From the edge of the world to the summit of Everest and back
Go Wild talks to hotelier, John Burke, the first Clare man to reach the summit of Everest about growing up in the family business, selling periwinkles on the beach and fulfilling a lifelong dream.
It would be hard to find a more idyllic location than the Armada Hotel, nestled on the cliff edge at Spanish Point, County Clare with breathtaking views out over the Atlantic Ocean and a bracing salt breeze that whets the appetite for the abundance of fresh local seafood.
It has been home to John Burke since his late father, also John, started the business as a small pub with the gents toilets outside in a galvanised shed. Things have changed a lot since then, and these days, the luxury award-winning Armada Hotel attracts guests from all over the world.
Interview with John Burke
What it was like growing up in the family business in beautiful Spanish Point?
From as long as I can remember, I was always working in the business, during the summers, collecting glasses, and sorting bottles, sneaking away when I could for a quick dip. I had a side business too, picking periwinkles on the rock pools with my cousins, a quick boil and walking the beach to sell packets of them, easiest money I ever made!
Was it always your ambition to follow your father’s footsteps into the hospitality industry?
I was ambitious and I certainly saw the potential in the business from a very young age. I knew from my parents how committed you had to be to a business owner, and the work involved, but I also knew how rewarding it could be. I came home from studying at the Shannon College of Hotel Management, and work placements abroad at the age of 20 to take on the business and bring what I could to it. I certainly realised that my learning days were only just beginning. I suppose that stays true always, and it’s what I love about the industry, its so dynamic and creative now, with food and beverage trends, décor trends, and constant reassessment of the brand to ensure we are representing it right in all we do, Right now the Armada is on a path with a very clear vision, and it will continue to represent all that is wonderful about West Clare, the sights, sounds and tastes.
Your dad was well known for his community spirit, how is community central to the Armada Hotel’s workforce?
A hotel like the Armada can’t just be a business judged on a set of books, it has to tell a story linked with the community. The hotel has to feel part of the community and the community must feel a connection to the hotel, and be part of the hotel’s story. Right now, the Armada employs 140 people, and is a major part of the social and community fabric of the area.
Along with this, we have a responsibility to return some of our earnings to the community, by investing in and supporting local initiatives. The Armada delivers about €100k in support each year in many ways, from sponsorship, to fund-raisers, to our own events.
What is it that sets the Armada apart from other hotels?
The Armada has a few key unique points: our food story with Armada Farm and supplier partnerships; our incredibly talented team; the music, fun and atmosphere delivered by talented artists, and our location on the cliff edge in Spanish Point overlooking the bay with so much history and beautiful sights.
Have you any plans to further expand your hotel business in the future?
At present, I’m involved in a number of tourism businesses that I am passionate about including the Armada, Hotel Doolin, and Doolin Village Lodges, and most of my energy is focused on reinvesting and continuously improving them. For so many years during the boom, hotels were pushing forward to increase the number of rooms etc, but now I think everyone, like us, is really focused on making sure every part of their business is up to the high standard people deserve and have come to expect with Irish hotels.
You only discovered sport in your late 20s but have certainly been making up for lost time since. What have the highlights of your sporting endeavours been?
I’ve found mountains as the place of goodness for my mind and my body, and have been exploring them in Ireland and throughout the world. One of my big goals was to make an attempt on Everest, and on May 16th, 2017 at 9.45am, I managed to find myself on top of the world. It was a realisation of so much work and the fulfillment of a long-term dream of mine, but if I never stood on the top, I would have enjoyed every step along the way.
My journey to Everest included hiking in the Burren, running the trail along the Cliffs of Moher between Liscannor and Doolin, hiking in Connemara on wild winter days, and picnics on the top of Carrantouhill, Ireland’s highest mountain, which I managed to climb eight times in a row, three weeks before setting off for Everest. The Irish outdoors is something special, whether it’s the hills or the sea and thankfully even though I was late finding my passion for it, I managed to get to enjoy it so much over the past 10 years.
Tell us about the charity Elevate that you and your wife set up.
With all the wonderful improvements in the standard of living for all of Ireland and its young people over the decades, there is a very worrying side that so many now have mental health difficulties. Elevate plans to support the rollout of a wellness programme in secondary schools and youth organisations in the county, focused on self esteem, resiliance, and coping strategies.