A lough side venue that ‘ticks a lot of boxes’ for brides the world over.
Located in the Irish Lake District, overlooking Lough Erne and the golf resort designed by Nick Faldo, Rossahilly House has made a name for itself as being friendly, focussed and accommodating. From open air ceremonies, cosy barn receptions and grand marquees on the lawn, Rory Houston and his family have created their business from careful research and following trends. Houston chats to Open Air Business.
When did you start your function venue business and what made you decide to do it?
We acquired Rossahilly House in 2006 (before we had children) with some hair brained plan to make it a future home. At the time we lived in London and both travelled extensively with work. In the beginning, we let the house for family weekends and holidays only. When our second child was born in 2009, we decided the time was right to move to Northern Ireland. We had plenty of bookings so couldn’t yet move in. Instead, we decided to live elsewhere and extend our offer to weddings and hence devised a business plan for a wedding and function venue with a difference. The old adage, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ was never so true!
Tell us about your location and site
Rossahilly House is situated on a hill about four miles from the island town of Enniskillen in Co. Fermanagh, known as the Irish Lake District. The house has impressive views of Lough Erne. It is a huge waterway and referred to as the longest navigable inland waterway in Europe. Rossahilly is situated at one of its most scenic points overlooking some of its islands and opposite the world famous Nick Faldo designed golf course – also where the 2013 G8 Summit was held. It is unique in that it adjoins a small airfield and in order to access Rossahilly, guests must cross a live runway. While this does present challenges at times, it is at least easy to give people directions!
What facilities for outdoor functions do you offer?
We tick a lot of boxes. Not only do we offer a comfortable (and warm) barn that seats up to 100 guests for dinner or a ceremony, we can also accommodate up to 18 guests in the beautiful bedrooms, many of which have views overlooking the lough. Our most active target market is for Fermanagh bred brides, who go overseas to work, meet their beau and want to get married back in Fermanagh. As a result, we have hosted weddings for families from across the globe. The accommodation is therefore perfect for the groom’s family who often wish to stay a few days and explore our lovely part of the world.
The front lawn is suitable for a multi-tipi structure or indeed a traditional framed marquee with all the trimmings, making the views stunning for all who attend. We are surrounded by farmland with cows and sheep often observing the goings on during a wedding function.
What services do you offer?
The gardens, the barn and the beautiful Beckett Room are all licensed for ceremonies. Depending on the size and requirements of each couple, we can accommodate a ceremony in the barn, followed by drinks and canapés on the front lawn and then a wedding reception in a marquee or tipi into the evening. Alternatively, for smaller ceremonies, we may accommodate up to 40 people in the Beckett Room with panoramic views across the water. The Beckett Room also features a wooden fire surround, crafted by the same person who carved the fireplaces for the Titanic and this creates a very special atmosphere (with not an iceberg in sight).
We outsource our catering to a superb local supplier, Horseshoe and Saddlers of Enniskillen. Having tried many of Northern Ireland’s finest event caterers, we have partnered Saddlers as they offer much more than just superb catering and have become adept at providing comprehensive wedding and function planning so we can concentrate on property and estate matters. The fact that they have catered for the Queen and many of the Royal Family as well as various dignitaries does no harm to our reputation either. A successful partnership is worth taking time to get right as it can pay enormous dividends in the long run.
How did you research and source your marquees?
Initially, wedding guests asked if they could source their own marquees to increase guest capacity. We subsequently researched a number of Northern Irish companies that could provide what we were seeking. It was a steep learning curve. We first hired a luxury marquee for a season, but building control treated it like a permanent structure, which was challenging and costly. They had no experience of what we were doing and therefore kept introducing new restrictions and policies throughout the process. Then we had to decide on flooring. Wooden flooring didn’t give the effect we were seeking, but carpets were too thin to be useful for anything more than a single wedding making the cost unsustainable.
We subsequently investigated buying our own. The salesman named all the places he was selling to and it immediately lost its ‘uniqueness’, plus the cost would have allowed us to extend the barn and refurbish the house and grounds so we had a re-think. We concluded that it was best to concentrate on what we do best and improve upon it. We therefore focused on loughside garden ceremonies and barn receptions. We partner Maverick Marquees who provide beautiful stretch canvas covers, which not only offer peace of mind to couples regarding inclement weather but also provide an additional space for music, dancing, outdoor bar and many other functions. The fact that they come draped in stunning lighting complements our venue and creates a little bit of magic! We are of the opinion that after a few years of experimenting with different concepts, we have come out stronger with our own niche product.
How do you work with your customers to make their event unique?
We look at trends and consider how we can appeal to those who require something a little different from the norm. Many couples have been to other venues for friends’ weddings and we work with each couple to provide something unique to them that shows off their individual personalities and style. We do not have a set format but a set of guidelines that help to establish what they are seeking. We then provide a template along with our catering partners for them to consider and potentially tweak to compliment their own ideas.
