YOU could say Naomi Sheehy was born to be involved in tourism. After all, she did grow up in a castle, which now opens every day to the public.
Her parents, Patrick and Bernie McCarthy bought 13th century Baltimore Castle in the mid-1990s and lovingly restored it to its former glory. They opened their home to visitors in 2005.
It must be pretty cool to live in a castle?
“Yes, it was lovely,” says Naomi. “The castle was a ruin when we were growing up. We were always used to it living nearby.
“My parents bought in 1997 and it took until 2005 to restore it to its former glory. It was hard work, but a labour of love. Both me and my sisters lived there.
“My mother, Bernie, did a huge amount of research on the castle, originally owned by the O’Driscoll clan. She wrote two books about it, Baltimore Castle: An 800 Year history and Pirates of Baltimore: Middle Ages To 17th Century.
“Now mum and dad enjoy showing visitors from all over the world around the castle, and sharing its rich history. It is open from May to October, seven days a week. The Great Hall is of particular interest to visitors.”
The heating bills must be huge?
“Actually they’re not!” says Naomi’s dad, Patrick. “The walls of the castle are really thick and retain the heat coming in from the big windows, which are double glazed. There are two grand fireplaces in both rooms on the ground floor. When you light a fire in either of them, it makes for a really cosy atmosphere. We love living in the castle.”
Naomi, of Chaeragh, West Cork, is obviously a chip of the old block. Like her dad, she practised as a solicitor, in Bridge Street, Baltimore for five years. However, she decided to change career during the last recession and set up a tourism business with her husband, John.
Like her parents, Naomi doesn’t do things by halves.
Ireland Luxury Travel, set up by the couple in 2016, is a bespoke service to tourists, incorporating the best of Irish hospitality, with niche food highlights, cultural and historical tours, scenic tours of the Ancient East and the Wild Atlantic Way, outdoor hikes, golf and genealogy.
The corporate side for people over here on business runs smoothly, with Ireland Luxury Travel organising travel arrangements, transfers and accommodation with personal add-ons like private trips and activities included.
“It’s about having a once in a lifetime personalised experience,” says Naomi, who is also mum to Paddy, 7, Timothy, 5, and Hannah, 2.
“My work as a solicitor was hit by the recession. Conveyance work was a no-go area — there wasn’t much buying and selling of property happening.”
Naomi took a look around her own beautiful surroundings, and, following in her parents’ footsteps, decided to tap into the tourist market, following her love of travel and her lifestyle on the Wild Atlantic coast of Ireland.
“People are well-travelled these days. I started doing research looking at the tourism market to make travel here feel more unique with some detailed planning.”
John knew the terrain well too, which was an added bonus in co-founding the business.
“He is third generation farming here in Creagh, producing Aberdeen beef and organic fruit and vegetables,” says Naomi.
“He is good at the accounts, while I do the marketing and sales side of things, developing more and more knowledge of the country, liaising with Irish companies and businesses, making sure each trip is tailor-made for the client.”
Naomi has lots of local knowledge as well as valuable knowledge about far-flung places.
“I worked in Bantry House and at Baltimore Castle as a tour guide and event organiser.
“I know Dublin very well because I lived there as a student. And I was seven years in the hub of Christchurch where I checked out all the bars and restaurants. I love that side of it!
“I spent time in South America and a summer in Boston. So, always travelling at home and abroad; I decided I’d try and put it all together, making a career in tourism and sticking with it. Living here in Baltimore, such a beautiful place, tourism opportunities are quite obvious.”
The Local Enterprise Board was willing to help the Sheehys start their own business.
“The board in Clonakilty was very helpful,” says Naomi, who kept things local.
“I started working from home, targeting customers from the USA. Evenings were very busy, as that is when I connected with people in America because of the time difference.
“In the beginning, I worked 12-hour days which was too much. We moved to the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen taking on staff. Now we operate from Townsend Street in the town.”
Is the customer base mostly from the USA?
“Seventy per cent of our clients are from North America,” says Naomi. “We focused on the Irish diaspora connection. A huge majority of Americans have Irish roots and want to find out more about them. So genealogy is a big part of our personalised travel packages.”
People from further afield also avail of their personalised service. “We get people travelling to Ireland from Singapore, Hon Kong, Japan; all over Asia,” says Naomi. “German visitors doing business, holding conferences in Dublin, are very regular clients. We meet them in Dublin, arrange their transfers, their meetings, golf outings and other activities of interest.
“Business is quite international. Tours to the Game of Thrones locations and around Skellig Michael are very popular as are the distillery tours! It is good fun and its good to know we are doing something nice for our visitors.”
Luxury Travel Ireland attracts people from all walks of life. “Our customers are multi-generational,” says Naomi. “They could be families with children, newly-retired people, or someone wanting their own trip here to be more unique.”
Back at the ranch, John does the books. “He has reined in the farming a bit, since his role co-founding the company,” says Naomi.
Is their input into the luxury travel market paying off?
“We’re very happy with how it’s going,” says Naomi. “It is hard work. Balancing the marketing costs can be challenging. There are a lot of hidden costs. Referrals are always good to get and word of mouth is brilliant helping us to get us more recognised.”
Naomi recognises the perks of the job.
“It is different to my job as a solicitor, when I was chained to the desk a lot of the time! Now, I can be flexible with my working hours and I get to pick up the children from school which is a major advantage. I get to check out a lot of cool places and met a lot of interesting people face to face. I love the research and I love the variety.”