Eamonn Kennelly: My man in Ireland, the world’s other true links playground
I first met Eamonn Kennelly in Dublin in 2000 when my three oldest and dearest friends and I were halfway though our first golf holiday in Ireland. We’d started up north at Portstewart and Royal Portrush (recently announced as the 2019 Open venue), worked our way south through Royal County Down to Portmarnock and—the next morning—would continue on to the K Club (that would go on to host the Ryder Cup in 2006), finishing up at Lahinch and Ballybunion on the west coast.
Kennelly, founder and owner of the family-run Golf Vacations Ireland based near Dublin, had organized the adventure for us. And, in keeping with the above-and-beyond hospitality of the Irish, he very graciously met up with us during our one night in Ireland’s capital and largest city. It started with a pint or two of Guinness on the ground floor of a very lively pub, and then progressed to dinner on one of the floors above. So far so good. If only we’d stopped there.
Instead, we adjourned to the bar where shots of Jameson were added to the mix as well as some ill-advised cigars. Then more Guinness. And more whiskey. Perhaps a second cigar. It all gets a wee bit fuzzy at this point. The net effect? Little sleep. Much weeping and gnashing of teeth. And massive hangovers the morning after as we made our way, gingerly, along our proscribed path.
It’s amid such shared carnage—though the wounds be entirely self-inflicted—that enduring friendships can take root. And I am pleased to say that Eamonn and I have remained in touch over the 15 years since. When the stars align, we even meet up to play some golf and down some beverages, though wisely never approaching the quantity of that first meeting.
As such, bright-eyed and clear-headed, I can heartily vouch for the man. And, by extension, I strongly endorse his firm’s services should you, too, long to experience the Emerald Isle’s many first-rate links courses. Scotland might be the home of golf. But Ireland is a more than worthy outpost in the game’s centuries-old migration. You owe it to yourself to add it to your bucket list.
Recently, over the virtual table known as a Skype connection, we conversed at length about the game we love and Ireland’s unique expression of it—which is always deeply satisfying if not bordering on the spiritual, with our without the alcohol.
Wee Egg Mon: In all the time I’ve known you, I’ve never asked how you got started playing golf. Did you begin as a wee lad, under the tutelage of an older and wiser relative?
Eamonn Kennelly: Not at all. I was almost 30 before I started playing golf. A misspent youth, I guess. And I grew up only 10 miles from Ballybunion, on a small cattle and dairy farm. There was always plenty to be done. Golf was far from a priority.
WEM: So when did that change?
EK: Like many people of my generation who grew up in rural Ireland, as soon as we finished high school, we either went away to college or emigrated to another country. Many left their homes in Ireland and never returned full-time. I went to university in Dublin, where I studied horticulture science. I worked in that field for 11 years after I graduated.
WEM: Still no golf in this picture.
EK: In the mid 1990’s I studied part-time for an MBA. Through that experience, I fell in with a group of students who became friends. After we earned our degrees, we stayed in touch and agreed to get together every year for a golf trip. The year it came to my turn to organize the tip I chose Ballybunion, as I grew up close to there. One night we were in the clubhouse and there was a group from New York at the next table. We got chatting. They asked how we had organized our trip. And they told us how difficult it was for them, with the time difference, to get everything coordinated.
That’s when a thought popped into my head: With email, it would be very easy for me to put trips like this together for people overseas. The Internet was still very new then—
Google wasn’t even about then! But I could put up a website and people could send me their requirements. And when they turned on their email the next morning, I could have a solution waiting for them. That’s how Golf Vacations Ireland came about.
It was a relatively quick decision. Once I had my MBA, I was eager to start a business for myself. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I evaluated a few other ideas, but this is the one I went with. I officially opened for business on April 15, 1999 and haven’t looked back since!
WEM: So that would have been just a year or so before we contacted you.
EK: Yes. And, in retrospect, it wasn’t the ideal time to start at golf holiday business. By then, most of the people who were looking to come to Ireland that summer had already booked their trips. And it was too early for those who had their eye on the following year. So the first six months were relatively slow. I focused primarily on building up my contacts with the golf clubs, hotels and B&Bs. But by August it started to become a viable business. And by September I was convinced I could make a go of it.
WEM: Was there much competition back then?
EK: Yes, but I was able to carve out a niche for myself. The big tour operators were just starting to build websites, but mostly because someone sold them this was the new thing and they ought to do it. But they didn’t focus on the online opportunity like I did. I knew I had to get the website just right if I was going to get myself established. So I invested a lot in the site as well as the search engines so people could find it.
I think my other big advantage was that I was committed to understanding and catering to my clients’ requirements. Listening to them was first and foremost. I knew that if I gave them what they want—even if they didn’t know exactly what that was at first—the more likely they’d be satisfied and go with me again. And that’s proven to be true. Today, 75 percent of our business is due to repeat and referral clients.
