Behind the traditional Georgian facade of this family-run hotel in the heart of Dublin lies a world of Moroccan and Eastern influence full of sultry colours, subtle lighting and lavish design. The brainchild of Louis Murray, a well-known Dublin entrepreneur, La Stampa has come a long way since it opened as a brasserie in 1990. The restaurant quickly became one of Dublin’s most glamorous places to eat, and by 2000 funds had been secured for expansion. In 2003, the hotel opened with 21 classic rooms with a strong Florentine influence and a hint of Eastern appeal. Along with the hotel came the flamboyantly stylish SamSara bar and Tiger Becs restaurant.
MORE THAN A RESTAURANT WITH ROOMS
It was always Louis’ dream to add a hotel,” explains Cristina Petrar, Hotel Director and Murray’s partner. “The location was perfect: in the heart of the city but on a quiet street, and close to everything visitors would need.”
Murray’s eldest daughter, Sarah, who is an interior designer, and the renowned Portuguese designer Miguel Cancio Martins, who was also responsible for the celebrity-owned Man Ray bar-restaurant in Paris, were drafted in to set the tone for the hotel, bar, and a second, less formal, restaurant. Both the SamSara bar and Tiger Becs restaurant quickly became established as top night-spots. Walls of illuminated glass, mountains of Moroccan lamps and a seamless blend of North African and Eastern styles gave Dublin something it had never seen before. “Louis has always been ahead of his time,” explains Petrar. “He’s not afraid to do something different and go the extra mile. He brought in Moroccan artisans so the tiling and tadelakt plasterwork would be authentic. Even the materials were brought from Morocco.”
The restaurants and bar are constantly evolving. In 2007 the original La Stampa brasserie closed and was rebranded as Balzac, a slick French restaurant. Currently, the group is revamping
Samsara and Tiger Becs in an effort to fight the recession. “Everything has a lifespan,” says Petrar. “The brasserie had its glory years and had begun to decline, so it was time for change.”
ON THE MOVE
As the hotel flourished it became clear that there was room for further expansion. Between 2003 and 2005 four more classic rooms, four junior suites and the luxurious Moroccan Suite were added. For inspiration the design team headed to the Maison et Objet trade show in Paris. “We wanted the new rooms to be different, and we wanted to do something that would make people want to come back again and again,” says Petrar. “Our ambition was to create a Small Luxury Hotel, a home-from-home for romantics and businesspeople alike”.
The couple travelled extensively looking for individual pieces for the rooms, and in 2005 Petrar came across an Italian furniture designer who created just what she was looking for – timeless, hand-sculpted furniture with luxurious fabrics. The new junior suites were given a Florentine theme with bespoke furniture and heavy, lush fabrics with deep red accents, while the spacious bathrooms centred around antique free-standing baths. But the hotel’s pride and joy was the luxurious Moroccan suite, which overlooks the Mansion House and exudes the sultry charm of an exotic boudoir. Fuelled by the favourable response to the new suites and the demand for more accommodation, expansion continued with seven new bedrooms.
“Louis had this great idea to create a match for the Moroccan suite, another show-stopper, and he gave me some great ideas for décor with fantastic results,” says Petrar. “Because a lot of personal effort and love has gone into the hotel for the past four years, I think that is what makes it special and warmer than other hotels. Our heart is in it.”
In 2005 Sarah Murray realised her own dream and added a hotel spa. After two years of travelling, picking up influences and gathering staff, Mandala was born. A sophisticated blend of natural materials and feng shui, the place practically reeks of luxury. “The spa is always booked out,” Petrar says. “In fact it was such a problem for hotel guests who arrived and couldn’t get an appointment that we started offering massage in the rooms. That way, overheads didn’t increase substantially but business did.”
