Queen of the Castle – Waterford Castle General Manager Bernadette Walsh Interview
Bernadette Walsh is the General Manager of luxury resort Waterford Castle. A hard-working career woman she has racked up years of experience in hospitality working with some of the world’s biggest names. This month we sat down with Bernadette to learn more about how she became the queen of the castle in one of the countries finest establishments.
Bernadette began her hospitality career far from the shores of Ireland at the age of eighteen. Working with The Shipston Group, an American Company based in The Bahamas and New England, she gained valuable skills which she would later bring to Waterford Castle.
So what brought Bernadette to Waterford Castle? Simply but shes says the castle itself but also “the current owner of the island resort.” Bernadette admits she loved the castle before she even began working there; “I’ve always had a fondness for Waterford Castle, being originally from Kilkenny which is just ten miles away. ”
When the chance to work at this renowned venue presented itself she was eager to join the team. “The opportunity to help rebrand this amazing property, from the marketing aspect to the interior refurbishments, was an offer I could not refuse!” Bernadette returned to the Emerald Isle on St.Patrick’s Day, a fitting day to arrive home. “When I returned I was handed a very cute shamrock plant on my arrival into Dublin airport, and I took this as a good omen. What started out as a wonderful day dining at the Castle on St. Patrick’s Day 2015, has lead to a wonderful, and at times challenging, but ultimately a very fulfilling and fortuitous four years.”
Undoubtedly the award-winning property is one of the finest in the country, but I wonder what Bernadette thinks makes Waterford Castle unique? “It has a warmth and spirit of joyous celebration which is almost tangible. The Castle’s setting on a 310-acre island is just stunning. The short crossing over the King’s Channel, a two and half minute expedition on the Island’s private car ferry, is a meditative journey.”
“On arrival to the Island, you could be greeted by the large herd of deer or some of our other Irish wildlife who roam carelessly across the Island. It is certainly unique that we share this wonderful habitat in harmony with nature.”
“Our guests constantly say, ‘we left our worries behind’.” It was during an interaction with some of the guests that the castles famed slogan was born. Recalling the storying Bernadette says; “after one of our past weddings, the Australian newlyweds reviewed their day with us and wrote: “we felt like we and our guests left their worries at the shore”. I reached out to them and asked if I could use their wonderful turn of phrase in our marketing campaign and they were honoured.”
“‘Waterford Castle, leave your worries at the shore’ is now a constant reminder of the feeling that this short water crossing evokes in our guests, the stresses of life being left behind on the mainland, away from our idyllic island.”
Other elements that add to the special element of the castle are steeped in its history. “The other part of this magical Castle and the feeling it evokes is that of the late Lady Mary Purcell Fitzgerald and her love of social gatherings, being a formidable socialite of the 1920’s era. We endeavor to make her proud and to carry that spirit of joyous celebration into our everyday lives and that of our guests.”
Looking back over her colourful career, I wonder if there any particular achievement that stands out to her? “That’s a difficult question because each achievement cannot be overshadowed by another. I think my greatest achievement is that of building and maintaining relationships throughout my career.”
“From the many facets of industries which I have come in contact with and had the pleasure of working with, now I have the ability to connect these groups of friends (or worlds) together.”
“This has brought me so much joy and a wider circle of wonderful business connections and lifetime friends. I think my greatest ability is my discernment of connecting people together who will change or alter each other’s lives (albeit in the smallest way) in a positive light.”
Managing a luxury resort is no easy feat, so how does Bernadette balance your work and personal life? She admits it is “a constant battle” and one she struggles with daily. “I know I’m not alone, I have friends who are small business owners and sole traders, and it’s a constant battle. Downtime and work-life balance are such important factors and it is a constant work in progress in my life.”
Work hard and play harder is my motto”
While Bernadette is a busy woman she thoroughly enjoys her job, and the impact it has on her life.”I am very lucky to have the opportunity to work with a dynamic team, who are professional, driven and focused, and yet do not take themselves so seriously that ego is ever involved. I derive pleasure from all aspects of my working day, from learning something new (I am for the school of never stop learning) to the joy of motivating each other, to mentoring our juniors.”