It also didn’t hurt that, at the start, I was the only employee and I worked out of my house. So I was able to keep the overheads low.
WEM: Your personal touch was certainly the difference maker for us on our trip in 2000. My friend found your site in a search, as well as one of the big tour operators. He sent the same inquiry email to both, detailing how much time we had and the courses we wanted to play. At the time, we made the assumption that this could be our only trip to Ireland, so we had a rather lengthy wish list. But you responded right away, with something to the effect of, “You guys are crazy! But I think it can be done and here’s what I recommend.”
Meanwhile, the bigger operator took several days to get back to us and basically ignored our preferences. Their offer was more along the lines of, “You can choose between Package A or Package B.”
We had no idea who you were, except for your email. But we said, “What the heck. Let’s go with him.” So we sent you our credit card numbers. It was a bit of a gamble, but it paid off…for all of us.
EK: Yeah, I remember that. We came up with a very ambitious itinerary. But there are ways of making these things work. That’s something we really pride ourselves on. Our local knowledge, not only of the golf courses but of the accommodations and transportation options, can make a huge difference. Often, we suggest opportunities—such as a course the client’s never heard or locations for touring and sightseeing—that can make the difference between a good holiday and a great one.
WEM: Do you have a typical customer?
EK: Most of our clients come from the U.S. and Canada. Average group size is eight people, though we can organize trips for all types. I’d say about 50 percent of our clients come first and foremost for the golf. If they could, they’d play two rounds every day. But for the other half, including couples, 18 holes is enough. They might play a round in the morning and then leave the afternoon open for sightseeing and touring.
Some people like to do the driving, but most prefer to leave that to a professional. That can make for a much more leisurely and enjoyable trip, especially if it’s their first visit to Ireland and they don’t know the geography. Many of our clients tell us that their driver is the best friend they never knew they had. A friendly face comes along in the morning and picks them up at their hotel and knows right where to go. After you finish your golf, you can relax and have a beer or a glass of wine. Our drivers live in the areas where they work, so they can answer all kinds of questions—not just about golf. They’re much more than just transportation. They’re really your friend and concierge for the duration of your trip.
WEM: Back when we first met, golf seemed to be really hitting its stride. You had the Tiger effect. Equipment was leveraging new technology. And the world economy was booming. Then we hit 2008. How has golf travel and your business changed since then?
EK: Travel can be a very fickle business. It can be subject to political, economic and even environmental pressures—like that volcano that erupted in Iceland a few years ago. That had a big impact on our business that year. The stretch between 2008 and 2010 was very challenging for us. I had to cut back on staff. But we kept going and now, while business isn’t quite back to what it was, things are much better. I don’t see as many people chartering helicopters to hop from course to course. But the people who travel by car or bus are definitely back.
WEM: I’m now living in Scotland, but still have a very special place in my heart for Ireland. Fortunately, it’s just a short plane ride away—and I plan to take full advantage of that geographic proximity. You plan itineraries to both countries. From your perspective, how do these two links golf destinations compare?
EK: Yes, about a third of the trips we put together for our clients are based in Scotland. And we do a little bit in England as well. Scotland has done a good job of branding itself as the home of golf. And then you have all of the Scottish courses on the Open rota that get a tremendous amount of exposure. So a lot of people see Scotland as a must-go destination. One of our clients, who alternates between the two, perhaps summed it up best: “We go to Scotland because we feel we have to,” he’s told us. “But we go to Ireland because we want to.”
What sets Ireland apart? First and foremost is the welcome of the Irish people. There’s none better in the world. And it doesn’t hurt that many of our clients have Irish ancestry. That makes for a natural draw.
As for the golf, the courses here are often built on bigger dunes than those in Scotland, so you see more variation in the holes. They tend to be more dramatic with better views of the ocean.
And, generally speaking, Ireland offers better overall value. That’s especially true at the moment when you compare the exchange rage for the euro vs. the dollar and the pound vs. the dollar.
WEM: I would add that, generally speaking, the food in Ireland is at a higher standard than that in Scotland. I love fish and chips and have even developed a liking for haggis. consistently at a higher level than that in Scotland. Even in many of the small towns, you can find a really good meal.
But enough about the food. What nourishes me and, I have a hunch, the folks who stumble upon this blog, is the golf. Are you getting your share of that nourishment, amid the day-to-day demands of a service-oriented business like Golf Vacations Ireland?
EK: Over the course of the year, I average about one round a week. Sometimes, if the temperature falls below freezing, the courses will close. But generally we can play through the winter. And I take advantage of that. Admittedly, I got off to a late start in golf. But I’ve definitely developed an affection for the game.
WEM: In a place like Ireland, how could you not?