Although the La Stampa Group is the combined passion of various members of the Murray family, the quirky design and exotic atmosphere run throughout, drawing artistic and romantic types through its doors. The Murrays found however that they had to be careful to explain the boutique hotel concept to potential guests. “Not everyone appreciates that we’re trying to do something different,” Petrar continues. “Some visitors, for example, are used to rooms with super-king beds. By comparison the queen-size beds in our classic rooms can seem small.” To avoid problems the hotel has a policy of being very clear about what to expect. “Our website is very specific,” explains Daniel Fodor, Front of House Manager. “We give the dimensions of the room and specify the size of the bed, and then repeat all this in a follow-up email.”
THE RIGHT PRICE
Occupancy rates at the hotel average about 70 percent (down 10 percent from last year’s), with September to December being the busiest time of year. “We aim for 110 percent occupancy,” explains Fodor. “That way it’s more likely we’ll get 100 percent bookings every night. But we have to check the websites we deal with twice a day to prevent any problems with overbooking.”
Fodor also looks after marketing. “When I arrived here I just knew the hotel could do better. I phoned the travel agents and website owners we dealt with and asked what we could do
to make the hotel more visible.” Another important issue was getting the right price for mid-week stays. “If you get it right you can be full every night, but increase the price and people stop booking. I checked walk-in rates at our competitors and kept an eye on their deals and eventually worked out the right rate. It’s very satisfying to see your ideas working.”
FIVE IN ONE
Although the La Stampa group is made up of five elements, each is financially independent. “For practical reasons it’s far easier to keep the budgets separate,” explains Petrar. “It’s easier to manage the restaurants separately, and different family members take responsibility for different elements of the group.” Working with family, however, can be notoriously difficult. “We all get together on Sunday to discuss how things are going, to deal with problems and just to talk and chat.”
For senior staff members who do not belong to the family, it’s essential to share the family’s vision. “It was very easy to fit in to the business once I understood what the family was trying to do,” says Fodor. “Once we were on the same wavelength I could start to make things happen. In some ways it’s easier for me than in a bigger, corporate hotel. We all want to see our ideas work, and I have the space to do that here.” The passion for the business also needs to trickle down to other members of the 80-strong staff. “You have to have good staff to make things work,” continues Fodor. “It’s very important to our concept to have the right people. In a big hotel it’s easy to do something robotically and then go home, but we aim to employ people that will care about their job”.
DEALING WITH THE DOWNTURN
One silver lining to the economic downturn is that it’s now easier to find great qualified staff. Although the past few years have seen high staff turnover rates, the group says that they’re happy with
the current team. “Ireland suffered during the economic boom,” says Petrar. “It spoiled people. There were so many jobs people had no commitment to what they were doing, and this really affected their performance. We need to have people who take pride in what they’re doing and see themselves staying in the job for a few years.”
To encourage staff to stay, La Stampa operates an open system of promotion. “Everyone is given a really good chance at their job,” explains Fodor, “and everyone knows that they can get promoted to a new position. Take porters for example. We are happy to offer them time on the front desk if that is what they want. It’s far easier to make this jump if you know your manager, so it pays to stay with us.” Ireland’s economic boom was a mixed blessing for the hotel. In addition to staffing problems it meant that new bars and restaurants were opening all over the city and competition increased significantly. But if facing off competition was a challenge during times of plenty, the challenges they face now are even greater. “Recession has, of course, affected the hotel business in Ireland, and we aren’t an exception,” explains Petrar. “The hotel business has become much more difficult and a lot more competitive. We’re confident though that between our growing number of regulars and a new enthusiastic sales team, we’ll be doing well.”
The passion of the Murray family for what they do is obvious, and for Petrar and Fodor this is one of the most important aspects of the business. “If you’re a small hotel hoping to do something different, you’ve really got to be passionate about it. Otherwise you become nondescript and soulless,” says Petrar. “Lots of people tried to convince Louis to give up on his idea, but he never would.” The vision, tenacity and enthusiasm of Louis Murray seem to have paid off. Not only has he created a successful business but realised his dreams and those of his family. Passion, it seems, is what it’s all about.