The family of the man who invested millions in restoring Ballyfin Demense remains committed to the award-winning Laois hotel following his death in the United States, according to a director of the company that runs the business.
It was the vison of American businessman Fred Krehbiel and his wife Kay from Kerry to take the country house and estate and convert it into a majestic hotel on the slopes of the Slieve Blooms.
After a substantial investment in its renovation, Fred's labour of of love became a reality when in 2011, it opened as a high end country house hotel. Since then it has achieved global recognition with the likes of Kanye West, JK Rowling and George Clooney all enjoying its luxury.
However, Fred passed away unexpectedly in June 2021, which has raised questions over whether the family will stay involved. He is survived by his sons Liam and Jay and wife Kay. The Chicago Tribune reported on his death at the time.
It said Mr Krehbiel told the Tribune in 2011 that while he derived great satisfaction from preserving a building, the prolonged nature of the renovations — it took close to nine years — conflicted with his personality.
“I’m just impatient, and it just took so long. You can’t rush craftspeople. I mean, if they’re really going to do a great job with it, when they’re restoring plaster, the ceilings, the fireplaces or floors, you can’t rush them. In a factory, you can put on a second shift or third shift and up the production,” he said.
His son Liam was quoted in the same article about what the house has meant to his late father.
“Ballyfin brought together dad’s interest in Irish architecture and art with his passion for travel and hospitality,” Liam Krehbiel said.
Meath man Jim Reynolds has been at the family's side right through the Ballyfin journey. He was managing director of the company which runs the hotel and is now a director.
He paid tribute to Mr Kriebhel who set up a factory in Ireland in the 1970s when the family ran electronics firm Molex Icorporated.
"It was a labour of love. He always knew it could work. He had faith in it from the beginning. He put a huge amount of effort in and he knew, regardless of what he spent that it would be an asset for his family, as it transpired," he said.
"He died very suddenly on the eve of his 80th birthday and he was a youthful 80. He was full plans hoping to travel to Ballyfin three weeks later," he said.
Mr Reynolds gave an update on what now. He said the deceased's sons and their mother remain committed to Laois.
"Between the three them they are determined to continue. It is a viable business. There won't be any change," he said.
He said the hotel is getting back to normal and while the American business is yet to return, the hotel has enjoyed a surprisingly good year built on an influx of local guests.
"The big surprise is all the Irish people coming. A great many did not seem to be aware of Ballyfin. Some thought it was a place for weddings some had never heard of it. The general reaction is very favourable and very encouraging," he said.
Mr Reynolds says many of the guests who came would normally have gone to exclusive European destinations for the summer or further afield but stayed in Ireland this year due to the pandemic.
"They have had their eyes opened that you don't have to go to Monte Carlo," he said.
He said the the Irish trade has meant that since reopening in June the hotel has done considerably better than expected with last minute bookings spiking especially July.
He described the business expectation for 2021 as a 'pleasant relief' and he expects a profit to be made.
He said there has been a turnover in staff including the appointment of a new manager Peter White. He is adamant that the hotel remains committed to hiring locally as has been the ethos from the start.
"Too many hotels depend on students from all over the place. Visitors want to here local accents and feel part of a locality and are not in some local pop-up," he said.
As for 2022, he sees the return of American visitors in bookings. He says people have scheduled visits and some Americans have booked weddings.
The new manager is an Australian and was appointed in May 2017. He has travelled the world in the hotel business.
"This is the pinnacle and highlight of my 30-year career, and to achieve that in my favourite hotel makes me very excited for the future,” said Mr White.
He spoke with the Business Post about the family's commitment and expectations for the business.
"Fred's passing was a big shock, but the family, and in particular his sons, Jay and Liam, are very committed to Ballyfin. They are already talking about five-year plans for its development," he said.
He said that before the COVID-19 pandemic, 70% of Ballyfin's visitors reportedly came from overseas and 30% reportedly came from Ireland, but 90% guests during the pandemic were Irish.
He added that autumn is busy with October set to be Ballyfin's busiest month in 2021. He added that bookings are above average for next year with the hotel only closing for 10 days in January.
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