develop ‘clusters’ with other local tourism providers, allowing visitors to use the waterway to experience other activities around the county and on a cross-border basis.
“We could save effort by combining,” believes Michael. Finn Lough has already partnered with the Bundoran Surf Company in a relationship that is proving to be “mutually beneficial.” Gillian and Michael are keen to expand on this idea and have approached the Lough Erne Resort and Belleek Pottery.
Following his degree in Engineering from The University of Oxford, Michael worked in Finance in London with Deloitte and HSBC, then as an independent strategy consultant. He initially came home for three months to update the website. That was when he realised it was time to take over from his parents.
“Our parents had run the business for 25 years and the industry had moved on. In the last 10 years there was such a leap in the internet that they just couldn’t keep up with it,” he says.
Gillian obtained a degree in Pharmacy from Manchester University and then worked as a pharmacist in Omagh for 18 months, before living and working in Australia and South America for a year.
“We both didn’t realise when we were going into this how much of our lives would be sucked into it but we are both so heavily invested that we are happy to do it. We need to now find a manager with the same ambition and focus as us to bring the project to a place that we can all be proud of and happy with,” she explains. However, “it’s tricky” because “the brain drain in Fermanagh means there’s a much smaller pool of people for us to choose from.” Working as a brother and sister “has been incident free so far,” according to Michael. Gillian adds: “We both have our strengths and weaknesses which we identified early on. We almost fill in each others’ gaps. It’s quite a good working relationship.” Initially it was “hard” for Robert and Rosaleen to watch their children take a bank loan and begin knocking down and refurbishing properties that they had created 25 years ago.
“A new generation and new ways of doing things means there is always going to be a transition,” says Gillian, adding: “Once they saw that we were doing well, they were really happy and supportive and glad that something they’ve done for so many years can continue to grow and evolve.” Michael adds: “They were worried for us, but you have to take a financial risk these days.” Asked what advice he would give to other locals considering a move back to Fermanagh, Michael concludes: “Make sure you are prepared to be in it for the long haul. From our experience, things take a lot longer than planned, but the quality of life is great and people in Fermanagh are genuinely supportive and encouraging to anyone giving it a go.”