How do you publicise yourself?
Initially, we bought costly print advertising and articles in the usual industry magazines. After balking at the price and never quite being able to monitor the impact, we moved on to slightly quirky wedding fares, rather than the big ones dominated by hotels and so on. Now we have become more established, word of mouth is the best advocate (it does take time) and we compliment that with selective use of social media and occasional local adverts and articles of newsworthy items. Our website and the use of SEO is our best medium for obtaining initial enquiries from all over the world.
How would you describe your ‘style’ or unique selling point?
Friendly, focussed and accommodating. We are very aware that our style does not suit everyone. If that becomes the case, we are very happy to chat with couples about what they are seeking and recommend alternative venues that may suit their requirements better. We would rather be seen to be accommodating than disinterested. Often they have siblings or friends that will contact us after having heard how helpful we were, even if we hadn’t achieved a booking.
What challenges have you faced?
Many and frequent! The airfield once hosted the Ulster Rally on the day of a wedding, blocking our access and that of the bride and her guests. We have limited parking facilities and have subsequently partnered with a nearby hotel that provides free transport when we can provide them with a minimum number of room bookings for an event.
Bureaucracy at every corner is frustrating, particularly when setting up a new venture. Also, it is a business, not a hobby. That comes with many legal responsibilities from fire regulations, health and safety requirements and many other unexpected challenges. They are not to be underestimated but can ultimately be dealt with providing you are organised, entrepreneurial and patient.
What are your plans for next season?
We are developing an area for ceremonies under the trees as well as our existing garden ceremonies overlooking the lough. We are considering smaller numbers as we believe we can make our venue one of the most enchanted and beautiful for smaller, intimate weddings on the island of Ireland. We charge a fixed cost for venue hire, rather than charging by number, and with ongoing economic uncertainty we are developing a venue that provides the most amazing experience at a reasonable cost.
Describe your average day mid-season
It is rare that a day goes by without at least an hour or so spent at my desk in front of my computer. We try to respond individually to enquiries, which takes time but is ultimately worthwhile. We deal in quality not quantity. Identifying and arranging maintenance work whether it be external lighting failure, leaking pipes or a hole in the ground that could be a tripping hazard takes time and must always be done urgently, prior to the next function. Legal and tax work, particularly quarterly VAT returns, has to be done within a deadline. Liaising with partners and suppliers for function set up and quick turnaround times.
Of course, there is also everyday life accommodating our two little boys who wonder why daddy is always going to weddings when he should be playing football with them. Summer holidays can be challenging, but then aren’t we all doing this for them in the long term? Maybe one day they may wish to open their own restaurant at Rossahilly… or is that wishful thinking?
Do you enjoy the business and why?
The set up was certainly challenging and financial rewards do not come quickly for such a venture. Any property-based business will involve high capital expenditure on an annual basis. It is a far cry from my previous career (negotiating sales and acquisitions of European shopping centre investments) and dealing with the minutiae of a wasp nest in a nearby tree or clearing up the mess the morning after an event (yes, I do this myself) can seem trying. But I just take a moment to look at the view, breathe and enjoy our spectacular lifestyle, knowing that we have achieved a beautiful and humble little venue. When I see each couples’ eyes light up as they walk into the barn set up with the fairy lights and decor, it is really quite magical. It’s a feeling that money just can’t buy.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
We are currently extending our business to incorporate corporate away days, business functions and particularly mid-week lunches and dinners. Ideally, I would like to incorporate small festivals or jazz concerts by the lough. We have ensured our venue is very flexible and operates as a blank canvas in order to attract a wide market, particularly for off-season. We do not have the budget of other venues, although neither do we have to service a large debt. It is all self-financed and we plough any profits back into the business.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
As with any worthwhile venture or career, progression can often appear slow and perseverance is the key. Learn your trade, work harder than everyone else and your talents will be noticed. Always look to deliver more than is expected of you and the opportunities and rewards will come. Oh, and never, ever give up!
Horseshoe and Saddlers – 028 6632 6223 / www.horseshoeandsaddlers.com
and many more…
Maverick Marquees – +353 (1) 6111 549 / www.maverickmarquees.com
Butlers Marquees – 028 9447 3996 / www.butlersmarquees.com
McLaughlin Marquees – 028 9442 8638 / www.mclaughlineventhire.com
Magnakata – 028 4483 9796 / www.magnakata.co.uk
and many more…
JB Pyro Fireworks – 028 9083 7681 / www.jbpyro.co.uk
Rossahilly House, Trory Bay, Lough Erne, Co. Fermanagh, BT94 2FP
028 6632 0976 / www.rossahillyhouse.com