Continuing on she says, “all that, coupled with meeting our diverse residents and guests, who are so open with their life stories which can be incredibly fascinating, makes my job fun. It is making those connections that are so valuable to me.”
With demanding jobs there are, of course, various difficulties, and the recent VAT increase on food and accommodation has affected the castle too. Speaking on this topic Bernadette says “The hardest part and challenges in this industry is the difficulties that are imposed on us by certain Government bodies who recently by choosing to (at the stroke of a pen) increase our VAT rate to 4.5%, seemingly without any thought to what this does to small businesses in the hospitality industry. I feel none of those who signed that mandate have any real understanding of what our struggles are as a Waterford based, 19 bedroom hotel.”
When the VAT increase was announced, Twitter was awash with many industry professionals criticising the increase. Speaking further on this topic Bernadette says; “I know I am not alone in these struggles, and the added pressures this has incurred on our business. It’s our duty to ensuring the 110 plus very valued employees, who are reliant on the Castle for raising their families, maintaining mortgages and so on are being given the skill sets, training, and the expansion and growth they deserve.”
On the flip side, there are silver linings to each job and Bernadette says the highlight is “undoubtedly working with those staff, all of whom are loyal, driven, and love the hospitality industry.” Clearly, she is more than proud of the team, telling me “they have taken it upon themselves to not only be “Ambassadors for Waterford and Waterford Castle” but also “Ambassadors for Ireland”. I learn from them daily and my appreciation of this industry has grown through working with them.”
Reminiscing over her career she has been lucky to have a number of stand out moments, telling me she had the pleasure of working with a Forbes 500 CEO who became her mentor. Explaining further she says “I got to be a part of the Great Race Across America with the Ford Team, Roush Racing, and met many interesting and influential people along the way from Senator Charlie Wilson to Henry Ford’s family and many more. I worked with museum curators installing historic homes, from Sword Gate, a Charleston property, to installing a private island, in Exuma, The Bahamas.”
“My best career highlight and proudest to date is being part of the rebranding of Waterford Castle Hotel & Golf Resort since 2015. Getting to work alongside such a dynamic team who helped place us on the international map and gain us incredible accolades.”
While Bernadette plays a vital role within Waterford Castle she firmly sings the praises of the team around her. “They continue to keep us in the Conde Nast awards yearly and we have now added with food awards and the Irish Hotel awards with 5 prizes awarded to us in 2018.” The hotel is home to the AA Rosette Munster Room Restaurant, with chef Tom Spruce at the reigns.
Does this seasoned professional have any words of wisdom to those beginning their hospitality journey? Admittedly she thinks the hospitality industry “at times can be an industry of little praise.” Looking to the positives she says “the joys of this industry are those relationships that are made within the team, and the joys of working together to reaching those industry targets and beyond.”
“The real heart of hospitality is the connections you make with your guests, your residents, and your diners. People want a connection, they want to share their story and at times to hear yours, and if you can spend a few moments of your working day sharing with your guests, this will leave your guest with an experience. This is invaluable and perhaps you can gain an understanding of their world and their life, people want experiences, they want a connection, not just a hotel stay.”
Looking to the future Bernadette is full of positivity. “Waterford Castle is a wonderful property with a wonderful team, and we plan on continuing to grow, to improve and to expand the offerings on the Island of Waterford Castle. We also have some other very exciting new ventures for Waterford Castle Hotel Group all of which will be revealed in time. We are very excited for our team and all the hard work and effort it has taken to get us to this next phase. Stay tuned!”
Sinéad is a Culinary Arts graduate from DIT. She is a passionate cook with a love of fine dining and modern Irish cuisine. A gin lover, Sinéad loves seeking out cosy new pubs and sampling a variety of craft beers.
If she’s not dining out, Sinéad loves travelling the world exploring new cultures and cuisines. Working with TheTaste allows Sinéad to fully immerse herself in the Irish food industry.